LAFAYETTE — One champion and a second team with a 20-win season in the bank know they still have a few steps to climb for ultimate Sun Belt success.
As the Louisiana-Lafayette women’s basketball team eyes the goals of a regular season or conference tournament championship, the winners of the Women’s Basketball Invitational last season still have a trio of teams — Arkansas State, UT-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock — ranked ahead of them in preseason polls.
“That is what you coach for,” Cajuns coach Garry Brodhead said. “Our staffs do a great job of developing kids. Seeing (former UALR player Taylor) Gault is gone ... I’m breathing a little better. We are excited to move up in the polls and we are confident we can compete in conference. We want to compete for championships and we still have work to do.”
Handling that workload will include utilizing the skills of three returning guards in Jaylyn Gordon, Keke Veal and Kia Wilridge. All three averaged double-figure scoring last season.
Veal was the leader at 14.9 points per game, while Gordon added 13.4 and Wilridge chipped in 12.3 points along with 2.8 steals. To blend in four newcomers and two more players (Sylvana Okde and Brooklyn Arceneaux) who had redshirt seasons, the Cajuns will have to make good use of their two exhibition contests and 10-nonconference games before they embark on the 20-game Sun Belt slate.
“The nonconference games are extremely important this year,” Brodhead said. “We’re going to be trying to feel out the numbers. I said we were 10 deep. Now, I’m saying 12 deep. It’s going to take a little while. With 20 conference games, we have to do it a little quicker.”
Troy, which finished 20-11 and 15-5 in league play last year for third place in the regular-season, was picked to finish fifth in the coaches’ poll.
The Trojans’ main returner is senior guard Ashley Beverly Kelley, who led the league in scoring during league games at 19.8 points.
“We have returning players and we still finished fifth (in the poll),” Troy coach Chanda Rigby said. “That shows how good the conference is.”
Arkansas State, which the conference coaches picked to finish first, was one of five teams that received a first-place vote.
“Last year, things went right for us,” ASU coach Brian Boyer said. “We had an injury-free year and we had good chemistry. We have a lot back.”
The Red Wolves, who finished 24-11 last season, missed out on getting an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament because of a loss to UALR in the SBC title game. Then an at-large bid did not materialize and ASU went to the Women’s NIT.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished, but we failed to get the ultimate goal,” Boyer said. “Was I surprised we were picked to win the league? No. But I also wouldn’t have been surprised if we had not been picked. There are five teams with first-place votes and none of those are charity votes. I could make an argument why each of those teams could win the league.”
For Georgia State, picked seventh, the task is to deal with the variety of challenges posed by the top handful of other teams — whether that obstacle is big or small.
“If you look at a team like UL-Lafayette, their biggest player last year might be 5-foot-11 or 6-feet tall,” Georgia State coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener said. “But they get after you and do a lot of pressing and athletic things. You can’t just beat certain teams. It might be a totally different game plan from Thursday to Saturday.”