Akilah Bethel knows people are doubting this year’s LSU women’s basketball team.
The Lady Tigers were picked to finish ninth at Southeastern Conference Media Days and 10th in a vote of the league’s coaches.
But Bethel, a scrappy 6-foot senior forward who typifies this edition of the Lady Tigers, is eager to prove them wrong.
“People base that off who we’ve lost, not what we have,” Bethel said Wednesday. “We have people ready to step up. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by our team.
“They overlook our heart.”
Bethel’s bravado is admirable, but there’s no escaping the fact LSU took some heavy hits from a 17-14 team that finished fourth in the SEC but was bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Gone are three of the Lady Tigers’ top four scorers and two of their top three rebounders from 2014-15, including two-time All-SEC guard Danielle Ballard.
Ballard was dismissed from the team for unspecified violations of team rules after several suspensions during her career. LSU coach Nikki Fargas said she recently spoke to Ballard, who is preparing to play professionally in Finland then enter next year’s WNBA draft.
“Honestly, she sounded happy,” said Fargas, formerly Caldwell, beginning her fifth season at LSU.
“She tried her best, she just made some wrong choices that led her to a different path. Danielle is not a bad kid. She was a giver to this program. You could tell in her play. She tried to make other people look better. We were better when she was on the floor.”
Replacing Ballard’s team-leading 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game is a burden all of Fargas’ players will have to shoulder.
“You’ve got to be tough, selfless and one of the hardest-working teams,” Fargas said.
Taking over a team leadership role will be junior Raigyne Moncrief, a 5-foot-10 junior who was second last season 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Moncrief is an explosive player who can take over a game much as Ballard did. She sat out LSU’s 88-57 exhibition win last Wednesday over Union with some tenderness from a knee injury she suffered in the 2014 NCAA tournament, but Fargas said she expects Moncrief to start Friday’s opener at Wake Forest.
LSU again figures to be a perimeter-oriented team with Moncrief, 5-7 junior point guard Rina Hill (4.1 points, 1.3 assists per game) and Jenna Deemer (5.7 ppg, 0.8 rpg), a 5-7 sophomore from New Orleans.
Anne Pedersen, a 6-1 guard/forward from Denmark, decided to return for a fifth and senior season after averaging 5.4 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. She can pop out for a 3-pointer or grab a rebound down low.
“It took some thought,” Pedersen said of coming back. “I had to think about my family. But I decided I’m not ready to leave. I wanted to continue to play.”
Like Pedersen, Fargas is expecting a big contribution from 5-11 junior forward Alexis Hyder, who sat out last season after transferring from North Texas.
“Hyder is a mismatch for a lot of post players,” Fargas said. “She can not only pound and score on the low block but can stretch you with the 3.”
Ayana Mitchell, a 6-2 forward, was the star of LSU’s recruiting class and is also expected to contribute immediately.