Lady Tigers picked to finish seventh in preseason poll _lowres

Louisiana State head coach Nikki Caldwell answers a question during a news conference at the Southeastern Conference women's basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In putting her team’s 2013-14 season to rest, LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell couldn’t help but think about what the Lady Tigers could have done to affect a different outcome.

Back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 were something to be proud of, to be sure, considering they finished both seasons with only a couple of lonely players on the bench as a result of season-ending injuries and roster attrition.

While Caldwell can’t do anything about injuries as she enters her fourth season as the Lady Tigers’ head coach, she could do something about her team’s style on the offensive and defensive end with a full complement of players again.

That’s why, she said Tuesday, her players were up at 6 a.m. three days a week this summer going through grueling workouts with the Marines.

“We wanted to make sure we did more than what we did last year,” Caldwell said at Southeastern Conference media days. “Getting to the Sweet 16 two years in a row, that’s OK. That’s great so early in our time together, but our ultimate goal is to win a national championship.”

The desire to take the next step with the program, combined with the loss of talented post players in Theresa Plaisance and Shanece McKinney as well as guard Jeanne Kenney to graduation, brought about a change for this year.

The result, Caldwell said, is a faster, more aggressive team.

“We’re looking to push the tempo offensively,” she said. “We want to spread the floor and really try to explore early offense, and not just go into a quick hit or a set right away. We wanted to give them that freedom to play a little bit off the dribble-drive.”

That’ll start with a deep group of talented returning guards in Danielle Ballard, Raigyne Moncrief, DaShawn Harden, Rina Hill and Jasmine Rhodes as well as transfer Akilah Bethel.

“We also talked about doing more and how we could be aggressive,” Caldwell said. “First and foremost, we said, ‘Let’s start with our defensive pressure.’ ”

The speed and quickness she hopes to see on offense will also help on defense where the Lady Tigers won’t be as tall down low as they were when Plaisance and McKinney were clogging up the middle.

“We spent the first week of (preseason) practice not even working on our offense,” Caldwell said. “We wanted to set the tone that this team has got to be a better defensive team and we’ve got to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country.

“We’re not going to be the biggest team height-wise, but you can’t measure your toughness.”

The early results are pleasing to Moncrief, who has had a quick recovery from a torn ACL in the Lady Tigers’ NCAA tournament opener, and Harden.

They ranked 1-2 on the team in steals with 56 and 53 last year and understand aggressive defense can turn into turnovers and quick offensive opportunities in transition.

“It’s different,” Moncrief said of the Lady Tigers’ style. “It’s a lot faster and more aggressive. Coach Caldwell always liked to be up-tempo, but she had to use what she had.”

Harden said that quicker style, combined with a deeper roster, have made early-season practices more interesting and much more competitive.

“It’s weird, we’re all fighting for (repetitions) on the court,” she said. “We have so many players, we all have to take our turn.”

“Everybody wants to go out and play and get the same amount of reps — or more,” Moncrief said. “Everybody wants their reps whether they’re tired or not.”

Caldwell is pleased with what she calls “healthy competition.”

“Every year we go into the season and they understand there is no set lineup,” she said. Nobody is guaranteed a starting position and minutes are to be earned through your practice and your performance.

“When you set that type of atmosphere for your student-athletes they know they have a chance and an opportunity. So it’s all about those who want to go out and grab it, and take it and own it.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.