The ASU women's basketball team has made the NCAA tournament the last four years, including an appearance in the "sweet 16" — all while winning at least 20 games a year.
This year is different. The Sun Devils are ranked sixth in the Pac-12, has no seniors to lead the way and lost two of their top-three scorers from last year.
But head coach Charli Turner Thorne doesn’t look at the situation negatively.
When looking at the roster, she sees four of the team’s top-seven scorers returning and the addition of guard/forward Courtney Ekmark, who transferred from UConn and is ready to lead the team as a redshirt junior.
Turner Thorne sees a team that is ready to compete and make its mark in the Pac-12, in a different way from previous teams.
“This team is a different team,” Turner Thorne said. “(We are) a little more small ball at times this year and need to rely on perimeter shooting more so then we have in the past.”
Turner Thorne will look to sophomore guards Reili Richardson, Robbi Ryan and Kiara Russell, who she called wise beyond their years, to lead the charge.
Last year the three guards averaged between 20 and 28 minutes a game and this "baptism by fire," as Turner Thorne called it, will be seen this year.
“It’s not like they’re going to have it all figured out,” Turner Thorne said. “But they know exactly what to expect, and they got some incredible experience.”
The play of these guards is critical because of the loss of forwards Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos. Brunner and Moos ranked first and third on the team averaging 7.4 and 5.9 rebounds per game in the 2016-17 season.
This production will be tough for the Sun Devils to replace, but Turner Thorne has confidence that her junior bigs can cover the difference.
“(Forward) Kianna Ibis and (center) Charnea Johnson-Chapman, they’ve kind of played behind these veteran studs, and they’re ready,” Turner Thorne said. “It’s kind of their time, and they’ve done really well.”
Ibis said this off-season has been filled with rebounding drills and an emphasis on second shots.
“She (Turner Thorne) said rebounds win games,” Ibis said. “We’re going to have to definitely step up on the court and rebound for this season cause our key players are gone.”
The team does not see it as a loss in leadership with the departure of Moos and Brunner. Instead, they see an opportunity for players to step up and grow on and off the court.
“Usually with seniors, you’re going to them more, looking for them to lead,” Richardson said. “But I think everybody has been stepping up and getting a role with leadership, and I think that’s what we need.”
Turner Thorne said one of the players she is looking to is Ekmark. The veteran head coach hopes Ekmark can help fill the gap in the leadership role with her competitive spirit and hunger to put points on the board.
“We need players out there that want to score the basketball,” Turner Thorne said. “We’re looking for players to step up and be the go-to players — Courtney Ekmark will be one of those players.”
All the talk is nice, but in a little less than two weeks the world will see what this year's Sun Devils can bring to the table.
ASU will be tested throughout their non-conference schedule as they have two games against ranked teams.
Their first test will be in Cancun, Mexico, where they will take on 2017 NCAA tournament runner-up No. 4 Mississippi State.
The Sun Devils will face their next challenge a few weeks later when they travel to Tallahassee to take on No. 14 Florida State, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance.
Play does not get any easier when Pac-12 play rolls around as six of the 12 schools are ranked in the preseason poll.
“I can sit here and pontificate all I want,” Turner Thorne said. “But (soon) we’ll see where these young guns are at.”
Reach the reporter at Joshua.Zaklis@asu.edu and follow @JoshZaklis on Twitter.
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