Despite preseason disruptions, WSU women off to strong start in Horizon League

Wright State's Angel Baker (15) during a game vs. Oakland earlier this season. Joseph Craven/Wright State Athletics
Wright State's Angel Baker (15) during a game vs. Oakland earlier this season. Joseph Craven/Wright State Athletics

FAIRBORN -- The Wright State women’s basketball team had a tumultuous preseason because of COVID-19. The majority of the roster had to go into quarantine three separate times, which meant they missed 42 of the first 70 days of practices and workouts.

But the constant disruptions could be working in the Raiders’ favor in at least one way: If coach Katrina Merriweather isn’t sure what to expect from her players each game, opponents can’t have a very good read on them, either.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Merriweather said of trying to get a handle on her personnel with the season in progress. “We have a lot of talent, but it’s really difficult with the pandemic and how it’s altered the calendar.

“We’re trying to find a group that plays really well together. We’re still experimenting quite a bit, and we’re fortunate that the kids we’re experimenting with are really good.”

The Raiders had only two non-league games before barreling into Horizon League play. They’re doing surprising well with a 5-1 conference record, but the impact of shutting down is evident.

Not everyone is in midseason shape, and the players haven’t developed the same synergy they had while winning two regular-season crowns and a conference tourney title in Merriweather’s first four seasons.

“I think our chemistry would be better (without the disruptions),” the coach said. “They like each other fine. And it has carried over into the game as much as it can. But when we start talking about putting in different offenses and our execution, our time has just been limited.

“One of the things we’ve always done in our program that’s helped us is we play a lot of five-on-five in open gyms in the summer and fall, and we just weren’t able to do that.”

Junior guard Angel Baker, a first-team all-league pick, doesn’t seem to have been affected by the bumps this season. She leads the team in scoring (13.5), assists (3.1) and steals (2.0) and is second in rebounding (5.5).

“Angel is one of the best players in the league. What’s been great is we have some perimeter players and depth to go with her, some people who have the ability to score and love defense. And she’s picking and choosing her spots and being a tremendous team player,” Merriweather said.

But 6-4 senior Tyler Frierson, who averaged 7.9 points and a league-leading 9.0 rebounds last season, has seen a drop in her production because she’s been limited to 15.8 minutes per game. She’s averaging 6.8 points and 8.4 boards.

“There are just people who are affected differently by the pandemic,” Merriweather said. “It doesn’t bother Angel much. She practices for two days, and it’s like she never left. But for other people where conditioning is already a struggle, you’ve got them sitting in a room for 14 days at a time.

“We also have to be very careful we don’t expose them to injuries. Of course, I want to play Tyler for 30 minutes, but is that what’s really best for her? Absolutely not.”

Merriweather admits she’s a bit baffled by one glaring deficiency. The Raiders are shooting just 38.5% from the field, 21.7 on 3′s and 60.5 on foul shots after hitting 40.2%, 30.0 and 66.0 last season.

They’ve been able to overcome that by dominating the boards. They’re 10th in the nation with a plus-13.9 rebound margin per game.

“We’ve always been a defend-and-rebound program. That’s what our identity is. We drive the ball a lot, and we crash the boards. But I have to tell you I am surprised, based on how we shoot in practice, that we shoot that poorly in a game,” Merriweather said.

She wonders if fatigue is a factor and whether she might be pushing her players a tad too hard.

“Have I been perfect in my decision-making about practices? Who knows? In an attempt to get them in some sort of condition to play, maybe that could be impacting our shot and our legs. But I think we’re slowly coming around. We shot a little better last weekend. Hopefully, we’re on the upward swing.”

The Raiders (5-3 overall), who were picked to finish third in the league, are coming off a road sweep of Youngstown State, but they’re about 10 days away from having to tackle the meat of their schedule.

After playing at Cleveland State on Friday and Saturday, they’ll host defending champ IUPUI (8-1, 6-0) and reigning league player of the year Macee Williams. The 6-2 senior averaged a league-best 17.5 points last season along with 9.0 rebounds (her actual average was 8.97, a shade below Frierson’s mark).

The Jaguars are tied for first in the conference with Milwaukee (9-1, 6-0), who visits the Raiders on Feb. 5-6.

“I’m not surprised at all that Milwaukee is good,” said Merriweather, whose teams have averaged 23.5 wins per season. “We had trouble with them last year. They have really good players, and I love the way the play. And IUPUI has Macee Williams and the core group that won the league last year.

“Depending on how you look at it, we could be pretty fortunate we’ve not played the upper part of the conference just yet. That’s given us time to grow and start to figure some things out.”

FRIDAY’S GAME

Wright State at Cleveland State, 1 p.m., ESPN+

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