Junior center Renee Bennett attempts to score a shot during the game against Buffalo on Jan. 13 in Worthen Arena. DN PHOTO GRACE RAMEY
3 takeaways from women's basketball media day
Ball State women's basketball returns four starters in the 2016-17 season — but won't return the program's all-time leading scorer.
Nathalie Fontaine finished her Ball State career with a record 2,166 points and broke a number of season records, including points scored (660). She was also the only player in the Mid-American Conference to average more than 20 points (20.6) and 10 rebounds (10.2) per game.
The Cardinals finished 22-10, making the Women's National Invitation Tournament for the fourth season in a row.
Ball State will set its goals higher this year, looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, when the program, a 14-seed, upset 3-seed Tennessee in one of the biggest upsets of women's basketball history.
Head coach Brady Sallee, senior guard Jill Morrison and junior forward Moriah Monaco were all at the women's basketball media day to address how the team will move forward.
Here are 3 takeaways from the press conference Oct. 25.
1. Replacing Fontaine
Sallee: "It's fun for me just to see who wants the heat and who's willing to jump out there. And really, the idea I had going into the season to replace Natalie [Fontaine], once these guys kind of took it amongst themselves to kind of jump in and play different positions, it looks totally different than what I thought it was going to. And that's fine, that's good."
Analysis: Last season, the Cardinals ran a lot of four-out one-in motion with Fontaine holding down the paint. She averaged 10.2 rebounds per game, and no other Ball State player had more than 5.7 per game.
The two most obvious candidates to replace Fontaine, especially in the post, are Monaco and senior center Renee Bennett.
Monaco, however, spent most of last season playing the perimeter, taking 206 shots from beyond the arc and attempting just 128 two-point shots. She said she spent the offseason working on her inside game. The numbers may be skewed by having Fontaine — who took 470 shots inside the arc and attempted just 14 three-point shots all season — in the paint. In the press conference, Sallee was high on her work ethic in the offseason.
Bennett, listed at 6-foot-3-inches, was second on the team in blocks (19) and rebounds (170) last year. She fits the traditional mold of a center, scoring on 52.1 percent of her shots and only attempting two three-pointers (both misses), but Sallee likes moving players around. Last season, she also only averaged 22 minutes per game as she was often subbed out for the more perimeter-oriented Shelby Merder. But again, that was in the context of Fontaine playing down low. With both Merder and Fontaine gone, Bennett is in good position to earn more minutes.
Sallee also said there have been some surprises in camp and, at least early in the season, the Cardinals will replace Fontaine "by committee."
2. Running the point
Sallee: "Carmen [Grande] is a huge part of what we're trying to do this year. She had a great freshman year at the point, and that's not easy to do. And on top of playing point for me, that's never easy. And then you throw in she speaks something other than English, that's really not easy. She had a great freshman year and now she's got to take control of this team in between the lines. Our tempo's got to be her tempo. She's got to be the head of the snake defensively."
Analysis: The sophomore Spanish point guard finished last season with 5.0 assists per game, just outside the top 50 nationally and fourth among freshman point guards. She was also fifth in the MAC with 1.7 steals per game.
Grande will be asked to distribute the ball more evenly this year. The good news is that Morrison, Monaco and Bennett all averaged at least 9.8 points per game last year, so it's likely Grande's assist numbers stay high.
Grande's shooting might be what needs the most improvement. Last season, she missed a few easy layups in transition, but she would also flash her ability with behind-the-back dribbles to create open shots in transition. She finished the season hitting 35.5 percent of her shots inside the arc, though she did shoot a respectable 32.9 percent from three, the third-highest mark on the team.
3. Season goals
Sallee: "I'm much more interested in building a résumé throughout the year that gets us to the point where — if for some reason something crazy happens in Cleveland and we don't win it — that we're still on that board and have a chance to be on that board. I think not only Ball State, but I think our whole conference has to start thinking this way, we have to start building that résumé where we deserve to be in the field of 64 whether we win the [MAC] tournament or not."
Analysis: The MAC hasn't received multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament since March 1996 — the month Monaco was born.
The Cardinals do have a couple of résumé-worthy opponents on its schedule, like Auburn (20-13, 8-8 Southeastern Conference), Purdue (20-12, 10-8 Big Ten) and Western Kentucky (27-7, 15-3 Conference USA). However, they still need to win those games and still hope their opponents do well in conference play.
As Sallee will likely say once MAC play starts in January, the best way to make the NCAA tournament is to win the MAC Tournament and get the automatic bid. That's a plausible scenario for a team returning four starters from a squad that finished with the third-best record in the conference.
But in the MAC, anything can happen. Ball State was knocked out of last season's tournament by 6-seed Eastern Michigan in the first round, and 8-seed Buffalo won the whole thing to represent the MAC in the NCAA tournament.
Ball State opens its season at home against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 11 a.m. Nov. 11.
Be on the lookout for the Daily News' full season preview Nov. 9.