It’s NCAA Tournament or bust for the St. John’s women’s basketball team. That is, if you ask junior forward Angela Clark.
“We’re definitely looking forward to making it further in the Big East Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament,” Clark said. “(Not making the NCAA Tournament) would be a disappointment to myself, to my teammates, and to our fans.”
Seniors Mercedes Dukes and Danielle Chambers echoed Clark’s high hopes for the upcoming season.
“We’re looking forward to making it to the Big Dance this year,” Dukes said.
Added Chambers: “We’re not looking back. We’re trying to take steps forward, and if we don’t make it to the tournament, we’re trying to win the NIT.”
This comes from a team that, just three years ago, sported a not-so-gaudy 8-19 record.
The team improved to a dismal 10-18 record in 2003-04, before breaking out last year with an impressive 20-11 mark (the team’s best record in 17 years), a Big East Tournament bid, and a second- round elimination to West Virginia in the WNIT.
What’s been the difference maker in the Red Storm rebuilding process?
Look no further than fourth year head coach Kim Barnes Arico.
In just her first season, Barnes Arico improved a team with a 3-24 overall record (0-16 in the Big East), to an 8-19 team that won its first conference games in two years.
“When we came in as a staff three years ago we said, ‘We’re not going to look at wins and losses,'” Barnes Arico said. “We’re going to say let’s look at the process and say let’s take it one game at a time and work on getting better, and I think the same is true now.”
Nevertheless, the players’ and Barnes Arico’s expectations in 2005 are much higher than they were three years ago.
No matter how much the team improves on the court, the pressure to improve from last season’s breakout season is there. The pressure to transition from a rebuilding program to an established one is inevitable.
St. John’s has been picked to finish eighth out of a very strong 16-team conference in the preseason coaches’ poll, a ranking that Barnes Arico thinks illustrates the respect her team earned from last year’s performance.
“I think some people might think eight is not a great place to be picked,” Barnes Arico said. “But we were picked eighth last year and that was eight out of twelve teams. Now we added five new teams, five quality teams, to our conference. To be picked eighth in this conference- I feel that eight teams from this conference could make the NCAA Tournament, so I think if we finished eight or above in our conference we got a great shot of getting to the NCAA Tournament. That’s tremendous. It puts a little pressure on us, but that’s what it’s all about.”
“We’re really looking forward to this year,” Dukes added. We’re all excited. We have a lot of returning players and teams are giving us respect right now. Teams are ranking us, they’re respecting that we’re here now. Before, we would go into tournaments and they’d pick us to be last. We’re really stepping our game up this year.”
There are no excuses this year. With four returning starters, including second-team All-Big East and preseason All-Big East selection, sophomore standout Kia Wright, there is no room for anything but improvement.
“Kia has been phenomenal,” Barnes Arico said. “I just noticed in the first month of practice now that she’s in shape, she’s got a year of experience under her belt, the kind of player she truly is. I think she is helping even the seniors and especially the underclassman really develop and really see what this is to work hard and compete at both ends of the floor. She’s not only an offensive player, but she’s a defensive player as well.”
Clark, the team’s second leading scorer from last season, will play a pivotal role in the Red Storm’s fight to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think as Angela goes, we go,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s how it’s been for the last couple of years. Teams knew last year if you stopped Angela, you had a pretty good shot at winning. She has to develop more as a player, and I think if she does that we will go to the NCAA Tournament, but if she stays where she is, I don’t think our program can make that next step. There’s a lot on her shoulders and I think she knows that.”
The Red Storm also added a strong freshmen class, headed by highly touted recruit Lisa Claxton.
“I think it says great things about our program and to get a recruit like her was just phenomenal,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s going to have a wonderful career here.”
With an extremely deep squad and an experienced starting five, St. John’s is looking forward to the challenge of a tough schedule, which includes two games at Madison Square Garden, something Barnes Arico and her staff are “truly excited about.”
With a vastly improved Big East conference, it will undoubtedly be a hard-fought year for the Red Storm.
“I’m afraid to play any team on our schedule,” Barnes Arico said. “I’m afraid to play anyone in the country because any team for us is a challenge.”
When asked about if she’d be circling any games on her calendar, specifically a Jan. 14 trip to Storrs, Conn., to play archrival UConn, Barnes Arico laughingly replied, “I can’t do that! Especially not UConn at Connecticut. One game at a time, one game at a time.”
So what can be expected besides an improved ball club that returns four starters and nine letterwinners to an intimidating and talented Big East conference?
Expect better, more intense games night in and night out. Expect this club to go as far as Wright and Clark can carry them. Expect the St. John’s women’s basketball team to solidify itself as one of the best athletic teams at the university.
As for the NCAA Tournament prediction that Clark made, Barnes Arico is keeping it all in perspective.
“I hope she’s ready to play! Now let’s see how much they produce,” Barnes Arico said. “I mean, the NCAA Tournament would be an awesome accomplishment. I think obviously for our team, it would have to be one of our goals coming off of last year, but I think that we have to realize as a program that saying it and achieving it are two different things-I think that if we make that effort and stay committed to that, we could have an opportunity to get there.”