There were instant positives when the Utah State women’s basketball team began practice. One of them was that there was little time needed for introductions—it’s pretty easy to get the ball rolling for a team that is returning nearly everyone.
All five starters are back—only two seniors left—and four freshmen joined the program. The Aggies only have 30 practices to establish themselves as a team prepared for the season to start, and less time to get to know each other means a lot.
The Aggies, the least-experienced team class-wise in the Mountain West Conference last season, again hold that label in a season in which they do not have a single senior on the roster. Juniors on the team are guard Rachel Brewster (USU’s leading scorer at 13.5 points per game), center Deja Mason, and guard Lizzy Klinker.
Despite the overwhelming youth, USU sports the roster with arguably the most starting experience in the conference, and much of it can be owed to the return of the Aggies’ core group of Brewster, Mason, sophomore Shannon Dufficy, sophomore Eliza West, and sophomore Hailey Bassett. With the rest of the bench, backups Klinker and sophomore Jessie Geer combined for 11 starts in relief last year.
The relative inexperience of the team last year didn’t stop the Aggies from having their most successful year of Finkbeiner’s tenure with a 17-15 record, 9-9 in the Mountain West. Now, the return of the starters provides the setting for Finkbeiner to make a much-needed change.
Finkbeiner described last year’s game plan as “maintenance,” in which they played a conservative game to hide Utah State’s greenness. “We went to a safe style,” Finkbeiner said. “Our defense really tightened up, half-court this side, half-court that side. It’s a safe game plan…to have a chance at the end of the game.”
Over the offseason, Finkbeiner saw in his young team a budding ability to score and defend full-court, and now, he’s shifting the squad to a new—and hopefully better—identity.
It starts with the system as a whole, where Utah State plans to switch from a traditional 5-position offense to an offense of four guards and a center. It’s a system often employed by teams with lineups lacking in height, one of the few things the Aggies lost with the departure of two senior forwards. The system will take Dufficy, the second-highest scorer and leading rebounder last year, and put her in a more basket-facing role, and the 6’4” Mason will control the inside, backed up by freshman center Laura Dalton.
Brewster, USU’s star player, said that the systematic change brings adjustments to her play style. “It’s a little bit different from my game, I’m more of a mid-range player,” Brewster said, “but I’m trying to focus more on my defense this season.”
The defensive side of USU’s game plan this year focuses on creating turnovers and getting steals, and Brewster hopes that the result will be a lot of fast-break scoring opportunities for her.
Overall, Brewster says the transition to the 4-guard system is working out great for her, and it mostly is creating adjustments to her defense. As the shots begin falling in greater volume, Brewster believes that West, Bassett, and backup Olivia West can be the players who step up and improve the most. “They’ve been doing really, really well at practice so far.”
“We’re going up and down the floor more,” Finkbeiner said. “We’re going to full-court press more with a small lineup, get fast breaks more with a small lineup. It’s more of a full-court game. We’re going to score more points this year.”
Scoring wasn’t a strength at all for the Aggies last year, averaging 58 points per game, second to last in the conference. With a faster game plan, Finkbeiner said that the offense looks to go from 58 points per game to consistently scoring in the 80’s. No team in conference play averaged more than 70 points per game last season, and Finkbeiner affirmed that being the highest-scoring team the Mountain West is indeed a goal for this squad. “We’re going to try to be the top 10 in the country,” Finkbeiner said. “We don’t mind broadcasting that. That’s our game plan, and this is my comfort zone as a coach.”
Finkbeiner, at one point in his 23-year career, coached the highest-scoring offense in the nation during one of his seasons at Oral Roberts University, where he coached for 16 years.
More scoring obviously means more shooting, which can lead to a great deal of rebounding opportunities, more than Dufficy’s team-high 8.7 per game. “I’ll look at it as a positive if I’m going to be involved more in the game getting offensive boards,” Dufficy said. “I’ll just take it as more of a step up from last year.”
Dufficy is putting more pressure on herself this year to take steps forward in her game and perform to expectations that have been set after her outstanding freshman year.
For anyone who hasn’t seen a 4-guard offense in action before, Coach Dave Rose of the BYU men’s basketball team has employed the style for the last several years, and their program has consistently been one of the highest scoring offenses in the nation.
Often in the small-ball oriented system, rebounding efficiency can become an unintended sacrifice. Finkbeiner noted that the experience of Dufficy, Brewster, and Bassett, who all played in the frontcourt in high school and then moved out to guard for the Aggies, will help to maintain control on the glass even when they are playing further from it.
Colorado State won the conference title last season and sported a 25-19 overall record, yet they still came nowhere close to the national top 25. Finkbeiner reported that the Mountain West is collectively looking to raise their conference strength in terms of RPI, and it’s a big reason the upcoming season for USU features the likes of No. 17-ranked Oregon State, Pac-12 programs Utah and Arizona, and in-state power BYU.
Hopefully, the new look of the offense will generate more interest from fans, as the Aggies average home attendance (672) was barely over a third of their road game average (1656).
A team full of youth is now one year older, one year wiser, and as Finkbeiner hopes, a whole lot better.