Entering her third year as coach of the UT Arlington women’s basketball team, Krista Gerlich has already changed the conversation surrounding the Mavericks.
Words like cellar during Year One of Gerlich’s tenure were replaced by words like respectable and tough out last year. But after being picked to finish second in the preseason Sun Belt Conference coaches’ poll, the talk around College Park Center is of championships.
And UTA won’t have to wait long to get a taste of championship-level basketball. The Mavs’ schedule includes dates against three conference champions, including the opener Friday at No. 5 Baylor.
The Sun Belt improved its conference RPI from 23rd in 2013 to 11th last season.
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The tilt with Baylor is part of the preseason WNIT tournament, which guarantees each of the 16 teams three games.
“These are the people you play against to get your program up to that next level,” Gerlich said. “A lot of players go their entire career without playing in an environment like that, or against an opponent like that. We’re going to walk through that door of opportunity and give it our best shot.”
The Mavericks will also see Seton Hall (Big East champions), Stephen F. Austin (Southland) and Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt). Sun Belt coaches scheduled tough nonconference opponents to improve the perception of the conference.
We can’t be concerned about piling up wins. We’ve got to get quality wins. The nonconference is an opportunity to prepare for the Sun Belt, and you’re not going to get any days off in the Sun Belt.
UTA coach Krista Gerlich
For the first time in Gerlich’s tenure at UTA, the team’s success will largely be in the hands of holdovers, rather than from potential in the incoming recruiting class.
Rebekah VanDijk (6-foot-5) is back at center and feels stronger entering her sophomore season after earning Sun Belt freshman of the year honors last year with 13 points and 10 rebounds per game. Senior point guard LaShanda Green (7.5 points, 3.3 assists per game) and fiery defensive stopper Cierra Johnson (8.6 points, 2.7 steals per game) have taken the reins of vocal leadership in practice.
Of Johnson, Gerlich said: “Her voice can ignite our practice and her leadership style — you just have to follow her — she demands it.”
Green and Johnson, among others, will be charged with putting the “out” in the “inside-out game” this season. Last season everything offensively went through VanDijk as the primary scorer. Being more multi-dimensional on offense will be a key to moving out of the middle of the Sun Belt pack and into the championship discussion.
“Shooters shoot. Now we’re looking to get our scorers to let the ball go inside first, so that opens things up for them,” Gerlich said. “I think Breck Clark and Kamy Cole can come in instantly and help us with that.”
Clark (5-10) and Cole (5-9), both guards, are junior transfers and two of the five who make up the 2015 recruiting class. Clark transferred form Northern Oklahoma and Cole came from SMU after playing her high school ball at Brock.
Another intriguing addition to the roster is freshman forward Mackenzie Hailey (6-2), from Burleson. Hailey averaged 19 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game across her last two high school seasons and was a first-team selection to last season’s Star-Telegram Super Team.
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7760; Twitter: @MCTinez817
UTA women at Baylor
6 p.m. Friday, FSSW Plus