Postseason tournament possibilities have not exactly been a relevant topic for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team in recent years.
The Badgers haven’t played past the Big Ten Conference tournament since 2011 when they were eliminated in the second round of the WNIT. That was their fifth consecutive postseason appearance and came one year after their last trip to the NCAA tournament, a little streak that seems like the good old days now but cost Lisa Stone her coaching job back then.
Two coaches and nearly eight years later, Jonathan Tsipis figured it was time to reintroduce the subject of postseason play to his players before their game at Ohio State in mid-February. The Badgers were coming off their biggest Big Ten victory in years over No. 24 Michigan State to pull to within one game of .500 at 12-13.
“If you finish at .500 you’re going to get a WNIT bid,” Tsipis said. “You have a group that you’ve had since they started on campus and you want them to have the experience of what it’s like to play in the postseason. We saved (talking about it) until before the Ohio State game and I thought it helped us.”
Alas, the Badgers, playing without freshman standout Imani Lewis that game, lost to the Buckeyes by two points and went on to lose three of their last four regular-season games.
They tacked on two wins in the Big Ten tournament and nearly got a third for the first time in program history before falling to Michigan in double overtime to end with a 15-18 record, their best since 2011.
While progress has sometimes been difficult to discern during Tsipis’ three seasons since taking over for Bobbie Kelsey, he saw his players’ reaction to that loss to Michigan as a positive sign.
“I think the kids were really torn up after that game,” Tsipis said. “They felt like we should’ve won. Then it’s how do you use that to make sure that next year come the second week of March you’re not sitting there in that same position, missing out by a couple of games to play in the postseason.”
For the Badgers to make good on that goal, a lot will have to fall into place next season. For starters, they need to stay healthier than this season when two probable starters, junior Courtney Fredrickson and freshman Carmen Backes, missed all or nearly all of the season, as did redshirt senior Lexy Richardson and redshirt sophomore Grace Mueller. Redshirt freshman Alex Luehring missed the final 10 games after coming down with mono.
They’ll also have to find suitable successors to seniors Marsha Howard and Kelly Karlis. Not only did Howard lead the team in scoring (14.7) and rebounding (9.0), she also was the team’s emotional leader.
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“Replacing her moxie and her swagger are the biggest things we’ve got to figure out how our group coming back is going to do,” Tsipis said.
Fredrickson, a two-year starter who suffered a torn ACL in the second game, is expected to be ready by the start of fall practice and she will join three returning starters: Lewis, junior Niya Beverley and senior Kendra Van Leeuwen.
Top reserves Abby Laszewski, Suzanne Gilreath and Luehring also will return, along with guards Jasmine Hale and Diamond Bragg, who saw limited action as freshmen.
Backes, who was sidelined by a lingering knee injury, will become part of a promising freshman class headlined by guard Sydney Hilliard of Monroe, along with wings Tara Stauffacher of Beaver Dam and Julie Pospisilova from the Czech Republic and post Sara Stapleton of Blaine, Minnesota (Centennial High School).
Tsipis said that the freshmen will compete with the returning players for playing time.
“We’ve challenged them already,” he said. “Our team knows it’s going to be equal opportunity. The best combination of five kids is going to play.”
Hilliard, who has been Tsipis’ primary recruiting target almost from the day he was hired, figures to push for a starting job in the backcourt.
“I think sometimes with freshmen you have to protect them from themselves in trying to do too much because of what they perceive expectations are going to be,” Tsipis said. “The good part is that we’ve built a relationship with us recruiting her for a long time and she’s built a relationship with a lot of the kids on the team.”
The 2019-20 Badgers figure to have a lot of depth at guard and on the wings, but the departure of Howard leaves just Lewis, Laszewski and Stapleton to fill the post spots.
Tsipis may add to that group as he travels next week to Germany to check out a couple post players that plan to come to the U.S. to play next season. He also will consider using a one-post lineup at times if that’s the best configuration.
“I think you figure that out,” he said. “Everybody who is returning is going to be in a different role. My philosophy is to play faster and to be in that transition game, but it comes down to how people play together.
“I think the kids’ mindset is good. They’ve seen the success that we can have, but I still think that they’re hungry to push that further.”