As fall comes to a close, UC Riverside athletics begins to reign in a winter season that can best be defined in a word: basketball. As we covered on page 23 of this issue, the women’s basketball team kicked off their exhibition season this past Saturday, October 31 with a dominant 86-51 victory over Cal Poly Pomona. Coming off of an exhilarating 2014-15 season — in which they amassed .500 for the first time since 2010-11 en route to a 17-14 record — the women are looking primed for another breakout year as a majority of last season’s team are returning. Though, as always, nothing is truly certain until the games are actually played. So, in what is the first of a two-part series, I sat down with ESPN Big West college basketball analyst, Richie Schueler, to provide some clarity into what the upcoming year may behold for both UCR basketball squads this season.
Myles: The coaches ranked UCR women’s basketball to finished second in the Big West conference this season. Are you in agreement with that projection?
Richie: I think so. Honestly, I think what it comes down to is, last year they were ranked eighth [in the preseason], now they’re ranked second. So, last year they were the one’s doing the hunting and now they are the one’s being hunted. It really just means that they now have a lot more respect from their opponents. They’re pretty much the same team they were a year ago, just a year older. And since they won so many games last year and had a breakout season, teams around the league are giving them more respect. Yet, they still have to go out there and win the games.
M: Could you foresee any problems arising with that added pressure?
R: With most teams, yeah. But with [head coach] John Margaritis I don’t think so. He’s a coach that has won championships and won them here at UC Riverside. Last few years he’s been rebuilding and now he’s back in a comfortable spot where he was before, competing for a conference championship. So, in this particular case, I don’t think there will be any pressure. I think he’ll have these ladies prepared each and every game and I don’t think it’ll be a major issue at all.
M: How do this team’s three key players — Brittany Crain, Annelise Ito and Michelle Curry — complement each other offensively?
R: Well, you’ve got to start with [guard] Brittany Crain, she was the eighth-leading scorer in the NCAA last year with 22 points a game. […] What Crain is able to do is [play] so dynamic where she’s efficient, she’s aggressive and she can hit mid-range shots. But really, all the attention that she gets creates opportunities for the other ladies on the team, like [guard] Annelise Ito. Ito is a player who plays with a very high motor and has a ton of heart. […] Ito also has a plethora of different shots around the basket: she can make [the] fadeaway, the midrange jumper and she’s phenomenal at posting up. Then you blend [both] of them in with the Freshman of the Year in Michelle Curry who [last year] averaged nine points a game and 5.5 rebounds. She was a below-average three-point shooter but she was able to [score] in a lot of different ways and help her teammates with that nice, long frame for her position.
M: If you may, could you explain some of the key components of head coach John Margaritis’ offense?
R: [Coach Margaritis] runs the traditional Bob Knight Indiana motion offense that coach Knight ran throughout his entire 30 years coaching at Indiana University. […] The number one thing that you have to understand with that offense is that you don’t play with the ball, you play away from the ball and what I mean by that is, there are a lot less ball screens, there is a lot less dribble-drive type schemes and it’s more so a lot of back screens, down screens and flare screens. You’re really reading the defense as you go.
M: Do you believe this offense is beneficial to the Highlanders’ current personnel?
R: I do because everybody is a threat to score in the motion offense. If you can read the defense and you can cut or set a screen according to how the defense is guarding you, once you catch the ball, you’re a threat. And we’ve seen they (UCR) had three All-Conference players last year including Big West Player of the Year (Crain), First-Team All-Conference Honorable Mention (Ito) and Freshman of the Year (Curry) so these players are players that can attack when they get the ball in their hands.
M: In that same preseason poll, the University of Hawai’i is considered the conference favorite. What has made that team so dominant over the years?
R: Hawai’i runs a lot of segments of the Triangle offense — the same offense that [current New York Knicks executive and 11-time NBA champion] Phil Jackson has run anywhere he’s coached in the NBA. But with that you’ve got to have the right kind of players. You’ve got to have a lot of size and players that can score with their back to the basket. Hawai’i has always a lot of height, strength and bulk on the women’s side and their point guard can post-up with the best of them just like the [center] can. So when you play against a team like Hawai’i you have to be able to rebound and you have to be able to guard post play as they like to overload one side of the floor and get the ball as close to the basket as they can.
M: In saying that, what will it take for UCR to overtake Hawaii’s top spot in the conference this season?
R: With the offense that [the Highlanders] run — because they’ve done a great job at mastering how to run it — anybody is a threat. So, again, it just comes down to how well they can rebound the basketball and how well they can defend because there’s only one team in the league that runs the Triangle and that’s Hawaii. If they can successfully defend that Triangle during the one time that they need to defend it, they’ll be just fine.