There's no hiding it for Diane Richardson and the Towson women's basketball team heading into the 2019-20 season: there is going to be a target on the Tigers' back.
Winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history will do a lot of things for a team. It creates a buzz and high expectations entering the next season.
But it also means the Tigers (20-13 overall, 11-7 in the CAA last year) are going to get the best out of all their opponents, no matter who they are and what they're predicted to do this year.
"I'm more concerned about us and stepping up our game,” said Richardson, who is entering her third season as head coach. "We were champions last year, but we're going to have a target on our back. We've got to just worry about us getting better and making each other great.”
In terms of the Tigers' roster, there's a lot to look forward to as far as depth. The majority of the players from last year's NCAA Tournament team are back. That includes senior guard Nukiya Mayo, who averaged 12.9 points last year and was named the CAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 20 points and seven rebounds in the championship game against No. 2 seed Drexel, and redshirt junior Kionna Jeter, who led the team with 17.9 points per game and was a first-team All-CAA selection.
"You know Kionna is going to do her thing,” Richardson said with a laugh. "So she's really excited about that.”
But there is also a mix of younger players this year, and Richardson is looking forward to seeing them grow on and off the court. Sophomore guard Shavonne Smith, who appeared in 16 games for the Tigers as a freshman, was a player Richardson highlighted as putting in a lot of work to become a more vital piece of the team.
"She's going to do well for us, too,” Richardson said. "They've been working on their game over the summer. We're also going to see [senior] Ryan Holder a lot, too. She's just that glue kind of player.”
Towson's first regular-season game will be against Penn State at SECU Arena Nov. 5, which Richardson said will be a good test to see how far along her team is to start the year.
"We've got to play the best to be the best,” Richardson said. "I want us to be challenged so that when we get to the conference [play] we'll be used to it already, because we've got a challenging conference. Starting out with Penn State is going to be tough. It'll show us where we are at that point.”
When the Tigers ended their postseason run with a loss to UConn in the NCAA Tournament's first round last March, the first thing they wanted to do was find a way back next year. Now, next year is here, and they know what needs to be done to make that goal a reality. The only thing left to do now is go out and do it.
"I have this saying that if you can make a million once, you know how to get back to it,” Richardson said. "It's the same thing with basketball. It's hard to get there because you're putting in a lot of work and it took us more than a year to get there, but we know that path already and you know it's going to take what you gave last time and more to get back.”
COPPIN STATE (2018-19 RECORD: 5-25 OVERALL; 4-12 MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE)
Forward Chance Graham is back for her senior campaign with the Eagles, and she is looking to lead the team to a deep run in the MEAC tournament after a second-round loss to Bethune-Cookman last March.
The 2018-19 season was another dominant one for Graham. The Upper Marlboro, Md., native won the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year award and was a second-team All-MEAC selection. She started in all 30 games and averaged 14.5 points and a MEAC-best 11.4 rebounds.
In addition to Graham, the Eagles also have senior forward Oluwadamilola Oloyede to help lead a young squad with nine underclassmen. Oloyede led the team in shooting percentage (44.4 percent) while grabbing 102 rebounds last year.
LOYOLA (2018-19 RECORD: 7-24 OVERALL; 5-13 PATRIOT LEAGUE)
The Greyhounds struggled throughout the 2018-19 season, but winning three of their last four and advancing to the second round of the Patriot League tournament was a solid way for longtime coach Joe Logan's team to wrap up the season.
Entering the 2019-20 season, Loyola is led by junior forward Isabella Therien. Though she missed the final nine games of the season with an injury, the former Patriot League Rookie of the Year led the team with 14.3 points per game and was second on the team in rebounds (5.6). Other key returners include sophomore wing Taleah Dixon (9.7 points) and junior forward Delaney Connolly (9.1).
The start of the season will not be easy for the Greyhounds, who have Notre Dame, Northwestern and Maryland on their early-season schedule. But with seven upperclassmen on the roster, Loyola's experience should help the Greyhounds in conference play.
MORGAN STATE (2018-19 RECORD: 10-21 OVERALL; 8-8 MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE)
Losing a player like Adre'onia Coleman, who averaged a team-high 16.3 points and totaled 505 points last season, to graduation is a tough task for any team to handle, but the Bears still have a number of players on the roster who could help Morgan State take a step forward in the MEAC.
One of those players is sophomore Ashia McCalla, who averaged 10 points last year and had a season-high 18 points against Delaware State. McCalla, a Greenbelt, Md., native and Eleanor Roosevelt High graduate, made seven starts last year but should be in the starting lineup more consistently this year.
Last year, the Bears finished .500 in conference play, and this year, they'll begin conference play against Delaware State and South Carolina State in January. Before that, the Bears will make trips to Marquette, Nebraska and Michigan as part of their non-conference schedule.
MOUNT ST. MARY'S (2018-19 RECORD: 15-16 OVERALL; 8-10 NORTHEAST CONFERENCE)
The Mountaineers made a deep run in the NEC tournament last year, advancing to the semifinals against Robert Morris before dropping a heartbreaker, 69-65. With most of last year's squad returning, they should have another chance to make another deep postseason run this year.
Mount St. Mary's lost guard Juliette Lawless to graduation, but sophomore Michaela Harrison (13.3 points last year) and junior Jatarrikah Settle (9.0) are expected to lead the charge for the Mountaineers. Mount St. Mary's starts out the season with games at Kentucky and Indiana followed by contests against Frostburg, Towson and UMBC.
NAVY (2018-19 RECORD: 10-19 OVERALL; 5-13 PATRIOT LEAGUE)
Though Navy is coming off a disappointing season and an early exit in the Patriot League tournament, sophomore guard Jennifer Coleman gives the team reason to be excited for the 2019-20 season.
Coleman, a native of Richmond, Va., started her college career with a 13-point effort against Catholic University last November, and from that point on she was a consistent scorer for the Mids. She had 19 games with at least 10 points, including a seven-game stretch in January and February. She averaged 13.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists last year, and she'll be expected to lead the way again.
Navy will be tested early with Clemson and North Carolina on its non-conference slate. That may prove to be beneficial heading into conference play, which starts against Lehigh in January.
UMBC (2018-19 RECORD: 10-20 OVERALL; 3-13 AMERICA EAST)
The Retrievers started out the 2018-19 season by winning their first six games, but they lost 20 of their final 24 games. Longtime head coach Phil Stern took a leave of absence in December and resigned in February. In April, the school hired former Texas Southern head coach Johnetta Hayes to take over a program that has won just 15 games the past two seasons.
The Retrievers' season will tip off against Gettysburg, same as last year, and there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into this season. For starters, UMBC has a core group of senior guards in Dominika Skrocka, Te'yJah Oliver and Tyler Moore. Oliver, a Clinton, Md., native out of Riverdale Baptist, averaged 11.2 points in 30 games and 27 starts.
The Retrievers will also count on junior forward Janee'a Summers, who led the team with 11.4 points per game and had five double-doubles. UMBC also added freshman guard Lyric Swann, who starred at Long Reach High in Columbia, Md.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Steve McLaughlin, Coppin State, Mount St. Mary's, Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics