Tory Verdi is starting his third season as coach of the Eastern Michigan women’s basketball team – a team that on paper, has improved from the squad that finished 18-14 last season and lost to the University of Illinois-Chicago in the second round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
The Eagles were picked to finish fifth in the Mid-American Conference West Division this season.
“It’s been a process from day one,” Verdi said two weeks ago in the MAC preseason coach’s teleconference. “Where we were in regards to my first season finishing with eight wins to last year finishing with 18. I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction and we’re building something.”
Verdi said the team would be led by sophomores Cha Sweeney and Janay Morton – along with four more returning players from a season ago.
The 5-foot-2 Sweeney – who was named to the All-MAC West preseason first team and earned MAC Freshman of the Year honors last season – will be the team’s starting point guard.
“If you can believe this, she’s gotten better offensively,” Verdi said. “I’m not sure if there’s a player in the conference who can stay in front of her.”
This season’s team will be the first in Verdi’s tenure that consists 100 percent of players he recruited.
“They all fit our style of play,” he said. “I’m really excited about where we’re headed.”
Toledo Rogers neighborhood
Sweeney will be joined by two former high school teammates – 5-foot-8 freshman guard Sasha Dailey and 6-foot-1 freshman forward Tori Easley.
“I think we did a pretty good job of tapping into the high school talent at one specific high school,” Verdi said. “I feel that she’s [Dailey] going to be right there this year. I feel like she’s going to have a ton of success. She’s extremely athletic and quick. [She] has unbelievable anticipation and she’s going to lead us to where I feel like she can get a ton of deflections and steals for us. Obviously that’s going to start our offense.”
The two freshmen bring the total number of Rogers alumni to four – with 5-foot-10 junior forward KaBria Walker returning to Eastern this season.
Bigger and better
The Eagles – who struggled with height last season – got bigger over the summer. 6-foot-4 junior center Rachel Kehoe (St. Clair Community College) and Easley along with 6-foot-1 junior guard Sara Ozelci (Odessa College-Texas/Ankara, Turkey) join 6-foot-1 senior guard/forward Jamaica Bucknor on the roster.
“We have got to be prepared to play games in the half court,” Verdi said. “I think at times last year, the lack of size hurt us. Yes, we want to get out [and] we want to pressure and we want to let our defense create our offense – we want to be the fastest and most athletic team – but at times teams do get you stuck in half court and make you play half-court basketball. We have to make sure we have enough size to - when we’re in those types of games where it’s just a battle offensively and defensively – when we’re in the half court, have some size down there.”
Verdi said there were games where he felt opposing teams took advantage of EMU’s lack of size up front – playing 5-foot-10 guard/forward Olivia Fouty essentially as a center.
“We weren’t very successful with that,” he said.
Verdi said that 6-foot redshirt senior forward Brianna Puni – who did not play in 2014 and won’t play until Dec. 22 against the University of Michigan – will make a big impact for Eastern.
“I think when it comes down to it, Brianna Puni is the best back-to-basket post player in the conference,” Verdi said. “Nobody knows who she is, and that’s quite alright for us.”
The Bucknor starts here
Bucknor averaged 5.1 points per game last season – not even cracking the top-30 in the conference. She shot a paltry 28.1 percent from three-point range.
At Rock the Rec two weeks ago, Bucknor showcased some improved three-point skills in the three-point contest.
“I think Jamaica Bucknor is going to have a breakout season for us,” Verdi said. “She’s increased her ball handling skills and I look forward to having her really produce offensively and defensively for us.”
The Eagles begin the regular season Friday against Kent State University-Tuscarawas.
In the team’s exhibition matchup against Wayne State University Monday at the Convocation Center – the Eagles needed two overtimes to take down the Warriors, 98-95 on a layup from Morton with nine seconds left.
Bucknor (25 points, 12 rebounds) and Phillis Webb (10 points, 13 rebounds) each earned a double-double for Eastern.
Tip-off for Friday’s game is scheduled for 11 a.m. as the first game of a doubleheader at the Convo.
Friday is also Education Day – children from area schools are expected to be in attendance.
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho