Jonathan Tsipis is hopeful increased internal competition with his University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team will translate to a more competitive team when it faces opponents this season.
The influx of seven newcomers — five freshmen and two transfers — has created a heightened level of competition for playing time for the Badgers. Add in redshirt sophomore Grace Mueller, who has sat out two seasons with injuries, and fully eight of the 16 players on the roster have yet to wear a UW uniform in game action.
That should change for many of them today when the Badgers make their debut with an exhibition game against UW-Oshkosh at the Kohl Center.
Although Tsipis didn’t commit to a starting lineup, chances are it will have a familiar look with senior Marsha Howard, juniors Abby Laszewski, Courtney Fredrickson and Kendra Van Leeuwen and sophomore Niya Beverley.
But even if that’s the case, there’s no guarantee that he’ll go the same when in the regular-season opener against Winthrop on Thursday.
“Who starts on Sunday may not be who starts on Thursday,” Tsipis said. “We’ve been able to raise the competitive level from top to bottom and for the first time in my tenure here.”
Among those competing for starting jobs or spots in the rotation are transfers Kelly Karlis (Ohio), a 6-foot-2 guard, and Alex Luehring (UW-Green Bay), a 6-2 guard; and freshmen Imani Lewis, a 6-2 forward, and Diamond Bragg, a 5-9 guard.
Karlis, a redshirt senior who averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in three years at Ohio, could be the closest to making an immediate impact.
“I think Kelly Karlis brings a maturity, an understanding that if she’s not shooting it well, she continues to attack,” Tsipis said. “She’s given us length on the perimeter, she’s been in our top three rebounders every time we’ve charted that in scrimmages and she’s chasing people around defensively.”
Karlis, who was able to practice with the team last season primarily with the scout team, is reinvigorated by the prospect of getting back on the floor for real.
“It’s like starting new,” she said. “I’m real excited. I feel like I haven’t played since high school. I think sitting out for a year has made me appreciate and love the game even more.”
Lewis and Bragg each made a positive impression during a closed scrimmage against Northern Iowa on Saturday.
“Diamond Bragg is picking things up,” Tsipis said. “To see how she and Imani responded when the lights went on, they were really competitive. In 18 minutes Imani was our leading scorer and our leading rebounder. And Diamond made four plays offensively or defensively that nobody else on our team can make. That was good to see those two respond that way.”
Injuries have derailed a couple other promising freshmen. Carmen Backes, a 6-2 forward, recently underwent a procedure on her knee and will be out at least 4-6 weeks, and Jasmine Hale, a 5-9 guard, broke a finger in practice last week and will be in a cast for three weeks. Hale had been particularly impressive in early practices and was pushing for a starting spot.
Backes, arguably the centerpiece of the class, underwent another procedure in May and suffered a torn ACL in her junior season at Chisago Lakes (Minnesota) High School. Tsipis said her rehab is going well and the ACL is not an issue, but Backes could be a potential redshirt candidate.
“I think we have to be smart knowing that she hasn’t played since March,” he said.
The Badgers’ newfound depth has been put to the test early on, as injuries have sidelined Mueller, Beverley, Laszewski, Howard and Suzanne Gilreath at various times this fall. All should be ready to go today except for Gilreath, who has been out with a foot injury.
“At one point we were down to eight (players) with the two walk-ons,” Tsipis said. “Of 16, we had half of them. We’re still trying to figure out the last couple pieces and with people out it’s taken away the chance to see the chemistry the way I would’ve wanted.”
However the lineup shakes out, the competition for jobs only figures to have a positive impact.
“We need that, especially with some of our juniors,” Tsipis said. “They haven’t had to fight for their jobs to make them better the last two years. They’re definitely being pushed.”