Taking the next step: No standing still for IU women's basketball
If you're standing still in the world of competitive sports, you're going backward.
The Indiana women's basketball team knows this all too well, and the Hoosiers are determined to take another step forward after a run to the Elite Eight.
"Coach (Teri) Moren tells us every day, what happened last year doesn't matter now," junior Mackenzie Holmes said. "It's a new season, a new year with new opportunities, so we're taking it one game at a time and we all know the goals we have in mind and what we need to do to get there. So we're definitely having that chip on our shoulder every time we step on the court in a practice or a game."
Holmes is Exhibit A in that effort to progress. Named to the Associated Press All-American honorable mention team, the first AP All-American in IU history, the 6-foot-3 forward is looking for ways to be better.
"I've always tried to make my shot better and get comfortable and confident with that," she said. "Last year I was starting to get comfortable behind the arc, then this year it is shooting at game speed and being ready in a game because I know I'm a little more sped up when I play. So just getting used to that and building off of my cardio and my strength, just getting stronger and quicker on defense."
The effort to expand her offensive range began a year ago but translating it to games was a challenge. Now Holmes knows the challenge isn't just physical.
"It's definitely a mental block for me shooting-wise," she said before going out and nailing a pair of 3s as part of the Hoosier Hysteria skills competition. "I'm not somebody that likes to miss, so if the ball doesn't go in it's hard for me to shoot it again. I've just been trying to work on the mentality that a miss is OK and not let it affect the next shot I take."
Gulbe looking for the next level
Holmes isn't the only one. Her frontcourt mate Aleksa Gulbe has a laundry list.
"My shooting percentage, working a lot in the post and finishes, also my ballhandling," she said. "All the normal stuff — conditioning, being agile so as a tall player so we can use mismatches."
The 6-3 senior forward is also coming off the best rebounding season of her career, averaging 6.2 per game. That included a career-high 15 during the NCAA Tournament against Belmont. Grabbing double-digit boards in three of four NCAA games is a starting point for this year.
"Definitely (something I can do)," she said. "I'm taking it year by year and hoping to progress even more and help the team even more."
To that end, Gulbe spent part of her summer in her home country of Latvia playing with the national team under new coach Gundars Vetra, who played at Assembly Hall in an exhibition game in the 1990s as part of an international playing career with VEF Riga, CSKA Moscow and others, as well as one year with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"It was great to actually get a feel for the coaches and stuff while working out individually," Gulbe said. "Coach was with a team that came on tour to play against colleges and played against Bobby Knight's team and has been here at Assembly Hall, which is crazy to me."
From transfer to veteran for Cardano-Hillary
Then there's senior guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary, who was able to jump in immediately a year ago but is back for a second season with a lot more experience under her belt.
"Now that we have had a year to play together, I kind of understand a little bit better how my team works — where they're going to be or not going to be," she said. "So it's definitely helped being on the court with them and having that time."
That simply means the George Mason transfer can focus her energy elsewhere this preseason.
"Just personally, the little things are what I've been trying to focus on," Cardano-Hillary said, "and as a team as well because sometimes in the motion of going through practice, they keep us in line saying everything has to be done with a purpose and just overall doing everything with a purpose is what we've focused on."