We are opening our 2019-20 basketball previews with the Eastern Michigan women’s basketball squad. Last season, the Eagles finished 14-17 on the season, and 6-12 in the MAC. The record does no show just how much an improvement Eastern Michigan has made since the arrival of Coach Castro. There is a lot of reason for optimism in Ypsilanti for the 2019-20 season.
Not only does most of the team return, but they have the right balance to really make a mark on the national stage. One thing I have noticed as the MAC has ascended to the heights of top Mid-Major, they can struggle against the power schools down on the block. When Central Michigan and Buffalo each made the sweet 16 two seasons ago, they had both a true center and a 6’ forward that played bigger than their height. This Eagles squad is loaded on the block with Rayjon Harris, Autumn Hudson, and Kiara Johnson. Harris is 6’1, Johnson 6’2, and Hudson is 6’5. They should see increased production down low. This front court could give them an advantage in MAC play, but also on the national stage.
The guards are young and talented. All three players that averaged in double figures for the Eagles played the guard position and two return. Corrione Cardwell and Courtnie Lewis should find better looks with the increased scoring inside. Jenna Annecchiarico added 8.3 per in her freshman campaign. She also showed a fiery side at the point that all the great ones have.
This team is balanced and loaded. I expect them to shock some people and have a fantastic season. I personally will not be shocked if they win the MAC West. Wanting a second opinion, I decided to interview Coach Castro, who was gracious enough to respond.
1. After a rough start in Ypsilanti, going 6-25 in your first season, your teams have improved to 11-20 and then 14-17. However, those numbers are not a good quantification of the level of improvement. The Mid-American Conference has gone from a one bid league to back to back seasons with multiple bids and 5 combined NCAA tournament wins. While the schedule is obviously rougher, does this success from the conference as a whole help with your team’s motivation and recruiting?
There is no question that we have improved every year which is indicative of our recruiting and us continuing to develop our culture here. The basketball community is clearly aware of how good our conference is and that it is ranked 7th in the country. Obviously that is a double edged sword because you know every night its going to be a battle but that is also what you want as a competitor. Our league is now expected to get multiple teams in the tournament and win games so I view the high level of play as a great opportunity for us to capitalize on.
2. There is a lot of talent returning across the league, and that obviously includes your team. Four of your top five scorers from a year ago were freshmen and sophomores. Do you think this team can compete for a first round bye in the MAC tournament next season, or should we temper our expectations a bit till you get more seniors?
I think the value of having seniors is that they are experienced. We may not have seniors on this years roster but all of our kids have played significant minutes as freshman and sophomores. More importantly, they have played these minutes together so it has given them time to build chemistry and understand real game situations collectively. This team is talented and motivated, our ability to compete in the upper third of the MAC will most likely be determined by how quickly this group comes together and their willingness to “do the right thing” all the time. I am not one to be concerned by expectations but I do believe in what we are doing here and would not set ceilings on what this team can accomplish.
3. One of your team’s biggest problems last season was putting the ball in the basket. Outside shooting is streaky for any team, but Kiara Johnson and Autumn Hudson have both shown promise in the post. Will there be an concerted effort to get more inside buckets this season?
There is no question Autumn, Kiara, and Rayjon have taken positive strides this past year. Rayjon was our starter going into the season before her acl injury, Autumn and Kiara did a great job of developing and taking full advantage of the minutes they earned. Towards the end of the year the duo were combining to give us real production in the paint and that was great to see. We will be making some adjustments to our offense so that they get more touches on the block, their combination of size and skill can be a great asset for us which we need to capitalize on.
4. A big reason for the league’s recent explosion is fantastic point guard play. Their competitiveness has been a driving force, and I see that same type of aggressive play from Jenna Annecchiarico. When you have a player like that, do you tend to try steer their energy as best you can, or do you just let them play and take the lumps?
I agree point guard play in the MAC has shown to be critical in teams success. I feel very fortunate to essentially play two point guards at the same time with Corrione and Jenna. Both players are very talented and really learned how I wanted them to play towards the end of conference play. Our inexperience really showed early and those guys struggled at times but as they raised their basketball IQ and became more comfortable with our offense they really became tough to guard. Although they are both pass-first point guards their talent allows them to be scorers which is when we were at our best.
5. For me, one of the highlights of last basketball season was going to Athens to watch them play host to Central Michigan. While there was impressive basketball played on the court, I was equally excited by the free family night. Instead of going to the game by myself, I took the entire family. The day before the game, the Ohio athletic department decided to make admission free for the big game. Even though it snowed, there was a solid turnout. What types of promotions or events would you like to see that could put more fans in seats and improve the overall atmosphere of games?
This is a great question which all programs should be asking themselves. The MAC has a great product and we need to do everything possible to expose it to as many people as possible. I am very fortunate to work for a very open minded athletic director in Scott Wetherbee who understands the importance of growing our fan base and how to get there. He actually called me one day last June and said he wanted to make tickets free for anyone 18 and under, that news obviously made me very happy. Our marketing/ticket department also did job of getting out and building our fan base. This year we had the highest attendance since I have been here and we are looking to keep building on it. It is a big facet in building a home court advantage.
6. There are a lot of young coaches in this conference seeing success. Bob Boldon has made the NCAA tournament, and quite frankly should have again this season. Megan Duffy wasn’t far off. Felisha Legette-Jack has three NCAA tournament wins in two seasons. There have been some signs of success in Akron and Bowling Green from first year coaches, and that doesn’t mention legends like Sue Guevara and Tricia Cullop. Not only is this league loaded with talent, it is loaded with coaches. Based on RPI, the MAC was the 7th best conference in the nation last season. With so many great coaches that have so much left to give, including yourself, do you think the MAC has the ability to climb from the ranks of mid major to powerhouse conference in the near future?
This league has great coaches from top down and the hires that athletic directors have made has directly impacted how the MAC is perceived and respected throughout the country. What may be more impressive is how we have made a plan through scheduling to improve our conference and position ourselves to get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament. In my humble opinion Ohio was an NCAA tournament team this year, so now we are no longer talking about getting two teams in but three, and there are not many mid-major conferences in the country talking about that as a possibility. I believe the conference will only get better and the quality of play will reach even higher levels.
After getting his answers, I might even be higher on this team than I was. I also probably should have included every coach in the conference in my last question. This conference really is loaded with talent, both coaches and players. The potential this team, and this entire conference, has is quite staggering.