There's a lot of moving parts that have to be in sync for the USC Aiken women's basketball team in head coach Mark Miller's third season.
His team returns four seniors a year after having none. Also returning to the roster are players who missed last season due to injury, like former Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Kwajelin Farrar. And there's six newcomers bringing loads of athleticism and scoring potential to the roster.
That's a lot to balance, but Miller is pleased with how everything is starting to fit together ahead of Friday's season opener. His external cautious optimism – and internal giddiness – from the summer doesn't seem to have waned, and now it's time to see how it all translates over to live action.
"We're pretty excited about where we are right now and where we can be come February and March," Miller said. "We've got a lot of work to do. We've got leadership from returning players with lots of experience. We've got some players that are back healthy after missing a whole year. We've got a very talented group of newcomers that can come in and help us. We've got a good balance going into this year, and we're just excited to get started."
Senior guard Kyrie' Chandler started 28 games and led the team in scoring with 12 points per game. Junior guard Melyk Taouil made 27 starts and was the team leader in assists and steals and was second in rebounds. Senior forward Star Toomey was pressed into action after injuries ravaged the roster, and she emerged as a double-double threat who led the team in rebounds and blocks.
The biggest returner of all, though, is Farrar. She burst onto the scene and was picked the league's top freshman after averaging 14.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. She was injured last season and redshirted, becoming an extra assistant coach on the Pacers' bench. Miller is excited to have her back on the floor, but he knows it will take a little time to get her back to full speed.
"Right now she's healthy, but she hasn't played in over a year," he said. "Her getting her basketball game back in shape is gonna take a few games to get under her belt. The good thing for her right now is she doesn't have to carry us. ... We've got a good balance of inside-out and can do a lot of different things."
The good news is she has help. She, Toomey and redshirt-sophomore Janae' Simpson are back-to-the-basket post players with versatile skill sets, and their presence should produce plenty of open shots on the perimeter.
"It's a good problem to have," Miller said. "... Three good players in the post gives us depth there that I haven't had since I've been here."
The newcomers fill a variety of roles. Freshman guard Alex Canady was a prolific scorer in high school; freshman guard Grace Crawford brings tenacity and leadership; junior transfer forward Va Draunidalo has the versatility to excel at either forward position; freshman power forward Madeline Sexton provides athleticism and doesn't shy away from doing the dirty work; redshirt-sophomore transfer guard Kanna Suzuki was Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association Freshman of the Year two seasons ago; and freshman guard Madison Williams can create havoc defensively.
Fitting in is a work in progress, of course, but Miller said it's been a pretty easy adjustment so far from a coaching standpoint as his returners and newcomers start to mesh.
They'll be tested right away in the PBC/South Atlantic Conference challenge in Tennessee. The Pacers' season opener is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at No. 3 Carson-Newman, and the next day they have a 1 p.m. tip against Lenoir-Rhyne.
Miller said it's important for his team to not get wrapped up in the big moment this weekend. Instead, the Pacers just need to worry about themselves, the things that they do – work hard, play defense, rebound, take care of the basketball – and how they have to do them.
The PBC schedule, as always, will be difficult. No. 14 North Georgia is the league favorite, followed by Columbus State and Lander. USCA was picked ninth in the preseason poll after enduring a 5-17 season in league play (8-20 overall) during last year's injury-riddled campaign. The Pacers are a vastly different team heading into this season and could take the league by surprise if that balance turns into victories.
"Every year in the Peach Belt, if you're one of the top teams in that conference you've got a chance to go far in the NCAA Tournament," Miller said. "That's kind of our goal. Let's get better every day. Let's see what can happen with us and then see where we are in February and March."