SJSU women’s hoops outlook: A new coach, but does it mean another rebuild?

San Jose State has never had a stable women’s program. And part of that is because it hasn’t had a good or stable coach since 2005.

The school got stuck in a sticky situation with the late former coach Janice Richard after she went on medical leave in 2006 for breast cancer, and replaced her with Greg Lockridge, who promptly put the team in the toilet and was replaced midseason. san_jose_state

After that, Pam DeCosta took over. She had one signature win — that over a ranked Cal team in 2009 — but only won 13 games in four seasons and fell into a cycle of trying to plug holes with mediocre JC players. She was let go in favor of Tim La Kose from Cal State Bakersfield, who looked like he was going to be coach to stanch the bleeding long term.

Now, two years on, La Kose has resigned on the eve of the season and the Spartans have yet another bench boss in former Sacramento State coach Jamie Craighead. She enters at the right time for San Jose State: This is by far the most talented women’s basketball roster this team has had since Richard coached it in the mid-2000s, and perhaps before.

The biggest question facing this team, given all of its inherent struggles and challenges of moving to the tougher Mountain West Conference, is will the new coach be able to keep them together and keep progress moving forward. Or, come April, will this be another tear-down-and-start-over situation?

A team with some experience

Junior guards Ta’Rea Cunnigan and Rebecca Woodberry were the big shooters in the exhibition opener. Cunnigan led the team in shots and made a few big baskets to calm early nerves when the Warriors started draining shots, and is going to be the team’s go-to player, finishing with 19 points despite an off shooting night. The ball will find Cunnigan in big moments for San Jose State.

Much of last year’s roster is back. Despite it’s 11-19 record, they made several teams sweat to the final minute. With the addition of Woodberry and Smith to the starting lineup, there are more options to score on the court.

Emily Schill played limited minutes in the exhibition opener off the bench. The sophomore from Australia, who was the team’s third leading scorer with 10.8 points per game last year, should play a bigger role once the regular season rolls around. Also back in the starting lineup is 6-foot-2 center Riana Byrd from the Sacramento area, who was an important contributor last season (11.4 points/game, 10.9 rebounds/game). They will be put to the test this season with tougher competition on the horizon.

Woodberry, a transfer from Nebraska, is going to play an important role in the starting lineup, as are freshmen Jasmine Smith, Britta Hall and Rachol West. Smith, a 6-foot forward from Burbank Bellarmine-Jefferson, had a double-double in the first game with 18 points and 19 rebounds. She gave the Spartans something they haven’t had, well, ever — presence in the paint. She may be too good to give sparing playing time this season, and may be the first player off the bench, if she isn’t starting, when either Schill or Byrd need a breather or get in foul trouble.

The biggest question is going to be on defense. William Jessup found a shooting groove at times during the game, especially in the second half. The Spartans have some height, and can certainly make a play on the boards (they had 57 rebounds and eight blocks in the exhibition game); they will need those kinds of effort in conference play often.

Woodberry was lights out in the first game, shooting 8 for 13 and leading the Spartans in points with 23. More important than anything, she gives San Jose State a second shooting option so that teams don’t spend the whole night hounding Cunnigan, who seemed to be last season’s only shooter on a night in, night out basis. West, who graduated from Bakersfield Garces Memorial, and Hall, from Tualatin (Ore.), were the first two women off the bench for Craighead in the exhibition game.

New goal: Restore order (again)

Jamie Craighead took over at San Jose State barely a month before the new season started thanks to Tim La Kose resigning unexpectedly at the end of August. Much of the work he had done in the previous two seasons — putting out the tire fire created from three bad coaches in a row and building something resembling a program — was reduced to nothing with the stroke of a pen.

Craighead doesn’t have an easy task ahead of her: There are no holdovers on the coaching staff from La Kose’s two seasons at the helm, but the entire roster is that of his building (there are no holdovers from the last year of the Pam DeCosta era.) So far, there don’t seem to be any problems within the program, winning its exhibition opener against William Jessup handily.

The question for Craighead, who had moderate success at a place not known for any of it in Sacramento State, is how will this team react when the losses start to mount in a difficult Mountain West schedule for which they as a program are no where near ready. In addition, how many of La Kose’s recruits stick around after the season.

It’s time someone — and with any luck, it will be Craighead — stopped this preposterous ride the women’s basketball program seems to be on and allow it to get off. There isn’t going to be any kind of progress until there is stability at the top.

Everyone thought La Kose, who had a lot of success at Cal State Bakersfield before coming to San Jose, was going to bring stability to the program to allow it start building an eventual winner. Now, it’s up to Craighead to bring stability first, then wins.

The early verdict: Patience

This is a far more talented team than the Spartans have had . With money suddenly coming into the program because of the move to the Mountain West and new facilities being built for both basketball teams, it will be up to Craighead to put out the fire started by La Kose’s sudden departure and keep the progress full speed ahead on the recruiting front.

Cunnigan will likely again be the top scorer, but San Jose State needs a stronger defensive presence on the court each night. Woodberry is going to need to be the second shooter on the court. There’s also the question of where Jasmine Smith is going to play, and which of her Schill and Byrd starts off the bench.

This squad has a lot of potential. How will it do against a much harder schedule and will it stay together now that there’s been a change at the top?

Find the team’s schedule here.

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