Perhaps the most unnoticed rebuilding project during the past few seasons is that of the Cincinnati Bearcats Women’s Basketball team under current head coach Jamelle Elliott. Everyone has followed the amazing job Mick Cronin has done with his men’s team but Elliott’s work seems to have gone overlooked. She took over in 2009 when J. Kelley Hall was fired after a lackluster 14 – 17 season that saw the Lady Bearcats compile just 3 wins in the Big East. He was just 26 – 33 in his two years at UC. A month-long coaching search landed on a young, energetic assistant coach at UConn. Jamelle Elliott was finishing up her twelfth season working under Geno Auriemma. This is the same Geno Auriemma that has won 7 national championships as head coach of the Huskies only one of which was achieved without Elliott on the staff. Clearly the resume that the new head coach brought with her to Cincinnati commanded instant respect.
Elliott’s first season went as expected with the transition to the new staff. Cincinnati finished with a 12 – 18 overall record and you can’t really fault UC for winning just 4 games in the Big East that season. Like the men’s league, teams in the women’s league take basketball extremely seriously. And like Mick Cronin, Elliott knew this. Heck, she spent over a decade the most successful program in the past century that has won every Big East championship since 1994 except 2002, 2003, and 2007. That’s called a dynasty. This experience likely also showed Elliott the importance (and challenge) of stringing together wins in the Big East. That had to be the goal each and every year for the Lady Bearcats. But her sophomore season saw the Bearcats regress. Cincinnati won just 2 conference games during that 2009-10 year on the way to a disappointing 9 – 20 record. That’s not exactly the direction most UC fans had expected and questions started to come up about how long she would last as head coach.
But Mike Thomas, unlike after two years will Hall, stuck it out with Elliott and thank goodness he did. This past season was the best during her tenure with Cincinnati. The Bearcats finished 16 – 16 and most importantly 6 games in the Big East. It doesn’t sound like much but this was the most conference wins in six years. In addition, UC was one of the hottest teams in the country down the stretch winning six of their final ten games. Finally, the Lady Bearcats beat Duquesne 68 – 63 in the WNIT for this first postseason wins in a decade.
By far the most encouraging sign from last season is that this team is graduating just two seniors. Don’t get me wrong, Bjonee Reaves and Chanel Chisholm will be missed. They did some amazing things this year and really sparked Cincinnati’s late season run. But the 2012-13 Lady Bearcats will return 10 players including, what will be, two seniors, five juniors, and three sophomores. It’s no question that returning so many players makes winning in the succeeding year that much easier. Just ask Butch Jones. The following statistics further show why I am excited about the future of this team. The 10 returning players accounted for 66% of the minutes played, 61% of the scoring, 72% of the rebounds, 59% of the steals, and 73% of the blocks. Of those 10, the most encouraging returnee is redshirt sophomore Dayeesha Hollins. She logged the 2nd most minutes this past season and lead the team in scoring with 14.8 points per game after transferring from Michigan. Coach Elliott will most certainly lean upon her to lead the team next year.
We will probably also see an expanded role from Alyesha Lovett. The former ESPNU 100 player was 5th in minutes played and 6th in scoring in 2011-12, both of which aren’t surprising for a true freshman. Speaking of recruiting, Coach Elliott again pulled in a solid class for next year. The headliner is 6’3″ forward Shelbi Chandler who is yet another future Bearcat from that Indianapolis pipeline. They just love us up there! Rounding out the class are Alexis Durley from Texas who has a number of high school awards to her name and Jasmine Whitfield who will bring some quick hands to UC next season.
Looking forward it’s clear Coach Elliott has laid a solid foundation at Cincinnati much like her fellow UC coach Mick Cronin on the men’s side. She brought a championship mindset to women’s basketball and it’s clear her players are buying into that. Finally she has a surplus of players who understand how to win and, most importantly, win in the Big East. The core has been building for quite some time. Now, Elliott is adding key pieces to improve the talent level of this team like Lovett and Chandler. The Lady Bearcats basketball program is obviously trending upward. Don’t you want to be a part of that ride? Get out to 5/3rd and support this team next season.