Photo by Gerald Castillo
Texas State 'excited' to tip off season at Preseason WNIT
Zenarae Antoine is excited.
That's not really surprising. Of course she’s excited.
But no, she is excited. The head coach spoke for four and a half minutes during her opening statement at the Texas State basketball media day on Oct. 25. She said 989 words. They couldn’t come out of her mouth quick enough.
“I’m sorry,” she explained. “I spoke really, really fast. Normally, I don’t. But …”
She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. Of those 989 words, she said “excited” or some version of it 14 times. If you take out the necessary conjunction and determiner words, “really” was tied with “excited” for the words she used most often. As in Antoine is “really excited.”
Look at this quote:
“I’m really excited. We start off right away, it’s really an exciting opportunity to be invited to the preseason (Women’s National Invitational Tournament). For our program, it’s a reward for the success that we’ve had. And so, we start off on the road right away at The Pit, which is an awesome venue. I don’t know how many people have been there, but I’m really excited. I’ve been there as a student athlete before and I can’t tell you how exciting that is to play in The Pit.”
She said “excited” four times in the span of six sentences. And that was about the venue for a preseason game. Antoine is that excited about the least exciting thing on the list of things to be excited about this season.
This is the top of the list:
1. The Bobcats were pretty darn good last year
The head coach didn’t want to reminisce about 2017-18.
“I think the high of last year kind of wore off for me during the summer because we obviously have a lot of new student-athletes who are coming in,” Antoine said.
But it’s important to recognize the strides the Bobcats have made the last few seasons. Texas State was a sub-.500 team in 2015-16, finishing the year at 12-19 overall and 7-13 in the Sun Belt. The team made progress in 2016-17, going 16-15 and 11-7, but still got bounced in the first round of the conference tournament by No. 5 seed Louisiana.
Last year’s squad broke through, though. The Bobcats went 23-10 and 14-4, picked up Texas State’s first conference tournament win since 2003, came up one point short of winning the Sun Belt title and made the team’s first appearance in the WNIT tournament since 2011.
It was a historic season, and one that Antoine believes she can build on.
2. They could be better this year
When Texas State was voted third in this year’s Sun Belt preseason poll, it marked a significant difference from seasons past. The Bobcats were ranked sixth in 2016’s poll and fifth in 2017’s.
But this year, the conference recognized just how good the team might be.
“That’s just a nod of respect coming from your colleagues,” Antoine said. “I appreciate that because, you know, for quite some time we’re always picked kind of middle of the pack. But, really and truly, as we all know, these preseason picks of any nature are really just the resume of what you’ve done in the past. And right now, we have to continue to work pretty tough, pretty hard on the hardwood.”
Antoine’s recruiting class includes four freshmen in guard Ja’Kayla Bowie, forward Da’Nasia Hood, center Jaeda Reed and guard Kennedy Taylor. The head coach also added one junior college transfer in junior forward Jazza Johns, who won the NJCAA Division I Region XI Player of the Year award as a member of Iowa Western Community College last year.
“When you recruit kids who may not have big stat numbers, but they know the work that it takes to win a state championship, to maybe be MVP, that’s important to the recruiting culture,” Antoine said.
The five newcomers will join seven returners to make up this season’s roster.
3. More guards could crack the rotation
Antoine likes to keep her lineups tight, and went two deep off the bench in most games last year.
But three of Texas State’s starters and another regular contributor graduated in the spring, leaving over 3,500 minutes up for grabs in the rotation.
“I will tell you I have some other players that I’m excited about to see how things shake out for us once we get rolling in conference play, to see if they’re going to be able to garner some of the same kind of respect,” Antoine said.
The head coach said freshman guard Kennedy Taylor and junior guard Bailey Holle both have a shot at earning the starting point guard spot. The former has yet to play in a game, while the latter averaged 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game last season. But senior guard Toshua Leavitt expects both to be able to find a role within the team.
“Bailey, I think she’s stepped up a lot,” Leavitt said. “I think she’s proven that she’s going to hustle for the team, no matter what, she’s going to play hard for the team no matter what. And also (Kennedy Taylor). I feel like she’s proved she’s going to play hard for the team as well. And she’s going to be a big help for us.”
4. Bobcats’ bigs will provide balance
Texas State’s coaches are desperately trying to get Jaeda Reed up to speed.
The freshman center blew Antoine away the first time the head coach went to watch her play.
“She’s about my height, she’s a big kid,” Antoine said. “She literally had two girls hanging on her arm and still was able to finish.”
Reed’s continued to flash her talent inside during practice, scoring “left and right” on the Bobcats’ male scout team. Her ability to score in the paint already has Antoine comparing her to former Texas State post Ashley Ezeh.
“Once she gets used to what we do, we’re going to have a real inside presence, which should really help balance our game out quite a bit so there isn’t as much of a focal point on our guard play,” Antoine said. “Some of the things we do, we haven’t done since the Ashley Ezeh era, (when) we had Ashley Ezeh and Diamond Ford.”
Junior forward Jazza Johns and redshirt senior forward Zandra Emanuel should round out the frontcourt for the Bobcats. It will be Johns’ first season at a Division I school after transferring from junior college and Emanuel’s first time playing since suffering a torn ACL on Jan. 11.
5. Toshua Leavitt and Brooke Holle are back
With the wall now gone at Strahan Arena, Antoine was worried her top two shooters might struggle with the change in depth perception. She looked up how senior guard Toshua Leavitt and junior guard Brooke Holle shot on different courts, home and away.
“It didn’t really matter,’ Antoine said. “It really hasn’t changed (Leavitt’s) shot, whatsoever. And Brooke’s as well, since we played … I know coaching so many great shooters over time, sometimes it does make a difference now, the depth perception of the wall being down. But I think for them, it’s just more fun to see more fans in the stands.”
Leavitt and Holle are Texas State’s only returning starters and both reached career high last season in points and 3-pointers made.
Leavitt passed up the previous NCAA record for most triples in a season with 137 and knocked down a nation-leading 4.4 treys per game at a .427 percent clip. Holle became lethal from deep, too, nearly doubling her percentage up to .363 on 57 makes.
The pair are constantly trying to make each other better, and will now be tasked with leading the rest of the team to another successful season.
“Me and Brooke, we’ve talked a lot about how we have to step up for the team this year because we are going to be the two main scorers, probably,” Leavitt said. “And we’re always try to get in the gym together at least once a week or twice a week and shoot just extra to try to get the chemistry better for us.”
The conference rewarded them for their efforts, naming Leavitt to the preseason All-Sun Belt first team and Holle to the third team. If the Bobcats are able to draw some attention under the basket, it could open up more looks from deep for the snipers.
“If we do a good job, executing our offense, you’re going to have to make a choice,” Antoine said. “You’re either going to guard Toshua, or you’re going to guard the inside game. Because you’re not going to be able to have both if we execute.”
Texas State will tip off the start of its "exciting" year on the road in the first round of the 2018 Preseason WNIT on Friday against New Mexico at 8 p.m.