Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant talks about the Spartans' challenging schedule. Geoff Robinson, Detroit News
East Lansing — The Michigan State women’s basketball team is coming off its 13th appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the last 15 years, but this year’s squad has a different feel after losing a star player to the WNBA for the second consecutive year.
Tori Jankoska averaged 22.6 points per game last season for the Spartans on her way to being selected ninth overall by Chicago Sky in the WNBA Draft. In 2016, Aerial Powers went fifth overall, and these departures have left coach Suzy Merchant to wonder if a more team-centric approach can lead to continued success.
“When you lose prolific players, people put a lot of stake into just one person,” Merchant said. “As good as they were, I think this team top to bottom, is as deep as I’ve ever had.”
The starting point for this year’s team will be sixth-year senior guard Branndais Agee, who has battled injuries throughout her collegiate career but still believes she has the talent to play at the next level.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, Agee, a Detroit Cass Tech product, had told everyone in the program she would be leaving for the pros. Come mid-winter, she had a change of heart.
“I have more to give,” Agee said. “It wasn’t a hard decision. I just had to sit down and think about it, and when (Merchant) told me she would allow me to come back for a sixth year, I decided to take it.
“This is the first year I’ve been healthy and able to work on my game all summer. I think that we have a very good team, a lot of people that can contribute. I don’t think it’ll all be on me.”
Agee averaged 11.7 points per game in 2015-16 and 10 points last season after missing her freshman and sophomore campaigns with ACL and knee injuries.
Michigan State guard Taryn McCutcheon talks about the Spartans' balance and making up for the loss of Tori Jankoska. Geoff Robinson, Detroit News
“I think she’s ready to put her stamp on the program and prove herself on a national level,” Merchant said.
Senior forward Taya Reimer (9.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) is back to anchor a strong frontcourt for the Spartans that will also feature highly touted freshman Sidney Cooks.
Cooks, a five-star recruit from Wisconsin, doesn’t seem to be in over her head, according to Merchant.
“She’s talented and she brings a lot feistiness,” Merchant said. “I’m really impressed with her IQ for the game. For a lot of high school kids, the pace can be a lot to handle, but she’s picked up everything well.”
Sophomore guard Taryn McCutcheon, who set a program record for assists by a freshman last season, is also back.
McCutcheon (seven points, 5.1 assists) burst onto the scene and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors, starting all 33 games as a true freshman. Her development could go a long way for the Spartans, who are priding themselves on a balanced attack following the departure of All-American Jankoska.
“(Jankoska) is one of those players you can’t make up with one person,” McCutcheon said. “But the biggest thing this year is how balanced and how deep we are. We have so many players that can score and pass. It’s exciting seeing how our game is going to change. At any time, anybody can go off for 20 points.”
The Spartans will find out how good they are early on in the non-conference portion of the schedule, as a trip to the PK80 Invitational in Oregon has them paired with perennial powerhouse UConn.
Also on the docket is a trip to South Bend to take on the Fighting Irish. Those two schools finished in the top two spots of the Associated Press poll prior to last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.