Commentary

Players to watch as 2009-10 unfolds

Originally Published: November 11, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Sue Semrau has more wins to her credit than any other coach in the history of Florida State women's basketball. In fact, despite having been in Tallahassee for little more than a decade, she's just a few good seasons away from having more wins than all the other coaches in program history. At some point, that kind of tenure starts paying back success with interest.

[+] EnlargeLeonor Rodriguez
Reid Compton/Icon SMISpanish native Leonor Rodriguez must sit out Florida State's first 14 regular-season games.

When former Florida State players plying their trade in Spain relayed scouting reports back to the Panhandle about a young local phenom, Semrau was more than willing to reap the fringe benefits of an ever-expanding network of successful ex-Seminoles.

And while the basketball world must bide its time until January before getting a look at Seminoles freshman Leonor Rodriguez, the Spanish import should be worth the wait.

In a season littered with freshman talent, don't discount the international representative.

While it didn't generate quite the shock waves of Team USA's loss to Australia in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, a 90-86 loss for the United States against Spain in the Under-19 World Championship this past summer raised its share of eyebrows. Sharing the court opposite such names as Skylar Diggins, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Samantha Prahalis, Kelsey Bone and others, Rodriguez led all players in the game with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting. The United States subsequently earned a 16-point win in the championship game rematch in Thailand, but Rodriguez still scored 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting.

Semrau followed those results with somewhat divided loyalties, but it wasn't until Rodriguez arrived in the United States that she got her first in-person look at the 5-foot-10 guard. Beyond the shooting and ballhandling evident in the U-19 numbers, the coach recently said what impressed her most was the maturity with which Rodriguez carries herself. She's young, even by freshman norms, having turned 18 less than a month ago. But despite the hurdles of adjusting to college life in a second language and living in the United States for the first time, she's fitting in.

The same stroke of good fortune that first alerted the Seminoles to Rodriguez is the reason the freshman won't be able to take the court in a regular-season game until Jan. 3 against Temple. Growing up in the Canary Islands, closer to Morocco and Western Sahara in North Africa than mainland Spain, there weren't a bevy of high-level basketball opportunities from which to choose for a girl in Rodriguez's sneakers. She played as an amateur for a local club team, alongside players who were compensated. As a result, by NCAA ruling, she has to sit out the team's first 14 regular-season games.

The eligibility ruling did not apply to exhibition games, and like a movie trailer for a holiday blockbuster, Rodriguez teased Florida State fans during the team's unofficial opener. In 23 minutes against Valdosta State, she totaled eight points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. And given her recent arrival -- not to mention small frustrations like adjusting to the traveling interpretation in the American game -- the extra time to adjust could work in her favor.

The Seminoles are in good hands in the interim. Despite losing departed seniors Tanae Davis-Cain and Mara Freshour (and their 23.7 points per game last season), there are backcourt options with point guard Courtney Ward, Angel Gray, Christian Hunnicutt and wing Alysha Harvin, in addition to redshirt freshman Alexa DeLuzio, herself a player worth watching in her return from an ACL tear.

But when January rolls around, don't bet against Rodriguez making her presence felt in ACC country the way she already has from the Canary Islands to Thailand.

Five more players to watch

[+] EnlargeIfy Ibekwe
AP Photo/Tony AvelarIfy Ibekwe's school-record 11.6 rebounds per game last season led the Pac-10 and ranked sixth in the NCAA.

Erica Beverly, Hartford: Watching a lot of post players operate brings to mind the old urban legend about leading a horse up stairs, only to find it can't go back down them. The ball disappears down low, and you sit back and hope it ends up going through the net because it sure isn't going anywhere else useful. But watching skilled post players in action -- players like Jayne Appel and Courtney Paris before her -- is a reminder that the low block can be a two-way street. So it is with Hartford's Erica Beverly, one of the best mid-major posts.

Beverly's bread and butter seems to be what you expect from a post player. A knee injury cost her most of the 2007-08 season, and she averaged 11.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season as part of a terrific post partnership with Diana Delva. Her work on the boards was good for fourth in America East. But the traditional double-double stats are only the beginning of the story. Beverly also was the only player in the conference to rank in the top 15 in assists, steals and blocked shots.

Alexis Gray-Lawson, California: As loaded as Stanford is this season, the best guard in the Bay Area resides in Berkeley. In fact, if you want to talk territory, Alexis Gray-Lawson could make a reasonable case for herself as the best guard west of the Mississippi River. And for a Cal team in a state of flux after losing Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton to graduation and a number of players to transfer and adding a highly touted freshman class, that's a nice cornerstone to have anchoring the drive to remain Stanford's primary concern in the Pac-10.

Whereas "combo guard" is a label often applied to someone who doesn't own quite the right skills to play either backcourt position expertly, it's a fitting compliment for Gray-Lawson. She's been a plus 3-point shooter since she arrived, never shooting worse than 38 percent from behind the arc. She can get to the basket and score -- and has improved at the free-throw line every season. But she's also capable of distributing the ball, the past few seasons to post players who depended on it and now to freshmen whose growing pains should be eased by it.

[+] EnlargeGabriela Marginean
AP Photo/Matt YorkDrexel's Gabriela Marginean ranked third nationally with an average of 23.3 points per game last season.

Ify Ibekwe, Arizona: It's not clear whether rebuilding Arizona is quite ready to figure out the Pac-10 under second-year coach Niya Butts. What is increasingly clear is the league isn't going to figure out how to keep Wildcats forward Ify Ibekwe off the glass. The brightest spot in Arizona's 12-19 campaign last season, Ibekwe averaged 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds (she also accounted for 56 percent of her team's blocks and 25 percent of its steals).

And the 6-foot-2 junior forward isn't just beating up on smaller foes. In her first five career games against Stanford, Ibekwe averaged 13.2 points and 10.2 rebounds. For some frame of reference on that, Stanford allowed an opposing player to reach double-digit rebounds eight times last season; Ibekwe was responsible for two of them. Among the players who faced the Cardinal and didn't manage it: Chante Black, Devanei Hampton, Paris Johnson, Jantel Lavender, Kia Vaughn and Ashley Walker.

Melissa Jones, Baylor: At the top of the recruiting charts each year are the players who can do everything, those who make you marvel at the things they do. Fast forward a few seasons, and the most valuable players are often those who will do everything. Watching those individuals perform -- players like Baylor's Melissa Jones -- the prevailing emotion is less awe than guilt. If someone listed at 5-foot-10 -- or roughly the Baylor name across the front of teammate Brittney Griner's jersey -- can own one of the more significant all-court presences in the Big 12, what excuse do the rest of us have for our daily sloth?

Despite playing primarily off the bench after some early starts, Jones led the Bears in steals last season, ranked second in 3-pointers (first in 3-point accuracy) and third in rebounds, and was the only player other than point guard Kelli Griffin to finish with a positive assist-turnover ratio. There are science fiction novels with fewer dimensions. And when the team needed it most after Danielle Wilson's season-ending injury, Jones stepped up to average 9.8 points and 8.0 rebounds en route to a Big 12 tournament title, and 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games.

Gabriela Marginean, Drexel: No player on any team carried a bigger offensive burden last season than Gabriela Marginean. The 6-foot-1 forward ranked third nationally with an average of 23.3 points per game, and her output represented 38 percent of Drexel's points last season. In one memorable effort against Bucknell, she scored 33 points in a 44-35 win. By comparison, Middle Tennessee State's Alysha Clark (27.5 ppg) and James Madison's Dawn Evans (23.8 ppg) accounted for 36 percent and 31 percent of their teams' totals, respectively.

A Romanian, Marginean is the secretary general of Drexel's United Nations roster (she's one of five Europeans, all representing different nations). And opponents might be well advised to try some diplomacy on defense rather than taking up arms against her. Not only did she nearly lead the nation in free throw attempts last season, averaging more than eight trips to the line per game, but she ranked seventh nationally in free throw percentage at 89.7 percent. In three seasons, she has missed just 63 of 569 free throws.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.