Duo will make sure Marist stays on track
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Shadows don't come much bigger than the one cast by Rik Smits, the 7-foot-4 center who starred at Marist College before spending more than a decade with the NBA's Indiana Pacers.
The Red Foxes haven't been back to the NCAA tournament on the men's side since the Dutch star left this town that sits a short trip up the Hudson River from the former New Amsterdam, team after team failing to escape his shadow, even as players passed under the banner that bears his number above one of the entrances to the court inside the McCann Center.
It's not always easy to walk in a legend's shoes, even if those kicks are slightly smaller than Smits' size 20s.
Rachele Fitz's number already occupies its own place of prominence. The three-time MAAC player of the year wrapped up her career as the program's all-time leader in points and rebounds and as part of four NCAA tournament teams. But as much as Fitz was the player who defined an era for a program, Marist was familiar with the NCAA tournament before the 6-foot forward arrived on campus.
So perhaps it's worth noting that coach Brian Giorgis doesn't much sound like a man trying to talk himself into believing the present possibilities when discussing life after Fitz.
"She's not coming through the door anytime soon," Giorgis joked. "Especially from the Ukraine [where she's playing professionally], it would be really hard to get her here."
Fitz's shadow might be long, but Erica Allenspach and Corielle Yarde are ready to step out of it and keep the Red Foxes entrenched as a tough out in the MAAC and beyond come March.
Now a senior, Allenspach was a regular starter by the second month of her freshman season, an expression of faith in both her skill and composure on Giorgis' part that few before her earned (she started more games as a freshman than Fitz, for one). The MAAC preseason player of the year this season, she is the obvious successor as the face of the team. That's just about the only role the 5-foot-8 guard didn't master in her first three seasons.
"She's never been a limelight kid," Giorgis said. "With always having Rachele there, she could always do her thing and let Rachele get all the accolades and stuff like that. And she was fine with it."
There is ample tangible evidence of Allenspach's ability to stand on her own as one of the nation's hidden gems. She led the team in assists last season, despite not being the primary ball handler, and ranked 14th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She fell five 3-pointers short of the cutoff for 3-point percentage nationally (hitting 59 in 32 games) but would have ranked 19th in that category had she qualified. And for all the passing and outside shooting, she got to the free-throw line four times per game, averaged better than four rebounds per game and led the team in steals. Had Giorgis asked, Allenspach probably would have driven the bus.
"She still does one thing as good as anybody I've ever seen in our conference, which is make good decisions," Giorgis said. "I don't know if she's the best player in our league, but she's the most complete player."
But like so many special players, it's the nuances more than the numbers that make her stand out. Playing her first college game as a freshman on the road at Ohio State, an hour and a half from her hometown of Miamisburg, Ohio, Allenspach scored 12 points without a turnover in 28 minutes off the bench. In a preseason scrimmage in October, her team cruised to a double-digit advantage in the first of four quarters. She switched teams and her new team cruised to a double-digit edge in the second quarter. You don't necessarily notice her piling up highlights; things just seem to work out well when she's in there.
"There's something about Erica," Yarde said. "She can get the floater over anybody at any time. She's a great 3-point shooter, a great passer -- just sees everyone on the floor. She's just so much fun to play with. I don't think I've ever played with anyone like her before."
At the same time asking Allenspach to be Fitz would be to take away some of what makes the former unique. Her scoring average will presumably climb a bit from last season's 12.9 points per game, but she's probably not going to put up the 18 points a game Fitz did. Which is where Yarde comes in. Actually, it's only one of the places Yarde -- who was third on the team in assists, second in steals and averaged 6.1 rebounds per game -- comes in. But in addition to an ability to heap praise on her teammate, the junior has the potential to be a top-tier scorer in her own right.
Yarde reached 30 points twice last season, including 32 on the road at Boston University. She can score off the dribble, skills honed in her driveway against a younger brother both bigger and fraternally merciless, or from behind the 3-point line. If you haven't seen Marist play, picture a slightly smaller version of Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes.
"To me, I want her to be the break-down kid, somebody who can just break it down and then make a good decision," Giorgis said.
In other words, she doesn't need to be the next Fitz; she and Allenspach will do just fine casting their own shadows.
Other players to watch
Xavier's Amber Harris and Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot prove you don't need to come from one of the big six conferences to contend for first-team All-America honors, but they aren't alone in excelling. While neither comprehensive nor ranked, here are 10 more players, in addition to Allenspach and Yarde, who are worth seeking out this season.
Devon Brown, Liberty: She made a strong first impression as a redshirt freshman, scoring 26 points in each of her first two games for the Flames. But it was the parting impression she left with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting against Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament that offered the strongest hint that Brown bears watching this season and beyond. The 5-10 Brown made a habit of showing up in big games, scoring 24 points on 9-of-15 shots to help her team knock off top-seeded Gardner-Webb in the Big South tournament final and putting up 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting in a narrow 70-64 loss against Auburn early in the season. And it's not just scoring; Brown ranked third in the conference at 8.2 rebounds per game.
Casey Garrison, Missouri State: Let's take a minute to list all the returning players who averaged at least 19 points and five assists per game last season. There's Garrison and we're done. Use the remaining 58 seconds of that minute as you see fit. We didn't even get to ask how many members of that same club also led their team in rebounds, as Garrison did at better than seven per game. She was also just the third sophomore to be named Missouri Valley Conference player of the year. The first two, Jackie Stiles (for whom the award is now named) and Illinois State's Kristi Cirone, went on to win it three times in a row. As the best player on the team picked to win the league this season, Garrison has a chance to inch closer to joining the club.
Megan Herbert, Central Arkansas: Gender-specific nicknames generally sound like something best left in a previous decade (the Lady Vols get a lifetime exemption), but Sugar Bears is a heck of a lot catchier than Bears when it comes to the University of Central Arkansas. And it's not just the nickname that catches the eye, not with the kind of freshman season Herbert put together. While listed as an inch shy of 6 feet, Herbert posted 23 consecutive double-doubles last season and totaled 27 in 29 games. All told, she averaged 21.8 points and 13.8 rebounds per game (including 36 points and 18 rebounds against Conference USA's Tulsa) for the newest members of the Southland Conference, which the former NAIA and NCAA Division II school joined in 2006.
Kristen McCarthy, Temple: Not many players had better nights last season than McCarthy had against Charlotte. In front of the Owls' second-biggest crowd of the season, McCarthy finished with 42 points and 11 rebounds. The rest of the season wasn't quite that spectacular for the California native, but it was a rousing success by any other measure. Like most of the players on this list, and unlike much of the rest of the basketball populace, McCarthy does at least a little bit of everything and does it all well. She's a good rebounder and defender who also shoots the ball well from behind the 3-point line and gets to the free-throw line. And despite leading the Owls with 450 field-goal attempts last season, she turned over the ball just 66 times in 1,082 minutes.
Lauren Prochaska, Bowling Green: She's the Meryl Streep of college basketball -- nobody does more with a line in front of her. The two-time MAC player of the year shot 44.9 percent from the 3-point line (eighth nationally) and 89.9 percent from the free-throw line (fifth nationally), scoring 427 of her 609 points from one or the other line. She plays with a long-limbed, almost languid, elegance that obscures and at the same time enhances her athleticism. She led the Falcons in rebounding at 5.7 per game last season and blocked almost a shot per game.
Katelan Redmon, Gonzaga: Redmon came out of Washington in the same high school class as Courtney Vandersloot and Angie Bjorklund. Her path has been slightly more roundabout, but she has an opportunity this season to attain the same sort of national profile as those two familiar faces. A complementary piece to Vandersloot, Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson in her first season with the Bulldogs (after sitting out the previous season following a transfer from the University of Washington), Redmon nonetheless showed regular flashes of being more than that. She scored 18 points against North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 19 points against Washington in the regular season and averaged 11 points per game, despite playing just 21.7 minutes per game.
Chastity Reed, Arkansas-Little Rock: Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark posted numbers staggering even by the standards of a statistical lineage in Murfreesboro that included All-Americans Chrissy Givens and Amber Holt. So it tells you all you need to know about Reed that it wasn't ever entirely clear that Clark was the Sun Belt's best player. Now Clark has moved on, but Reed remains and makes the Trojans a team with potential well beyond the league. As scorers with size go, the 6-foot-1 Reed is one of just three returning players 6-feet or taller who averaged at least 20 points per game last season. The other two? Jantel Lavender and Elena Delle Done. That's pretty good company.
Naama Shafir, Toledo: Israel's Shafir is a rival for Porchaska as the best player in the MAC and for TCU's Helena Sverrisdottir on the list of college basketball's best imports. Now a junior, she has started every game of her career for the Rockets, but she emerged last season as a point guard on par with the best in the country. She ranked third nationally at 6.7 assists per game, behind only Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot and Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis. Aggressive off the dribble, she also got to the free-throw line 200 times, something neither of those two All-Americans managed last season. In fact, Shafir and former Oklahoma State star Andrea Riley were the only two players to accumulate both 200 assists and 200 free-throw attempts.
Courtney Taylor, Houston: It says something of the impressive variety when a person is named conference's player of the year without even leading her own team in scoring, especially when the player in question isn't a point guard churning out assists or a center blocking shots by the bushel. But Conference USA seems entirely convinced of the 6-foot forward's value. She has been on the league's all-defensive teams in each of the past two seasons, and last season averaged 10 rebounds, two steals and a block per game. And it's not as though Taylor, whose 15 points per game trailed Brittney Scott for the Cougars, is an offensive cipher.
Julie Wojta, Green Bay: The Phoenix have a trio of players worth putting on this list, but Wojta (that's pronounced "White-Uh" for those who don't speak Wisconsin) is the one most in need of mainstream discovery. The junior forward is George Harrison to teammates Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag's John and Paul. All she did last season was shoot 50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from the 3-point line, 80 percent from the free-throw line and rank second on the team in rebounding, assists, blocks, steals and scoring. For someone her teammates seem to universally describe as a neat freak, she has a penchant for making a mess of box scores.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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Get ready for 2010-11 with ESPN.com's women's college basketball preview.
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Thursday, Nov. 11• Voepel: Summitt optimistic at Tennessee
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Tuesday, Nov. 9• Voepel: Coach G's Texas-sized task
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