Ranked No. 9 in the nation in the preseason Associated Press poll, the Louisville women's basketball team could be set for a special season. The Cardinals return four of five starters from last season and add two veterans returning from injuries and a trio of talented freshmen.
Coach Jeff Walz can see what this team could become, but he's more focused right now on getting all his players back on the court.
"If we can get healthy, I like our chances," he said. "Tia Gibbs has not stepped on the practice court, Asia Taylor has not stepped on the practice court.... We are at a situation right now where we are going to have to mask some things and get through the first half of the season and hopefully by December be able to get Tia and Asia back. Once we do that, we have depth we need to make a run in March."
Gibbs, a likely starter when she returns, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury four minutes into last season.
"Yeah, Tia's had everything," Walz said. "I have paid more bills on that child than I could have ever thought possible. She has a new shoulder, hip, a shoulder done twice and a hip flexor. The one thing that I will say about Tia is that if she can play, she is going to play. There is no question about that. My big concern with her is that we don't make her do something that will affect her 15 years from now ... and I cross my fingers that we can get her back by December to play."
Taylor spends time each practice riding on a bike on the sideline.
"Asia also has a hip injury; she had surgery in July and she has been released to run and do basketball things with no contact," Walz said. "So she can do some practice, but I am going to hopefully get her back by Thanksgiving. If not, hopefully she can go the first week of December."
In addition to Gibbs and Taylor, former All-Big East forward Monique Reid is still recovering from a knee injury, 6-foot-3 freshman post Cortnee Walton is recovering from a stress fracture in her foot, and several other players are recovering from minor bumps and bruises. Reid has returned but her minutes are limited, and Walton should return in the first few weeks of the season.
Once all his players are healthy, Walz believes this is a team capable of making a big postseason run.
"I think that the strength of our team this year is going to be the experience factor," he said. "I'm really excited. We had to throw a lot of freshmen into the fire last year and let them learn as they were going through games. Now with a lot of experience under their belts, I am seeing a lot of improvement from Sara Hammond and Bria Smith, and Shoni Shimmel has gotten better. So now I am just really excited to know that we have some experience and that they are ready for what's going to be thrown at them."
Louisville also returns one of the nation's most exciting players in Schimmel, a 5-10 All-Big East junior guard. She led the Cards in scoring (14.1 ppg), assists (4.7) and steals (2.4) last season. She was a unanimous selection for the Preseason All-Big East first team in a poll of league coaches.
"(She will) make plays where you're like, 'What kind of pass was that!'" Walz said. "Then she's going to come down and the floor and make three or four where you'll say, 'Wow, that's unbelievable. How she can see that?'"
With Gibbs, Taylor and Walton out of the lineup and Reid limited, the Cardinals will start the season with Schimmel at point guard, 5-10 sophomore Bria Smith, a former McDonald's All-American, at shooting guard, and the rest is up for debate.
"Megan (Deines, a 6-1 freshman guard) right now is going to see significant minutes for us at the wing," Walz said. "With her length and ability to handle the basketball, she is going to have to come in and contribute. She has shown that she can do that at this point in time, but I am going to expect some ups and downs like you normally have from freshmen."
Sophomore power forward Hammond (6-2) has transformed her body through off-season conditioning and is considered the strongest player on the team.
"Sara has done a great job," Walz said. "She has worked so hard. Her, Bria, and Megan have spent more time in the gym than I have ever seen in my five years of coaching here. Those three really committed themselves in improving their game. And Sara, she is in as good of shape as she is ever going to be in and she has more confidence now."
Sheronne Vails, a 6-4 junior center, started 26 games last season and likely will start in the post this season as well.
Louisville opens the season with No. 15/12 Texas A&M in a game that will make national headlines. The Aggies are expected to be one of the best teams in the Big 12 - second to last season's undefeated national champion Baylor - but they open the season with No. 9 Louisville, No. 8 Penn State and No. 2 Connecticut.