UPDATE: My answers to his questions here.
I was fortunate enough to be able to get together with "cmadler" of the Eastern Michigan Eagles' blog Eagle Totem to do a Q&A in anticipation of the Lady Gamecocks' return to March Madness, where they'll take on the Eastern Michigan in the first round. Here are his answers to my questions. I'll link my answers to his when they go up.
1. Tell us a little bit about EMU women's basketball. What kind of history do you have, what kind of season did you have this year, what are some of your traditions, etc.?
The EMU women's basketball team began in January, 1977, and for the next 25 years, was mediocre at best. There were some talented players during that time, most notably Laurie Byrd, who played from 1978-1982 and held the EMU career basketball scoring record (men and women) for more than 30 years, but as a team they never achieved much. They had 11 straight losing seasons from 1987 to 1998, with the worst being a 1-24 season in 1993-94.
In 1998, Suzy Merchant was hired as the head coach, and the turnaround was remarkable. In Merchant's 8 years, the team had a losing record just once, and in her final three full years (Merchant missed most of the 2006-07 season on maternity leave) the Eagles posted a cumulative 67-23 record, winning the division twice, the MAC tournament once, and making two WNIT appearances and one NCAA tournament appearance.
In 2007, Merchant left EMU to become the head coach at Michigan State, and Michigan State assistant coach AnnMarie Gilbert came to Ypsilanti. With the exception of a very bad rebuilding year in 2008-09, the team
has continued to win under Gilbert, notching another divisional title in 2008 and taking the team to the WNIT in 2010 and 2011.
Losing five seniors, three of them starters, from the 2010-11 team, I expected this to be a rebuilding season, and for a while it seemed as though it might be. They went through a particularly rough stretch from December into early January, going 3-5. But just as they hit the beginning of MAC play, something seemed to click for the team, and since then they've gone 15-2.
2. South Carolina lives and dies by the play of its guards, Iesia Walker and La'Keisha Sutton. What are EMU's strengths, and how do you see the Eagles matching up against South Carolina?
EMU has excellent guards -- senior shooting guard Tavelyn James is #2 in the nation with 24.2 points per game, trailing only Delaware's Elena Delle Donne -- but they also get great play from the forwards, senior Paige Redditt (10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds per game) and sophomore Olivia Fouty (8.7 points, 8.2 rebounds per game). So positionally, the Eagles are fairly well balanced. They tend to play at a reasonably fast game, averaging 72.8 possessions per 40 minutes, they force a lot of turnovers, and they're at their best in transition.
3. Who will the key player for EMU be in this game? Why?
The obvious answer is James. She's been in a bit of a shooting slump for the last 3 1/2 games. At halftime of the Senior Day game against Ball State, James had 22 points, and despite playing almost the entire game, she had just one point in the second half. Over the three games since then she's shot 32% overall and 29% from behind the arc, compared to her season averages of 41% and 32% respectively. If James can get back to her old self, EMU could go several rounds into the tournament. In addition to James, Redditt, Fouty, and especially wing Natachia Watkins are all capable of putting up some points.
4. Prediction. How will this game go down, and who will win?
EMU is going to give the Gamecocks all they can handle, and possibly more than they expect from a 12 seed. The keys for EMU will be tempo, turnovers, and Tavelyn: they need to keep things moving up and down the court, to continue to force turnovers and cash in on the easy points they offer, and get James out of her shooting slump. If they can do all three, the Eagles have a shot at what would be the biggest win in program history.