Elon University head women’s basketball coach Charlotte Smith knows that she is working with one of the smallest rosters in the country.
And she doesn’t seem to care, really only bringing one concern into the season about it.
“I love the number that we have,” Smith said. “12 players is a good number in making sure we get enough reps. My biggest concern is that we don’t burn them out, and making sure we get them rest.”
It’s a mindset that is shared across the team with Elon returning its top six players by minutes played from last year. Junior guard Shay Burnett feels as if the team has prepared for having a small roster size all offseason.
“I think it’s good that we have low numbers, because then everyone will get to play,” Burnett said. “We’re deep on the bench — we don’t have anybody that’s lower than anybody on the team. I think that, with having low numbers, we have to stay in shape. We’re a fast-paced team this year going up and down the court. We’re going to get after it with 12 players.”
There are certainly going to be challenges playing an entire season with just 12 players on the roster. One of the biggest aspects game-by-game will be staying out of foul trouble, something senior forward Jenifer Rhodes said Smith has focused on earlier this year.
“She’s definitely talked about that because we’re smaller in numbers this year,” Rhodes said. “We need to focus on keeping the more experienced players on the floor longer, especially because we have a couple of freshmen that need to be acclimated into the program.”
The four freshmen — guards Jada Graves, Lexi Mercer and Madison Wilder and forward Ra’Shika White — were able to acclimate with the Elon program earlier than usual thanks to the team’s trip to Italy in August. Smith called the experience a “blessing,” and Burnett and the other upperclassmen are doing what they can to help the freshmen along.
“The eight returners, we’re veterans,” Burnett said. “We have high expectations for getting them to trust the process with Coach Smith and we’ll help them along the way. Our eight upperclassmen really do help them and point out things to them. The coaches don’t have such a chaotic time with four of them that way.”
With the small roster will come a challenge to stay healthy, which Burnett feels the team has been able to do. Smith’s plan to address possible injuries is simply not to address them at all.
“We don’t focus on injuries, we don’t talk about injuries,” Smith said. “I try not to spend a lot of time in that area so they’re not developing some type of mental complex about that. We just talk about going hard every rep and focusing on being the best team we can be.
“Health? That’s in the hands of the master, not us. All we can do is concentrate on becoming a better team every day.”
Elon has a big chance to prove itself against top-level competition throughout its non-conference schedule, as the Phoenix will participate in the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament and face four Power-5 teams.
But this weekend —the first of the season — Elon will play three games in four days, playing two Preseason WNIT games Friday night and Sunday and then hosting Rutgers University of the Big Ten Conference at 5:30 p.m. Monday. Smith said she scheduled the Rutgers game before the Preseason WNIT invite came, which is, admittedly, not ideal.
“If I had to do it over, I would schedule the Rutgers game toward the middle of the week rather than that Monday, to give us more time to rest and focus in on the preseason WNIT,” Smith said. “But when we were announced as one of the potential teams for the preseason WNIT, I couldn’t turn that opportunity down. That’s a chance of a lifetime, and the program has never been in the preseason WNIT. You can’t turn it down. We’re just going to have to gut it up, suck it up and do the best that we can do.”
A few weeks later, Elon will also face three local Atlantic Coast Conference schools in a row, hosting Wake Forest University Nov. 26 before traveling to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Dec. 4 and to Duke University Dec. 6. Smith understands the difficulty of Elon’s schedule.
“With the seasoned team that we have, you want to challenge them,” Smith said. “I’m not worried about wins and losses, I’m just worried about being challenged, and I feel like our non-conference schedule will challenge us and prepare us for conference play.”
Rhodes added, “She definitely sees it as a challenge for us, but she knows we can do it and it will make us better in the long run, to get us ready for conference. I feel like she wants to push us now so we’re ready for the tough competition and play to the best of our ability once we get to conference. Playing these tough teams makes us look good in the postseason no matter the outcome.”
And in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), Elon was picked to finish second in the conference, earning two of 10 first-place votes. But as Smith and Rhodes both point out, Elon still hasn’t beaten Drexel, who the Phoenix is picked ahead of.
“It’s just the polls, and we’ve talked about not focusing on the polls, but focusing on the process,” Smith said. “If I’m a coach looking at it, we’ve not proven that we can beat Drexel, and we’re ranked higher than Drexel. We’ve got to earn it, and nothing is given. I’m grateful for the fact that coaches think highly of this team, but we’ve got to prove it everyday.”
And the other coaches think highly of Burnett too, as she was picked on the Preseason All-CAA First Team. After being on the All-CAA First Team last year, Burnett feels that she needs to continue to prove she’s earned that role.
“I feel a target on my back to do better than I did last year,” Burnett said. “I’m in the gym all the time, getting better every day. Since I am a preseason first-team pick, it puts a big target on my back. It’s actually an honor that they consider me as one of the best in the conference. I just got to show up and do my thing every game.”
If Burnett can do that — and if Elon can live up to, or even exceed, its preseason conference ranking — then Elon can achieve its goal of finishing its season in the NCAA tournament.
“The Big Dance — you win the conference championship, that’s where you go,” Smith said. “I’ve been a part of it for several years, so it’s an opportunity I’d love for the team to experience. The most important thing is continually focusing on the process and letting the chips fall where they may. If we win a conference championship, great, and if we don’t, at least we fall giving our best.”