Alex Harden runs and jumps better than most women’s basketball players in the Missouri Valley Conference. Her background as a sprinter and jumper in track and field shows up when she hits the open court with the basketball.
Basketball is also a game played in small spaces, and it is in those tight configurations that Wichita State coach Jody Adams sees improvement in Harden. She led WSU in points (11.7), rebounds (5.0), assists (3.6) and steals (1.6) as a sophomore. She earned All-MVC and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Six seniors are gone from the 2013 team that played in WSU’s first NCAA Tournament and Harden’s importance grows. Adams said summer workouts are demonstrating that Harden can maximize her versatility.
“She can play all positions,” Adams said. “She is now beginning to understand what she can do.”
Harden’s speed makes her effective going coast to coast. Adams sees improvement in her footwork and ball-handling. Those skills will help her defeat defenses in the half court when a quick, controlled move is needed.
“She’s getting her feet underneath her,” Adams said. “Basketball players, if you’re going to be good, your feet are underneath you. She has that track speed from rim to rim.”
Harden, a 5-foot-11 forward from Springfield, Ill., worked on keeping the ball close to the body while dribbling.
“Just being able to know when I can extend it and when not to,” she said. “If I extend my arms and get the ball out there, it’s easier for a (defender) to come get it. So it’s playing in smaller spaces, while still being explosive.”
Keep it up — Those six seniors — led by All-MVC guard Jessica Diamond — departed knowing they accomplished something no other Shocker will. They helped build the program from the bottom of the MVC to regular-season and tournament champion. Adams and her coaches spent the offseason trying to prevent slippage with a roster that contains one senior —Michelle Price.
“I met with our (returning) upperclassmen to talk about what they wanted to do and who they were to this program to see if they had a true understanding of what just happened,” Adams said. “The only ones who know that are the ones that just graduated. They understand what they went through to change the environment.”
The players graded themselves on skills, physical toughness and mental toughness. Did they want to be average or better? How do they get there?
“Mental toughness — we’re kind of hesitant when we’re average and worry about things,” Adams said. “We want to get past that. We want to be confident and be the aggressor. Fearless.”
A week away from the team encouraged Adams.
“When I came back and I ran the same drills, it was a night and day difference in a great way,” she said. “Our upperclassmen … they’ve done a really nice job of teaching, even though they’re still young and learning.”
The returners wanted to show the eight newcomers how the Shockers perform in the weight room, practices and pickup games.
“We told them how it is, how we do it the Shocker way,” sophomore Michaela Dapprich said. “It’s intense. We like to push the ball, get up and down, and make teams uncomfortable.”
Summer is also a time for individual improvement. Dapprich, who averaged 7.7 points last season in a reserve role, improved her left hand and her mid-range shooting. Harden wanted to the newcomers to understand the importance of making the most of every minute in the gym.
“They’re coming in with the program being at the highest it’s ever been,” she said. “The biggest thing for them is to always work hard … and then just improve a little thing about their game every day, every time they go in the gym. If they keep improving, it’s going to be easier to go against competition.”
Dwight of the Rockies — Harden and teammate Allie Decker spent part of their summer break in Aspen, Colo., where they bumped into Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.
Harden and Decker went to get ice cream. They saw Howard shopping at the Polo store.
“I didn’t know what to say; I just took a picture with him,” Harden said. “He was real nice. It’s always good to run into a star.”
On the move — Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball endured a tumultuous offseason, low-lighted by the departure of two key players.
• Newcomer of the Year Janae Smith, a senior forward, quit at Illinois State after averaging 13.6 points and 8.0 rebounds. She told the Pantagraph that differences with new coach Barb Smith caused her to leave the team in early August.
• Bradley dismissed junior guard Shronda Butts from the team earlier this month after she was arrested after she allegedly struck a teammate. Butts averaged 12.1 points and led Bradley with an average of 3.6 assists.
• Smith, a former assistant at Saint Louis and Minnesota, is one of four new coaches in the MVC. Missouri State hired Kellie Harper, former coach at North Carolina State and Western Carolina. She added former MSU star Jackie Stiles as an assistant. Southern Illinois hired Cindy Stein, who coached at Missouri and Emporia State. Loyola, itself a new MVC member, hired three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes in April. Her only coaching experience is as an assistant in high school.
Worth noting —WSU released its cross country schedule with an opening race in the Butler Community College Triangular in El Dorado on Aug. 31. The Shockers play host to the JK Gold Classic on Sept. 7 in Augusta.… Fourteen men and 14 women athletes will join the track and field program this fall. The women’s recruiting class includes two-time NJCAA 10,000-meter champion Ebeissa Nywandi from Iowa Central Community College and Wellington’s Megan Campbell, who won the Class 4A 100 and 200. The men’s recruits include Class 3A long and triple jump champion Hunter Veith of Cheney and Garden City’s Jonathan Duvall, who won the Class 6A 110 and 300 hurdles.… Guillermo de Vilchez and Jocelyn Devilliers signed with WSU’s men’s tennis team and will play this fall. De Vilchez, a junior, is a transfer from South Florida. The Shockers open the season on Sept. 13 at the Midland (Texas) Fall Invitational.