NORMAN — Sherri Coale looked at her players in hindsight and realized that, a year ago, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
It was one of the youngest and inexperienced teams in women’s college basketball.
“They’re not having to think about breathing anymore,” said the Oklahoma coach. “When they’re freshmen, sometimes they have to remind themselves [how] to walk. There’s just so many things coming at you. They’re much more relaxed, more comfortable.”
At one point OU’s starting lineup consisted of four freshmen — Tatum Veitenheimer, Jessi Murcer, Taylor Robertson, Madi Williams — and sophomore Ana Llanusa. Two seniors who were available played sparingly and weren’t scoring threats.
The 2019-20 Sooners will begin the regular season Friday against Prairie View A&M (8 p.m., Lloyd Noble Center) in the Preseason WNIT without a senior on the roster. But they’re far more experienced than the group that went 8-22 last year.
Much of it starts with Llanusa, who returns as a clear-cut leader and offensive centerpiece. She ranked third in scoring (19.1 ppg) in Big 12 games last year and averaged 38 percent shooting from the field, 34 percent from 3-point range and 81 percent at the foul line while leading OU with 38 steals.
Those numbers figure to rise now that she’s recouped from a foot fracture that limited her at times a year ago.
“I think that during the offseason, she worked really hard to get better than she was last year — and you know, for the games that she played last year, she was [scoring well],” said Williams, who averaged 11.6 points and 8 rebounds. “I think that her motor in the offseason and her mentality was ‘I need to be better than that for my team.’ Ana is looking really good right now.”
Williams also noted that Mandy Simpson, a 6-1 junior forward, is a key figure on the floor.
“They they do a really good job of keeping us focused whenever we start to, you know, go all over the place with our young minds like we do,” Williams said.
OU’s trying to return to the right side of its tradition after snapping its streak of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Former Penn State head coach Coquese Washington and former Missouri State assistant Jackie Stiles joined the program after OU’s offseason staff shakeup.
The Sooners enter a new era using small offensive lineups, and after last year’s experimentation, that part has worked. OU was the Big 12’s third-best scoring team (72 points per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage (42.3 percent).
Earlier this week in a preseason game against Oklahoma City University, the Sooners scored 88 points despite 20 turnovers.
Robertson is arguably the nation’s top shooter, draining 225 3-pointers as a freshman for the program record. She ranked 12th nationally in 3s made.
Gathering more offensive rebounds — OU ranked sixth in the Big 12 last year — and playing better defense will define this year’s team.
“It’s obvious there’s been more retention [defensively],” Coale said. “We’re further along in terms of our defensive rotations and help, our understanding of spacing and movement off penetration.”
The 2018-19 Sooners were last in the league in key defensive categories: scoring defense (79.0 ppg), field-goal percentage defense (.430) and turnover margin (-4.0).
“I think understanding how to help and rotate is the biggest reflection of their growth,” Coale said. “Ana has the athleticism and the length to be a good on-ball defender. She's gotten a lot better. But I've seen improvement across the board.
“When Tatum wants to lock somebody down on the ball, she can definitely do it. We're getting better piece by piece. I think collectively, I've seen even greater progress than just pulling one kid out and saying this has become our stopper.”
The group could improve once 6-foot-2 freshman forward Liz Scott fully recovers from ACL surgery. The Tomball, Texas native was the nation’s No. 9 overall high school prospect last season.
Coale saw enough in Monday’s exhibition game to know she likes how this team plays.
“I really like our team,” she said. “I like how we compete.”
Prairie View A&M at Oklahoma
Time/Place: 8 p.m. | Lloyd Noble Center
Records/Rankings: OU (0-0); Prairie View A&M (0-0)
*OU projected starters: G 22 Ana Llanusa (6-0, Jr./18.3, 3.4 rpg); 4 G Kamryn Lemon (5-8, Jr./15.7 ppg, 3.8 apg); 30 G Taylor Robertson (5-7, So./14.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg); 25 G/F Madi Williams (6-0, So./11.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg); F Mandy Simpson (6-1, Jr./5.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
*PV projected starters: 5 G Shala Dobbins (5-6, Sr./14.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); 10 G Erin Willis (5-4, Sr./5.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg); 12 G Dominique Newman (5-7, Jr./8.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); 20 Ke’Asia Williams (5-9, Jr./5.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg); 24 F Artavia Ford (6-3, Sr./11.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Series: OU leads 8-0
Radio: KREF 99.3 FM; 1400 AM
* Last year's statistics