Way-Too-Early 2023-2024 Preview, Part 1–The Gopher Women

Minnesota’s signature basketball teams are of course the Gophers and the Timberwolves and the Lynx–the only teams designated by the name Minnesota without hyphens or other qualifiers or apologies. And, of these four teams, the one I’m most excited about is the Gopher women. That’s in part because I’m convinced that coach Dawn Plitzuweit will be the best coach the women have had since Brenda Freese. But, wait. I don’t like that comparison. It hits a little close to home, seeing as how Brenda stayed here in Minnesota for all of one season. (And, uh, that’s what Plitzuweit did at West Virginia just before coming here.) But that’s all the more reason that she’s not going anywhere. Besides, she is coming home. Her roots in Wisconsin and South Dakota surround Minnesota. I think in fact that 20 years from now we will say she was the best Gopher women’s coach since Ellen Mosher, who first put the Gopher women on the map in the late 1970s.

The second reason I’m bullish on the Gopher women and on coach Plitzuweit is because of Amaya Battle, Maria Braun, Mallory Heyer and Niamaya Holloway, coach Lindsay Whalen’s celebrated recruiting class of 2022 who proved that, yeah, some Minnesotans want to play for the Gophers. And, not only did they commit to come here, they stayed through the coaching change, something that you don’t see much in this era where some players are more loyal to their shoe salesmen than their schools. Now, the loss of 6-2 post Ayanna Micheaux to the transfer portal doesn’t help. She was tough and hard-working and effective if inconsistent, but she was also just a sophomore. So that doesn’t help. And the loss of guard Katie Borowicz to injury doesn’t help. But compared to a possible defection among the nucleus of Battle, Braun, Heyer and Holloway, well, it doesn’t help, but it’s not a disaster such as Ben Johnson watched unfold when he took over as the Gophers men’s coach.

And, in addition, three other returnees–6-0 guard Maggie Czinano, 6-5 post Sophie Hart and 6-1 post Aminata Zie–represent more good news.

And, then, in addition to that comes news of a recruiting class that may be comparable to that Minnesota Four of a year ago,

• Grace Grocholski, from Kettle Moraine HS in North Prairie, WI, is a 5-10 wing, rated #98 nationally, who averaged 25 points, 9 boards and 3 assists as a high school junior.

• Ayianna “AJ Johnson, of Jefferson, WI, a 6-3 post-forward who averaged 17 and 11 last year. Hey, the Badgers may have beaten the Gophers twice this year, but these Wisconsin girls know that the long-term upside in Minneapolis is a lot greater than in Madison.

• McKynnlie Dalan, of Montsano, WA, a 6-1 forward who went 21 and 16.

• Kennedy Klick, of Maple Grove, MN (see, some Minnesota kids want to play at the U!), a quick 5-11 guard who scored 12 ppg last year. She was rated #5 among Minnesota’s seniors this year.

• Ajok Madol, of Regina, Saskatchewan, and Archbishop MC O’Neill Catholic HS, who scored 35 of her team’s 61 points in last spring’s regional final and who has played with the Canadian national junior team.

• Brynn Senden, from Wayzata, MN, a 5-6 guard who scored 10 ppg this past year.

I would guess that the top 3 will be in the rotation almost from the get-go, depending in part on the unknown upside of Hart and Zie in the paint. The other 3 may take a little longer, though Klick in particular reminds me of Czinano. I wasn’t that high on Czinano coming out of high school, but she has become a valuable contributor, even a sometimes starter. Klick could do the same in time.

We know what to expect from Battle, Braun, Heyer and Czinano, I think. Another question mark is Holloman, who missed her entire freshman season to injury. The question is not whether she can play if healthy, the question is whether she will be ready to go 100 percent. She is a 6-0 power forward who can dominate a game with her defense and rebounding. I once picked her as MVP of a high school game in which she scored one point in the 2nd half. Heyer is taller at 6-1, but if you had these 5 returnees out on the court, Holloman would be your post and that might be a heavy lift for a 6-0 freshman. Thus the upside of Sophie Hart and/or the readiness of AJ Johnson becomes a big deal. But with Battle and Holloman out there, you’ve got the makings of a solid defense, and with Braun and Heyer out there, you’ve got the start of a good offense. But, obviously, coach Plitzuweit is going to earn her keep this fall putting the rest of the pieces together.

They’re not going to be a .500 team but they’ll be improved. 4-14 in the conference last year? Doubling those 4 wins might be too much to ask but 7 sounds about right. I don’t know who’s on the non-conference schedule but I’ll just say they’ll be a little better and they win one Big 10 tournament game for a total record of 16-15. So, yeah, they’re a .500 team after all. Just not in the Big 10.

But that’s momentum, and it comes just in time to start corraling more Minnesota girls to come and play in the Barn and to create more momentum. And by year 3, it will be NCAA tournament time, in time for Battle and Braun and Heyer and Holloman to really cash in on what they’ve started.