CHICAGO – A season ago, the University of Chicago women's basketball team won 19 games, made its first NCAA Division III Tournament in five seasons, and upset a Top 10 team in the tourney's first round.
Sixth-year head coach Carissa Sain Knoche knows that kind of success isn't easy to repeat – but that doesn't mean a squad chock full of returners isn't going to compete for a chance at another national berth.
"Each team and season is different and unique," Sain Knoche said of her team, which graduated three key players from 2016-17, including perhaps the offensive glue in First-Team All-University Athletic Association forward Britta Nordstrom.
"To not account for that discredits the impact the seniors had, the impact the first-years could have, and the development of the current players. What I love about this team, so far, is that they are very willing to compete."
That competitive fire is needed in the Maroons' up-tempo style of play, both offensively and defensively. In a year that saw UChicago finish 19-8 overall against one of the toughest schedules in NCAA Division III, the Maroons set new school records for steals in a season (340), field goal attempts in a season (1,730), points in a game (113) and three-pointers in a game (15).
UChicago went 11-3 in UAA play to finish in second and defeated six nationally-ranked teams, including a 67-63, NCAA First Round upset of No. 8 Wartburg. That number was nearly seven, too, as the Maroons came just four points short in knocking off then-undefeated and No. 2 St. Thomas (Minn.), who would advance to the Final Four.
A bright spot in the win over Wartburg was the performance of now sophomore Miranda Burt, who poured in a career-high 23 points on 8-of-12 from the floor, including 5-of-6 from downtown. She was later named both the UAA's and D3Hoops.com's Rookie of the Year.
She joins fellow all-UAA honorable mention selection and junior forward Olariche Obi (9.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) along with seven letter winners, five first-years and sophomore sharp-shooter Nireet Dhillon, who missed last year with an injury, on a team looking to find its own identity.
"In some ways, we are young and inexperienced, in others we are old and wise," Sain Knoche added about her team, which includes two seniors in Madison Dunbar (18 starts) and Elizabeth Nye, who started 10 games in 2016-17.
"Beth and Madie have played a lot of minutes for us over the course of their careers and they've been a part of three very different teams. Their leadership and connection with this team will be critical in our success, as it always is with seniors.
"We have a monster start to our schedule, but it's a long season – the goal for this group is to become the best team they can be by Feb. 24 – and then we'll see if that can get us any bonus basketball."
The Maroons enter the season ranked No. 22 and No. 25 in the preseason D3Hoops.com and Women's Basketball Coaches Association polls, respectively, but will face No. 25 Illinois Wesleyan (Nov. 18 and three teams receiving votes in the preseason poll in Rose-Hulman (Nov. 21) Wheaton (Nov. 29) and (RV) St. Norbert (Dec. 20) in the first six weeks of the season before heading into ever-challenging UAA play in January.
In the UAA preseason poll, UChicago was picked to finish second in the conference standings, just behind No. 21 Rochester and ahead of No. 10 Washington-St. Louis.
"It will be fun to watch this group forge their own future," Sain Knoche said. "There's certainly a lot of unknown that they're taking on, but they are excited and ready for the challenge. That's one of the fun parts of having a relatively young team: they are resilient, tough, and up for any challenge."
UChicago kicks off the season Wednesday, Nov. 15, with a nonleague contest at Lake Forest College. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. CT.