#HLWBB Starting Five: Smart Cookies Edition

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Welcome to the Starting Five, your rundown of the key stories in #HLWBB from the past…however long it took to come up with five stories since the previous Starting Five.

1. HL sets the grading curve

Let’s start with academics, something that rarely gets to start. Well, let me clarify; academics rarely get to start with fans or media (or whatever weird combination of both I am). But they’re clearly front and center for those within HLWBB programs, since once again, the conference dominated the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Academic Top 25 for 2022-23.

Specifically, HL schools had four of the top 25 team grade point averages in NCAA Division I, led by Robert Morris in the top spot nationally with a 3.807. Green Bay (sixth, 3.758), Youngstown State (12th, 3.695) and Purdue Fort Wayne (19th, 3.596) followed closely after. Additionally, Cleveland State and Milwaukee received “special mention” recognition for placing outside of the top 25, but still collectively clearing 3.000.

That announcement dropping four days after Julie Roe Lach, the conference’s commissioner, took her seat on the WBCA board made me smirk a little, but it’s not like there’s any subjectivity in the selection process. Besides, the HL does this pretty much every year. In 2021-22, Robert Morris and Green Bay both placed in the top five, while Youngstown State continued a run that now stretches to 12 top 25 finishes over 13 years. RMU, meanwhile, has finished in the top four for an incredible seven seasons in a row.

2. Dons to battle Iowa in early highlight of schedule release season

Purdue Fort Wayne clearly has book smarts, but it seems like they have street smarts too. While Cleveland State will play Caitlin Clark, the biggest name in women’s basketball (some other people will be playing for Iowa too, probably), before a sellout crowd in Clark’s hometown of Des Moines, IA in December, the Dons are doing it in Estero, FL as part of the Clean Simple Eats Gulf Coast Showcase over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a tough enough assignment without cranking every single slider all the way up, so that’s a pretty solid maneuver in my book. Kansas State, North Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast, Western Kentucky, Vermont and Delaware will also be at the tournament, so the opportunity certainly exists for them to see multiple high-profile opponents while in Florida.

Unfortunately, butter Caitlin Clark will not be playing in those games

While I joke about PFW getting Iowa in a more favorable setting than Cleveland State, the Dons definitely haven’t messed around with their schedule during the Maria Marchesano era, including games against Maryland and Notre Dame over the last couple years. Someone should tell them that Penn State pays guarantees too.

Elsewhere, Green Bay became the first Horizon League team to release its 2023-24 non-conference schedule on Wednesday, followed quickly by Detroit Mercy on Thursday. The Phoenix will spend Thanksgiving with their own set of spotlight games against UMass, Maryland, and Washington State at the Cancun Challenge. The slate also includes teams like Northern Iowa, Creighton and DePaul (but notably not Green Bay’s until-now annual win against Wisconsin), so if the Phoenix can navigate that thing well enough, it’s certainly going to grab some at-large looks, should they need them. UDM didn’t aim for quite that degree of difficulty, but back-to-back trips to Butler (which includes a bunch of former IUPUI players and coaches, of course) and Michigan State on November 12th and 16th are certainly a worthy measuring stick.

3. More Titan-ic subs

You might think that it’s a bit late to add players for the 2023-24 season, and you’d be right, but Detroit Mercy doesn’t really care what you or I think (unless “you” is someone from UDM reading this, in which case, hi). Anyway, the Titans added guards Cydney Rivera and Madiala Diabate on Wednesday before uttering the magic words: “finalize the 2023-24 roster.”

Both players are rather well traveled. Diabate is from France, in fact, but has spent most of her recent life in the U.S., thanks to attending Long Island Lutheran High School, followed by single-season juco stops at Gulf Coast State College and Georgia Highlands College. Rivera has played for both Towson and Pepperdine at the DI level, sandwiching a juco season at Collin College. It’s definitely a stopgap solution to cycle through players who have already chewed through a good chunk of their eligibility and also hard to sustain that sort of volume long term, but at the same time, grabbing some quick experience and production is something that’s worked pretty well for UDM over these last couple seasons of rebuilding.

Meanwhile, the Titans also recently received a 2024 commitment from Maya Anderson, a local kid from Cass Tech High School and an athletic point guard who should be an immediate difference maker next year. It’s always hard to get a good read on UDM’s roster ahead of the season, let alone for 2024 and beyond (they’re perhaps second in the conference only to Robert Morris in that regard), but with young pieces like Amaya Burch and Myonna Hooper in place, it seems like there’s something of substance developing in Calihan Hall.

4. This place about to GLO

The Global Women’s Basketball Association (GWBA) sort of occupies an interesting place in the universe as a tiny semi-professional summer circuit that’s usually had four or six midwestern-based teams throughout its eight-year existence. It’s largely an afterthought in the galaxy of post-collegiate playing options for both players and observers and treated as something to do during the offseason between other stops, though that’s probably not entirely fair given that the league is mostly populated with former DI players, making it certifiably good ball.

One team in the GWBA, the Wisconsin GLO (which is based in Oshkosh) has a particularly strong connection to the Horizon League as a repository for several conference alumnae — mostly from Green Bay, though Cleveland State grad Cori Coleman played there last year while former Vikings coach Kate Peterson Abiad ran the bench.

This season, former Phoenix players Laken James, Julie Wojta and Frankie Wurtz helped the GLO to a typically-strong season for the organization, culminating in a 104-97 overtime win against the defending champion Flint Monarchs in the league’s title game on Sunday. James, who will play this winter in Scotland with the Caledonia Gladiators, scored 19 points in the final while Wojta, the 2022 GWBA MVP with a decade of pro experience under her belt (including in the WNBA), rejoined the roster for the playoffs to help push the GLO over the top.

5. FIBA-minded

If you remember how I recently woke up at 3 AM on a weekday to watch live stats from World University Games — to be clear, not a video of the game, just a text play-by-play — scroll across my screen, you know that I love international events. There’s just something about it, and Wright State’s Catalina Ion can probably describe it better than I can after competing for (and in) Romania at the FIBA U20 European Championship, Division B between July 28th and August 6th.

Ion, who is entering her sophomore year with the Raiders, was one of the driving forces behind the hosts’ fifth-place finish at the tournament, as she averaged 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds over six games. She was named player of the game after a group stage trouncing of Georgia thanks to 16 points, eight rebounds and five steals in just 22:13 on the court, but was a consistent presence throughout thanks to her unique blend of size, defense, and finishing ability.

Romania ultimately went 2-1 in their group before being eliminated by eventual silver medalist Germany in the quarterfinals. However, they rallied to defeat Norway and Iceland in consolation games to wrap up a solid week and a half with a 4-2 record. In the fifth-place match against Iceland, Ion once again demonstrated her well-rounded game. Romania never trailed after her go-ahead three in the first quarter, and she wound up with 11 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

Offseason success like Ion has experienced can often be a predictor of things to follow once NCAA games resume, so look for her to possibly enjoy a breakout 2023-24.

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