UNCASVILLE — They began perusing the rosters at the airport in Texas, continued studying on the flight to Connecticut and had the names of their future opponents memorized on the drive to the Mohegan Sun.
Keena Mays and Akil Simpson, the players representing Southern Methodist at the American Athletic Conference women's basketball media day Monday, were eager to know details about their new conference. And simply stepping foot inside an arena with players and coaches from fellow conference members wasn't enough.
SMU coach Rhonda Rompola said. “They're giddy right now. … This is exciting for us.”
Connecticut women's basketball fans might feel apprehensive about life in a new conference with new and seemingly inferior opponents, but incoming members such as SMU are — as Rompola says — giddy. The Mustangs have been solid during Rompola's 22 seasons on the bench, but the opportunity to join a conference that includes the likes of UConn is being viewed in Dallas as transformative.
Rompola, a New Jersey native who played at Old Dominion and SMU, has a career record of 401-263 while competing in the Southwest Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, and Conference USA. Her teams have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and five trips to the WNIT, including last season.
But the program is on the rise. Moody Coliseum, the on-campus home for Rompola's team and Larry Brown's men's program, is undergoing a $47 million renovation. The facility will re-open with a Jan. 4 doubleheader: UConn visiting the men's team, South Florida facing the women's team.
New building, new conference, new level of expectations.
“How can you not be fired up?” Rompola said.
SMU is coming off a 21-10 season and the Mustangs return four starters, led by Mays. The senior guard was named to the preseason All-Conference team after winning C-USA player of the year last season.
Mays, a transfer from Kansas, averaged 18.4 points while shooting 40 percent on three-pointers.
As last season wore on, Mays drew double and triple team coverage. Rompola expects the same level of attention this season, which will put more pressure on such players as Simpson (10.7 points) and Gabrielle Wilkins (6.0 points).
“We didn't have that many players that could bail her out [last year],” Rompola said. “This year I'm hoping that we have more players that are there to come to her rescue.”
SMU was picked to finish fifth in the preseason American coaches poll, behind former Big East programs UConn, Louisville, South Florida and Rutgers. So the Mustangs are perceived as the best of the newcomers.
And preparing for Geno Auriemma's team will be like preparing for a WNBA roster, Rompola said.
“I think this is a fantastic opportunity,” Rompola said. “Our kids know a number of the [UConn] players from Texas. I'm sure Geno will enjoy bringing his team down to Dallas because he recruits out of that area, so it's a win-win situation. … But when I talk about Connecticut to our kids, I say, ‘You've got a chance to play against the No. 1 team in the country, twice a year.' If you're an incoming player, you want the opportunity to play against a team like Connecticut. This is the best of the best in college basketball.”
The SMU roster is stacked with Texas natives — 12 of 13 are from the state — but transitioning to a new conference might provide exposure in some new territory. Rompola said The American's TV package alone will give the program a new level of exposure that wasn't available in C-USA.
Rompola compares her program's move to The American to a freshman joining an established program. She wants SMU to make a positive impact and contribute to the overall success of the new conference, just the way a freshman's goal is to impact a team.
“We want to be a good representative of this conference,” Rompola said. “That's a personal challenge for me.”
Taking On The Champ: SMU, Like Most New AAC Teams, Excited To Face UConn
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