Over the weekend France will be the first major league in Europe which will tip off it’s season. They’ll do at the Open LFB – fans will be able to see all fourteen teams at one place - Stade Pierre de Coubertin – over two days.
With France coming off a silver medal performance in the Olympics, the interest in women’s basketball appears to be very record high. The organizers have announced that all tickets for the first day have been sold out while for Sunday there are only a couple dozens remaining. Stadium capacity is listed at 4835.
When we last left the LFB, Bourges Basket were crowned the league champions, but they were stunned by Arras in the French Cup final. Lyon and Nice were set to leave LFB while Toulouse and Perpignan were promoted to LFB. Since then we, unfortunately, saw third placed Challes-les-Eaux withdraw their pro basketball team, which allowed Lyon to remain in the top league.
Newly promoted Perpignan has adjusted their roster accordingly. Half of the LF2 winning squad is gone and is replaced by quality local players and foreigners. Their top scorer (13.3 PPG) and rebounder (9.6 RPG) last season – center Helena Ciak – is returning, as is another French NT candidate forward Pauline Lo. Joining them from last year’s team will be guards Fatou Dieng, Clementine Samson and Isabelle Strunc and forward Laina Badiane. American guard Angie Bjorklund is mainly a threat from outside, Australian NT power forward Abby Bishop has outgrown Australian league, Iva Ciglar will easily be among the top five point guards playing in France next season. This certainly doesn’t look like a team that’s going to have to worry about relegation.
Other promoted team, Toulouse, doesn’t look that good on paper. The team is mostly comprised of very young players. The oldest player on the team is 27 year old Julie Legopil who has had some international club experience with Mondeville. Next in line are three foreigners who are or will be 25 this year – American post players Carrem Gay and Demetress Adams and Serbian wing Adrijana Knezevic. Lithuanian point guard Inesa Visgaudaite is still inexperienced and turnover prone. With the overall lack of experience you can expect that to be a recurring theme with Toulouse this season.
Lyon were all but leaving French top league until Challes-les-Eaux went down. They not only got a lucky spot in LFB, but also most of their players who carried the team to third place regular season finish. Expect Mistie Mims to be among the leading players for Lyon as she was with Challes, though expectations should be lowered as she will join the team in anywhere between two to four weeks due to her WNBA commitments. Under a new coach – Laurent Buffard – there should be some time for her to get accustomed to new surroundings. Other players joining her from Challes are Sara Chevaugeon, Danielle Page, Alexia Plagnard, Melanie Plust, Emilija Podrug and Romy Bar. Remaining with the team is veteran French wing Audrey Sauret and one of team’s top rebounders last season Mame-Marie Sy Diop who can be relied upon to score in double digits on nightly basis.
Aix-en-Provence narrowly escaped relegation last year. This year they continue to look for help from Australian players – before last season they had signed Natalie Hurst and Elyse Penaluna (Penaluna didn’t play for the team due to a knee injury). This year they continue the tradition by bringing in Aussie post players Cayla Francis and Marianna Tolo. Both Aussies will be aided by two Canadian NT members – Shona Thorburn and Lizanne Murphy. Of local players there’s not much – guard Sylvie Gruszczynski is really the only one that might ring a bell. Overall there doesn’t appear to much improvement from last year’s roster.
Arras were really a mediocre team throughout the season until they, not without luck, defeated Bourges in French Cup final to earn themselves a place in EuroLeague Women for which they don’t really have the roster, but we’ll leave that for ELW preview. The roster overall is overhauled from last season with Krissy Bade being the only returning player who played for most of the last season. Leilani Mitchell has been replaced with Dawn Evans which seems like a downgrade. Posts Astan Dabo and Kateryna Dorogobuzova are inexperienced and raw, but they’ll get to play under mentorship of 36 year old veteran Sandra Dijon. Third young post Olesia Malashenko will start the season injured and will be replaced by Ines Ajanovic who’s not likely to light up France. Arguably the top signing for Arras has been guard Johanne Gomis (not to be mistaken with Emilie Gomis who lit it up for France in the Olympics). Outside of the aging Dijon, Gomis has the best pedigree among all the new signings.
Expect Villeneuve d’Ascq to have many eyes from around the world to be following them. Mainly that’s due to young Belgian post Emma Meesseman who will be WNBA draft eligible in 2013 and who has already a deal with Sparta&K lined up after her two seasons with Villeneuve d’Ascq end. Notable signings for Villeneuve didn’t end there. They also signed seventh leading scorer in LFB last season – American guard Lenae Williams to ease the blow of departed Emilie Gomis. They were able to re-sign the other leading scorer and rebounder from last season Olayinka Sanni. Also joining the team next season will be forward from Bourges Basket Jennifer Digbeu and Slovenian international who had a good showing in EuroLeague Women Final Eight – Sandra Prsic. Overall this team appears to be loaded down the middle, but appears to be very questionable at the guard spots. There’s certainly no one of the level of Kathy Wambe who left during the offseason.
Charleville-Mezieres is a team which seems to have taken a step sideways. Zoi Dimitrakou and Valeriya Berezhynska have left the team while Sheanna Mosch and Aurelie Bonnan have joined it. Bonnan isn’t much of an upgrade inside over Berezhynska, while Mosch, who was LFB’s top scorer in 2008, is past her prime. Intriguing addition to the team is Senegalese center Aminata Diop who has been a force inside for Nantes.
Basket Landes belongs among the interesting teams. First off they’ve brought back a double-double averaging American center Jennifer Humphrey and ~10 PPG averaging wings Marion Laborde and Anais Le Gluher. Like that wasn’t enough they’ve also added Tamara Abalde who averaged more than 10 PPG’s in Aix, Carmen Guzman – a wing who averaged more than 20 points in EuroCup Women and Kamila Stepanova who also scored in double digits in ECW. Then there is European U18′s MVP Olivia Epoupa and her teammate Valeriane Ayayi from that championship winning team.
All hopes in Nantes will lie upon the shoulders of three 30+ year olds – center Bernadette Ngoyisa, who has missed last two season due to blown knee and pregnancy, Belorussian wing Tatyana Troina, who just had her best summer with the Belorussian NT, and French point guard Caroline Aubert, who will very likely be on top of the league in assists, yet again. Then they’ve added a couple of complementary players – Marielle Amant from Bourges and Viktoriya Mircheva from Prague who will join their previous complimentary players Yuliya Andreyeva and Sarah Michel. This team will likely, yet again be in the top half of the league if they remain healthy.
Hainaut Basket lost their three of their top four scorers from last season – Amisha Carter (18.3 ppg), Petra Stampalija (13.6 ppg) and Marina Solopova (9.4 ppg). Only Ashley Houts who averaged 9.8 ppg returns. None of the three replacements seem like being able replace or even improve on their predecessor’s production. Steffany Murphy isn’t going to average 18&10 in France, Vera Perostyska was a backup in Greece. Of the three Romina Ciappina could be the most adequate replacement, which is helped by an underwhelming season by Marina Solopova last season.
Tarbes will be looking to forget previous season as soon as possible – from challengers to Bourges they took a heavy drop, going winless in EuroLeague Women and barely scraping fifth place in France, heck, they were one appeal away from dropping down to the second league. Only three players from that team are returning – Naura El Gargati, Charlotte Preiss and Paoline Salagnac. Of the three Salagnac has been the most influential with 13 points per game. Spanish PG Gabriella Ocete is supposed to orchestrate the team on offense while American post Angelica Robinson will be looking to continue to play at a double-double per game pace. While the signing of Lauren Ervin appears to be questionable, the ones of Jovana Rad and Joyce Cousseins-Smith aren’t. Overall this Tarbes team should be in the top half, but it’s still not likely to challenge for a place in ELW next season.
For Mondeville there’s almost no roster overturn. Only new signings are American forward Amanda Lassiter, young French guard Aminata Konate and Swedish guard Binta Drammeh to replace the injured Touty Gandega. Hard to predict what Lassiter will be able to do, but Konate will improve the team at perimeter which already is pretty solid for LFB with the likes of KB Sharp and Ingrid Tanqueray. What could be troubling for Mondeville is lack of post depth – they have two posts over 190cm – Giedre Paugaite and Naignouma Coulibaly and two smaller swing forwards who can play the three and the four – Laetitia Kamba and the previously mentioned Lassiter. While this is a very good roster for France, this team will have issues in EuroLeague Women.
With Sandra Dijon and Stephany Skrba leaving Montpellier, the French league runner-ups will be relying heavily on the young French post Ana Cata-Chitiga. While undoubtedly talented, this will be one of the biggest tests of her young career. Signing of Cata-Chitiga is eclipsed by the one of Emilie Gomis. Gomis, league’s fourth leading scorer last season, had a spectacular showing this summer in the London Olympic games, helping France to a silver. Both of these new signings will be joined be returning double digit averaging players like Fatimatou Sacko, Edwige Lawson-Wade, Ana Lelas and Kristen Mann, though Mann is still some ways away from fully recovering and playing so she will be replaced by Geraldine Robert for time being. Just with the signing of Gomis, Montpellier have strengthened their position in the top two in France, but will they be able to challenge Bourges?
Only if the defending champions are burdened by injuries would be the likely answer. Not only have Bourges kept their top local and foreign players, they’ve actually improved elsewhere. The duo of Frida Eldebrink and Stephany Skrba is a step up from Kiesha Brown and Ieva Kublina. Zoi Dimitrakou is more than adequate replacement for Styliani Kaltsidou while she recovers from her torn ACL. Departure of Digbeu and Amant will give Christelle Diallo some valuable minutes. Bourges seem so loaded on the wings that even the 6 week loss of Cathy Joens shouldn’t hurt them much if any with the likes of Dimitrakou, Eldebrink, Krawczyk, Dumerc on the wings, not even mentioning her replacement Simona Ballardini. Bourges are the undoubted top favorites to win their third consecutive championship and twelfth in team’s history.