As this women's basketball season neared, San Diego State Coach Earnest Riggins had an uneasy feeling, the kind you get when your car begins to slide on a slick highway.
There were so many directions his team could take. The Aztecs could once again be a conference, or even national, power. Or they could remain mediocre.
The guards controlled SDSU's direction.
Riggins expected to have a menacing front line with Chana Perry (6-feet 4-inches), Jessica Haynes (6-0) and Brooke Meadows (6-4). But for them to be effective, the Aztecs needed strong guards to direct the offense.
A week before the season began, Riggins said: "I think we have our program back on track . . . but it will depend on how well we synchronize together and how well our guards play."
The three with the most potential also presented the most questions.
Fifth-year senior Sheri Edmonds never had been a starter. Redshirt freshman Dee-Dee Davis had potential but no Division I experience. Freshman Kim Wilson, a top high school player from Alabama, seemed to have the most promise.
"But a freshman is a freshman," Riggins said. "When we put all three of them together, it presents a big, big question mark."
Riggins predicted that by January, his guards "will have a true test of their ability . . . and we will be able to make a true assessment of where we are."
January is here. And the guards are still the central question.
They are shooting 23%, a signal for defenses to back off and double-team Perry, a physical inside player considered to be one of the nation's best centers, and Haynes, a first-team all-Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. player last year as a sophomore. Perry is averaging 25.1 points, Haynes 20.3.
"We are depending too much on our stars and not concentrating on our shots," said Davis, speaking for the guards. "I'm not confident in myself yet; I'm not confident in what I can do. I'm too busy trying to put the burden on someone else and not wanting to handle the pressure."
Davis has been a regular starter and averages five points per game. Edmonds now starts at wing in place of Meadows, occasionally alternating back to guard, and is averaging 3.9. Wilson is still adjusting to college and averaging just 0.3. Sophomore Alison Smith took Edmonds' place as a backcourt starter and is scoring 7.6 points per game.
Meadows, a dominant inside player last season when Perry was redshirting, is still out-producing all of the team's guards (8.6 points per game) despite a shaky transition to a reserve role.
"I want the guards to realize that we have an inside game but still be aware of the fact that when they have the shot, take it," Riggins said. "You can't be indecisive about putting up the jump shot, because then it will never fall for you. You have to have the confidence in yourself to know that when you get ready to pull the trigger, boom, it's going to fall."
Said Smith: "For a while there, I think I just totally forgot about shooting and just started passing it inside almost every time I could. We have to be able to take the shots when they are there and not force it inside all of the time."
There has been some improvement since opening losses to Houston and Maine--both of which, Riggins said, could partially be blamed on inconsistent guard play. The Aztecs are 12-3 and 4-1 in the PCAA. Tonight, they play host to No. 19 Nevada Las Vegas in what Riggins says is their most important game of the season to this point.
"If our guards play well and hold up for us, we think we can win this ballgame," Riggins said. "If we can get some scoring out of our guards, we think we can win the ballgame."
Said Perry: "He expects a lot from them, because 95% of the time, they will have the basketball, and they need to be the leader on the court."
But the guards say they are still building the confidence to be court leaders.
"We are waiting for someone to initially take the leadership role," Edmonds said. "We need someone who is going to come out and say, 'Hey let's do this or that,' and be strong and positive about it. I think we are waiting on each other on who will take charge."
Said Davis: "We are about three-quarters of the way to where we should be. In the backcourt, we have to mature. That is the one-fourth that is really missing, the maturity of the guards to make the right decisions at the right times."
Meadows, a junior who averaged 10.9 points per game last season when she filled the role now occupied by Perry, has also been something of a question mark. She was moved to forward this season, and it was not a smooth transition. But since she started coming off the bench behind Edmonds, she has been scoring regularly in double figures.
"I really don't know my role this year as well as I did last year," Meadows said. "I'm kind of letting Chana and Jessica do a lot of the work, and I should be in there working hard. I don't look for the ball as much as I used to, and I don't look to score like I used to because I think the other players are looking to (Perry and Haynes) and not me.
"But that's a mistake because, of course, they have to look at me, too. It's true though, if I pulled off my part, we would be a lot better. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't."
Perry and Haynes have been doing their parts.
Last week against San Jose State, Haynes set a school record with 24 rebounds and scored 34 points. She was named PCAA player of the week for her performance. And Perry is in the midst of a free-throw shooting streak--she has hit 16 in a row and had a string of 26 before missing against UC Irvine three weeks ago.
"We think our front line is there," Riggins said. "When we come out and play well (with the guards) we are going to be head and shoulders above most teams."