There’s a simple way — if you dare — to fire up LeAnn Freeland.
Just suggest to the Nova Southeastern women’s basketball coach that last season’s 24-7 record, a ranking as high as No. 3 in the nation and a second-round exit in the Division II NCAA Tournament was a “step down” for the Sharks.
“From a coaching standpoint, it was still a great season,” she said. “We had great team chemistry. I would never say it was a step down in any regard.”
Yes, even though she got married on a yacht in July — she now goes by Freeland-Curry — and is still in the honeymoon phase of her life, she is no less intense when it comes to basketball.
But — sorry — Freeland-Curry is, in a sense, a victim of her own success. She led NSU to the Elite Eight, Final Four and Elite Eight in the three years prior to last season.
She surely spoiled Sharks fans, who are hoping for another deep NCAA tournament run in 2017.
But a word of caution against those higher expectations: NSU graduated Sunshine State Conference Defensive Player of the Year Monaye Merritt, a tenacious point guard.
That was an expected loss. A bigger problem, perhaps, is the loss of junior forward Kayla Wright, who will likely redshirt this season due to nagging leg injuries.
The hope for the Sharks is that fifth-year senior guard Taylor Buie, who averaged 15.1 points as a sophomore, is all the way back. She missed the 2014-2015 season due to a knee injury and then returned last season, averaging 13.3 points.
If she has her old explosiveness, that should spark the Sharks.
Either way, though, Freeland, who’s in her sixth year at NSU, has earned respect for what she has accomplished here.
In the past four years, the Sharks are a perfect 4-for-4 in conference titles, 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament berths.
Similar to Freeland at NSU, men’s basketball coach Butch Estes has been highly successful with the NCAA Division II Barry Bucs.
In fact, there are a lot of correlations between the two coaches. Freeland went 17-11 in her first year at NSU. Estes went 19-9; with his team finishing fourth in the nation in assists.
Freeland’s second year was better, making the Elite Eight. But Estes’ second year wasn’t bad, finishing 25-6 and making the round of 32. Barry ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, handing eventual national champion Florida Southern its only loss.
In Year Three, Freeland got to the Final Four. In Estes’ third year, which happened last season, Barry went 26-7 and made the Elite Eight.
That was, without question, the greatest season in Barry basketball history.
But what can Barry do for an encore? Can the Bucs continue to ascend? Or will there be a fall-off now that perhaps the greatest player in program history, Yunio Barrueta, has graduated and is playing pro ball in Belgium.
Barrueta, a 6-6 forward, broke the school rebounding and scoring records and was named an All-American, the South Region MVP and the Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year.
Graduation took away Barrueta’s 24.4 points and 9.3 rebounds as well as the shooting of guard Anders Haas (second-leading scorer, 12.8 points) and center Tray Leonard (second-leading rebounder at 9.1 and fourth-leading scorer at 11.4).
Leonard had the first triple-double in Barry history, and the Bucs also graduated “glue” forward Undra Mitchem, who averaged 10.2 points.
But, even so, the Bucs are still ranked 19th nationally in the preseason poll.
The key returnees are 6-0 junior point guard Elvar Fridriksson, who led the nation in assists (8.1 average); and senior wing forward Adrian Gonzalez, who averaged 11.5 points. But what makes Gonzalez special is that he is nearly unstoppable attacking the rim, making 60.7 percent of his shots last season.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger this year,” Estes said of the 6-5, 225-pound Gonzalez. “He has improved defensively.”
Look for 5-9 senior guard Arie Williams, who averaged 8.0 points last season and made 39.4 percent on three-pointers, to have an expanded role.
Other players to watch include 6-11 junior center Theo Turner from England, 6-7 sophomore forward Marko Tomic from Serbia and 6-8 sophomore forward Daniel Mortensen.
The Glick brothers — sophomore guards Sawyer and Kooper from Indiana — and freshman point guard David Moya of Plantation will compete for playing time as Estes figures out his rotation.
Estes said he wants to make sure his players don’t get complacent because of Barry’s recent success.
“Sometimes players don’t assess their opponents properly,” Estes said. “But winning helps you in recruiting. We’ve become a very attractive place, especially for Division I transfers.”
Small schools basketball preview
ASA COLLEGE MIAMI: Coach: Jean Dubisson; Last season: 3-27; Top players: Lawrence Barnes (6-4, So. G); Raven Owen Jr. (6-0, So. G); Alex Thomas (6-7, So. F); Dextor Foster (6-5, So. G); Noteworthy: ASA, a second-year junior college program, signed Owen, a transfer from Division I Canisius. Thomas ranked third in JC ball with 3.4 blocks per game. Dextor Foster averaged 10 points last season.
BARRY: Coach: Butch Estes; Last season: 26-7 overall, 12-4 Sunshine State Conference; Top players: Elvar Fridricksson (6-0, Jr. PG); Adrian Gonzalez (6-5, Sr., F); Arie Williams (5-9, Sr., G); Noteworthy: The Bucs won the South Region title and advanced to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
BROWARD COLLEGE: Coach: Bob Starkman; Last season: 19-13, 8-7; Top players: Justin Goode (6-3, So., SG); Jayvian De La Cruz (6-5, So., W); Jaron Cornish (5-8, So., PG); Noteworthy: Goode transferred from Rutgers. Cruz missed last season with a shoulder injury after making all-conference in 2015. The team lost Deandre Turner (signed with Iona) and Joe Lopez (signed with Sacred Heart).
FLORIDA MEMORIAL: Coach: Artis Maddox; Last season: 10-19; Top players: Travis Mitchell (6-0, So. PG); Andre Braziel (5-8, Jr., PG); Rodney Bethel (5-11, So., G); Noteworthy: FMU, which improved by seven wins from the previous season, returns five players, mostly guards, and is ranked seventh in nine-team league.
JOHNSON & WALES: Coach: David Graham; Last season: 18-11, Sun Conference semifinals; Top players: Ricardo Suarez (6-4, Sr. F); Gino Fils Aime (6-3, Jr. SG); TJ Johnson (5-11, Sr. PG); Noteworthy: JWU returns three starters after beating four top-25 NAIA teams. Suarez was first-team all-conference and led team in scoring and rebounding. JWU is ranked fifth in nine-team league.
MIAMI DADE COLLEGE: Coach: Kevin Ledoux; Last season: 16-15; Top players: Marko Krivacevic (6-9, So., F); Victor Sanchez (6-2, So., PG); Darnell Dunn (6-6, So., F); Noteworthy: Ledoux, an MDC assistant the past three years, replaces Stephen Cowherd as coach. This is the first head-coaching job in the career of Ledoux, 46.
NOVA SOUTHEASTERN: Coach: Gary Tuell; Last season: 11-16, 6-10 SSC; Top players: Harrison Goodrick (6-9, Sr., F/C); Troy Spears (6-4, Jr. G/F); Dwayne Gibson (6-5, So., G/F); Noteworthy: Tuell, in his 30th year as a college head coach, will step down after this season. The Sharks’ home schedule features four of the top 20 NCAA Division II teams in the nation: No. 2 West Liberty, No. 4 Southern Connecticut State, No. 17 Indianapolis and No. 19 Barry.
ST. THOMAS: Coach: Patrick Gayle; Last season: 18-10, 11-5 Sun Conference; Top players: Michael Walker (6-4, Sr., SG); Raheem Bowman (6-11, So. C); Armand Shoon (6-3, Sr. SG); Noteworthy: St. Thomas is ranked 15th in the NAIA Division II preseason national poll. Team has made national playoffs in four of the past five years and is ranked second in its league.
ASA COLLEGE MIAMI: Coach: Joseph Medina; Last season: First-year program; Top players: Brittney Huell (5-10, Fr. G); Noteworthy: Huell’s brother Dewan is a 6-11 freshman forward for the Miami Hurricanes. Last year, ASA played as a club sport.
BARRY: Coach: Bill Sullivan; Last season: 19-9, 10-6 SSC; Top players: Juhnae Richardson (5-8, So., G); Toni Neibler (5-9, Sr., G); Noteworthy: The Bucs graduated nine seniors from last season. Only Richardson and Neibler return, and the latter will miss the first month of the season.
BROWARD COLLEGE: Coach: MJ Baker; Last season: 22-7, 13-2; Top players: Nicole Jimenez (5-8, So. PG); Weknyne Dumorne (6-0, So., F); Scarlett Rocha (5-8, So., PG); Noteworthy: The team was the Southern Conference’s co-champs. Jimenez, who made All-State, has committed to Florida Atlantic.
FLORIDA MEMORIAL: Coach: Gregory Stanback; Last season: 7-20; Top players: Ashley Henry (6-1, Jr. F); Taylor Payne (5-11, Sr., W); Abreona Cabell (5-11, Jr., F); Noteworthy: Cabell is part of a freshman recruiting class that Stanback is touting as outstanding, but the team is ranked eighth in a nine-time league.
JOHNSON & WALES: Coach: Kymberly Hope; Last season: 7-19; Top players: NA; Noteworthy: Hope’s team is ranked ninth and last in the Sun Conference preseason poll.
MIAMI DADE COLLEGE: Coach: Susan Summons; Last season: 19-12; Top players: Emporess James (6-0, So., F); Kevona Gay 5-11, So., F); Jamaria Williams (5-7, So., G); ; Noteworthy: Two Division I transfers have joined the team: JeTaun Rouse, a guard from Marquette; and Nia Sapp, a forward from Arkansas.
NOVA SOUTHEASTERN: Coach: LeAnn Freeland-Curry; Last season: 24-7, 13-3 SSC; Top players: Taylor Buie (5-5, Sr., G); Noteworthy: The Sharks have qualified for the Division II NCAA Tournament four straight years.
ST. THOMAS: Coach: Albrey Grimsley; Last season: 14-10, 13-3 Sun Conference; Top players: Supavadee Kunchuan (6-0, Sr., SF); Samara Auguste (5-5, So. PG); Desanta’ Franklin-Jordan (5-7, Sr., G); Noteworthy: Kunchuan, a Thailand native, was the league’s 2016 Newcomer of the Year after averaging 12.8 points. Auguste (9.4 scoring average) was Freshman of the Year. Team is ranked second in the Sun Conference.