HATTIESBURG -- Only four Southern Miss women's basketball players return for action this season, and only one of them was considered a starter.
So why is USM coach Joye Lee-McNelis so optimistic?
One, that is her nature. Two, she thinks her newcomers are pretty good.
But she also says, "We have a long ways to go and a short time to get there."
The Lady Eagles host West Alabama in an exhibition game on Nov. 7 and crank it up for real when they host Alabama State on Nov. 13 in a "School Day" game that will start at 11 a.m. Then they will play in the Preseason WNIT beginning Nov. 16 and after that will host their annual Lady Eagle Thanksgiving Tournament.
Three players who have started a Southern Miss women's basketball game return for the Lady Eagles this season.
Senior Jerontay Clemons started 29 games and averaged 12.4 points per game last season, Junior Brittany Dinkins started eight games and averaged 5.7 points and junior Lashyra Cotton started five games and averaged 3.6 points before injuring a shoulder. The only other player who returns is sophomore Katie Dozier, who averaged 2.0 points.
Two players who would have returned, including guard Alex Coyne, who started 33 games a year ago, transferred to Division II schools and another quit the team.
Sophomore Megan Brown is back, too, but will redshirt due to a knee injury.
Clemons was named to the All-Conference USA Preseason Team.
Then there are the newcomers, whom Lee-McNelis, a Hancock High graduate, called "sponges."
"If you have a sponge sitting on your sink in the kitchen, it is going to soak up everything and that's what our Lady Eagles are all about.
"I promise you in all my years of coaching, we are so far behind in running sets and putting in our defenses because of patience and how we have had to teach. But they're eager to learn."
They're talented, too.
Caitlin Jenkins, a 6-foot-3 center from Shreveport, La., led Louisiana in scoring and rebounding last season, averaging 30 points and 14 rebounds as a high school senior. She was first-team all-state four years.
Lee-McNelis said Jenkins was being taught some of the intricacies of the offense when she said, "Coach, I don't know why I'm being taught all these offensive moves, just give me the ball and I can score. Nobody's stopped me yet."
Then there is Keri Jewett, from Fort Myers, Fla., was named to ESPN's Top 100 high school players last year. "She has unbelievable ability," Lee-McNelis said.
Jewitt and junior transfer Tajanay Vega will handle the point guard duties.
"We're going to be a whole lot quicker than we were last year," Lee-McNelis said. "Our guards are extremely athletic. They're very fast. We're off to the races. We want to shove it down their throat."
Jewitt is ready.
"I want to lead the team, and keep them settled," Jewitt said.
There is some height, with Jenkins and 6-6 redshirt freshman Jessica Powers.
"With that size, you have immediate defensive abilities," Lee-McNelis said. "If our perimeter players get beat off the bounce, their size can alter shots. They may not block shots but they can alter shots."
Southern Miss, which finished second in the Conference USA Tournament the past two years, was picked fourth in the conference in a preseason poll.