Elevating the Play in Women’s College Basketball

For the second straight season, the Women’s Final Four finished with a flourish, as Maryland knocked off Duke to win its first women’s basketball National Championship, completing a thirteen point comeback which was punctuated by Kristi Toliver’s pull back three to send the game into overtime.

While the game ended brilliantly and exhibited everything great about women’s basketball, there is plenty of room for continued improvement. In many cases, coaches inhibit the athleticism of their players, controlling every trip down court like a Jeff Van Gundy protÃ?©gÃ?©. Oftentimes, players play four years in great programs with esteemed coaches and fail to illustrate improvement beyond overall conditioning and natural gains in strength; among others WNBA scouts criticized Erin Grant of Texas Tech for her lack of improvement, as she plummeted to the third round of the WNBA Draft, while Wilnett Crockett of UConn showed very little improvement during her four years.

Recently, another writer and women’s basketball fan challenged me to elucidate ways to improve women’s basketball. The following are four ways to enact change at the college level, which, in many ways, remains the most visible level of women’s basketball, despite the presence of the WNBA.

1) Hire coaches, not recruiters.
I understand recruiting is the lifeblood of a college program, and the NCAA and its rules limiting basketball interaction with coaches is partially to blame, but to move forward, the game needs coaches; it needs teachers who can nurture and develop talent and design a system of play to maximize the ability of the players. Recruiting is important; however, most of the top players attend one of the half-dozen top programs or pick a school relatively close to home. So, winning is at least as powerful a recruiting tool as anything else. Sending players to the WNBA is another recruiting tool. If college coaching improves, and players continue to progress and develop in college, the WNBA benefits and television ratings at the college and WNBA levels will increase. Increased exposure equals increased revenue which can be further invested into developing more and more talented players to supply an expanding professional league.

2) Hire qualified male coaches over unqualified female coaches.
Some believe it is better for women to coach women, though I have had numerous girls tell me they prefer a male coach. Others believe it is a Title IX and equality issue to give access to female coaches. However, in terms of Title IX and equality, shouldn’t female players have access to the best coaches? Wouldn’t that make things more equal?

Often head coaches hire a former player who wants to try coaching. The player has zero experience, but thinks coaching might be a fun job, so the head coach hires her. Then, the assistant lasts one season before deciding coaching is not in her future. Is it fair to the college players to have inexperienced assistants with little ability to teach or develop their skills? Maryland has a male assistant who does a great deal of the in-game coaching; last season, Michigan State advanced to the finals with Al Brown a significant member of the staff. It’s not necessarily the need for male coaches; it’s the need to hire the best coach, regardless of sex, though this is often lost while trying to create new opportunities for women.

Hire better coaches and the level of play increases.

3) Accept the new generation of athletic players and modify systems to embrace and utilize this athleticism.
Everywhere one looks, he sees a different type of player from previous generations. Whether the size and versatility of Tennessee’s Candace Parker, the size and agility of Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris, the pull-up jumper of Texas’ Erica Arriaran, the speed and jumping ability of Stanford’s Candace Wiggins, the strength of LSU’s Sylvia Fowles, the smoothness of LSU’s Siemone Augustus, etc., generation next is a new breed of women’s basketball player with more in common with their male counterparts than with female players of their coaches’ generation.

Unfortunately, current coaches are mired in their 1-4 high offensive sets. These athletic, skilled players need more freedom to exhibit and take advantage of their skills. A more open court, free style of play is more fan-friendly and forces players to learn to play the game, not just follow directions like robots.

Too many coaches want to dictate every possession like an NBA coach. They utilize practice time to memorize plays, not teach basketball skills. And, when a coach allows her players a certain measure of freedom, she is criticized, much like North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell, who many accuse of underachieving at North Carolina. The NBA creates an expectation for basketball fans as to how the game should be played; and, this expectation trickles down and pervades the game at every level. Just because an NBA coach who has six assistant coaches and a million dollar salary to protect calls a set every time down the court does not mean that coaches at every level need to follow their lead.

More freedom for players who know how to play creates a more entertaining style of play. I recently watched a DVD of an u-20 game from Europe and the players there were in constant motion; there was no setting up of plays or standing around while one player was isolated. Every player cut to the basket, set screens, looked for openings. Occasionally the players got in each other’s way, but overall, the game was more enjoyable to watch.

4) Run real youth basketball camps.
Almost every university runs summer basketball camps. Most are glorified babysitting sessions with very little instruction and almost zero instruction from the head coaches. These are supposed to be the best coaches in the country and they are too busy to work with the next generation of players? First, a true coach has a hard time staying away from the gym; sure, recruiting calls are important, but give a coach the choice of calling recruits or teaching 5th graders proper shooting mechanics and a real coach chooses to be in the gym and finds time to make the calls later. It’s not a job; it’s a passion. And, these young players are cheated because they sign-up for a university sponsored camp, yet the coaches are college players just a few years older. Use this time to make a small difference and actually teach young players something positive.

Camps are an imperfect environment for real talent development. However, a camp can provide the opportunity for athletes to learn their strengths and weaknesses as well as ways to improve their weaknesses. Instead, colleges cram as many kids as possible into a camp and tell college players to write evaluations, but not to write anything negative because they want the kids to return the following year to spend another $500+. For that amount of money, kids deserve more. And, college coaches have a duty to share their gifts (teaching basketball) with the young coaches and players attending the camps.

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