- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
In the high-stakes world of big-time college basketball, the odds are against Wisconsin-Green Bay this season. Then again, the odds are against the program every season.
At first glance, Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth doesn't give off the vibe of a riverboat gambler ready to buck those odds, even if he did quote Kenny Rogers' lyrics about there being time enough for counting when the dealing's done in a postgame interview after a recent win against rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee (he was talking about his 200th career win).
A plainspoken exemplar of the qualities many people associate with the citizenry of the upper Midwest, he utters few of the clichés or talking points that some of his coaching peers offer up as insights. Many coaches spend paragraphs saying nothing; Borseth needs only a sentence to tell you exactly what he thinks, good or bad.
"I think he'd admit to anyone that he's a very pessimistic guy," senior Natalie Berglin said of her coach. "But he's just really passionate about the game."
But with an experienced team that returned all five starters from a WNIT appearance last season and just cracked the top 25 for the first time this season, Borseth's pessimism is being tested by a collection of players which has the potential to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, something no Phoenix team has ever done, and something few mid-majors have managed in recent years.
The coach might argue that he's more pragmatic than pessimistic, a man who simply recognizes and accepts the sometimes monumental challenges involved in competing as a mid-major program in women's basketball. Where Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Insell has talked about believing his program can reach a Final Four, Borseth looks around the country and sees a slightly bleaker landscape.
"I admire that man's courage," Borseth chuckled. "Evidently, he feels he can get the talent to compete. But I tell you what, turn the TV on and watch Duke and Tennessee and Connecticut play, you better come loaded, because those teams have got talent.
"For a team like ours to make it, you're going to have to have kids who can flat-out play. My best player is maybe an all-state player; their worst player is a first-team Kodak All-American. There's a huge difference between these players that we both put out."
Such is life when your program pulls from a regional talent pool of roughly 10 million people, and the powers that be pull from a national pool of around 300 million that includes the best of your little corner of the recruiting world.
Possibly the only things in Wisconsin with more local products than Borseth's roster are mail-order cheese catalogs. All but two of his players come from either Wisconsin or neighboring Minnesota. Only one player comes from outside the Midwest, and arguably his two best players, Berglin and fellow senior Nicole Soulis, are from Green Bay.
"We grab local kids that we know, kids that work hard, kids that are skilled, because those are kids that we can get," Borseth said. "That's kind of the recruiting game for us, is kids that we can get, not necessarily outside kids that we need. Big kids, big-time players -- Monique Currie or Candace Parker -- they're not coming to Green Bay."
Of course, few coaches have scouted that local talent pool, or any mid-major talent pool, with more consistent success than Borseth. He's a six-time winner of the Horizon League's coach of the year honors and his teams advanced to the postseason in each of the last seven seasons. An eighth looks almost certain, as the Phoenix have won 14 in a row and are 17-3 this season. All of their conference wins have come by double digits and the nonconference schedule included a win against Wisconsin and quality losses against Kansas State (five points on the road), Marquette (four points on the road) and DePaul (on a buzzer-beater).
Like past UW-Green Bay teams, this one is built around the most basic of basketball principles: Don't give the ball away and don't give the other team easy baskets.
"We really can't afford to get in a game where the other team has their hands on the ball and we're playing defense the whole game," Borseth said. "If you throw the ball away, it always gives teams easy baskets. So I think that's probably the thing we work on more than anything, is just not turning the ball over. Trying to keep it moving, trying to share it, trying to work on individual skills, so when you're open you can shoot it and make it."
The result is a team that turns the ball over just 12.8 times per game, the fourth-best mark in the NCAA this season. Not that such careful caretaking impresses everyone.
"He stresses taking care of the ball a lot," Berglin said. "I mean, if you would sit in on one of our practices, you would probably think -- just how he treats us -- that we turn the ball over probably 30 times a game. But we really don't. We really pride ourselves on taking care of the ball and we emphasize that a ton."
The Phoenix are fundamentally sound, but they are not a slow-it-down team. Averaging 76.4 points per game, this isn't Princeton under Pete Carril. The offense is patient and precise, but all the passing is more about finding a good shot than running time off the shot clock and reducing the number of overall possessions.
Only one team in the country ranks in the top 15 for both most assists per game and fewest turnovers per game: Wisconsin-Green Bay.
"All of our kids are pretty multifaceted," Borseth said. "They're not afraid to take it to the basket, they're not afraid to shoot, they all, for the most part, are getting better at making solid decisions -- whether you fake a pass or make a pass, those kind of things."
But it's on defense, where the aggressive help defense blurs the line between man and zone, where the Phoenix truly stand out. Opponents shoot just 37.9 percent from the field and rarely get a chance to make up the difference at the charity stripe against one of the least penalized teams in the nation (fewer than 14 personal fouls per game).
"We want to force our [defensive assignments] to where our help is, because I think we do a great job, you know, help-side," Berglin said. "We front the post and help out on the lob. We just help each other out -- instead of one-on-one it's more like five-on-one."
Five players operating as one is exactly what the Phoenix were not at times last season. Replacing four senior starters from the 2004-05 team that lost to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they struggled early on the court last season -- losing badly against Indiana State and DePaul -- and off the court for even longer. With so many relatively untested players competing for time and nobody assured of anything, cohesion was in short supply.
"I'm not so sure I liked them last year," Borseth said bluntly. "Just the off-court things, small things that seemed to worry us that really weren't basketball related. Where this year, those things seem to have passed, which is good. We've gotten on to bigger issues in life and we're not worried about petty things. I like them now."
For the players, last season was a learning experience -- hardly a completely unsuccessful one with 23 wins but still a disappointment after missing the NCAA Tournament. Borseth wasn't entirely sure what to expect with almost the entire roster back this fall, but the lessons of last season and a summer spent working out together on campus turned potential stagnation into progress.
"It helped us -- we matured and we got smarter and we're lot more comfortable with each other now," Berglin said. "We have a lot more confidence in each other and ourselves."
Added Soulis, "There are certain situations that [Borseth] won't have to coach us through; it's something that we can figure out on our own. It's nice, because in previous years, he's always had to tell us what we need to do, how we need to fix it."
Borseth talks wistfully of getting that one player -- repeatedly mentioning Larry Bird and Jackie Stiles as examples -- who could lift a team of fundamentally sound overachievers to national prominence, but reality for Wisconsin-Green Bay is one in which the only road trip to Cleveland this season will likely come with a visit to conference foe Cleveland State on Feb. 17.
Still, life isn't all bad. With a new athletic facility opening next season, more than doubling the current seating capacity of 1,800 and vastly improving the athletic department's training facilities, the team's status as one of the crown jewels of mid-major programs appears on solid ground. And when Borseth, who nearly left Green Bay in a well-publicized flirtation with Colorado two years ago, talks about the challenges of his position, it's hard to find a hint of pessimism.
"It's not frustrating when you prepare your team, because success is relative," Borseth said. "I really believe that: Success is relative. Quality of life is everything to me. Would it be nice to hoist a Division I championship trophy over my head? Absolutely. At the price of my family? Absolutely not. I would never consider that; it's not worth it. The success we have here -- I'm glad we do -- is relative and we enjoy it. And to watch the kids develop is really important."
Not that anyone would complain about a second trip to Cleveland.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.