Commentary

Sooners QB factory extends to hardwood

Originally Published: December 7, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Danielle RobinsonJ.P. Wilson/Icon SMISophomore point guard Danielle Robinson is averaging 13.5 points and 4.9 assists.
STORRS, Conn. -- Check the phone books in Oklahoma from Altus to Tulsa and you aren't likely to find many listings for Copernicus.

Bud, Barry and Bob, on the other hand, will pop up almost as often as the digits two, three and four in a state in which gridiron coaches Wilkinson, Switzer and Stoops, respectively, are legendary figures. The universe is outlined by down and distance in the Sooner State, and the coach and the quarterback are unquestionably at the center of it all.

An Oklahoman born and bred, Sherri Coale understands all of this. So perhaps her metaphor of choice when it comes to point guards shouldn't be any surprise.

"The quarterback is the axis," Coale said before a recent practice (before practice, because her team had to make a quick exit to get through dinner in time to watch that night's gridiron showdown with Oklahoma State). "The leadership ability of that person behind center in football or bringing the ball down the floor in basketball, that's where all of your collective energy stems from, that's where your swagger emanates from, it's where your toughness grows on. I think that position is the most critical on the floor."

And just as a football team that faltered in its final showing under a talented first-year quarterback a year ago now stands on the brink of a championship opportunity, Coale has a sophomore floor general on the basketball court who might be able erase memories of last season's dreary end.

Stoops has Sam Bradford; Coale has Danielle Robinson.

"Danielle has been given the reins," Coale said. "She played a ton as a freshman last year but she didn't have to handle all the role of leadership and organization -- all the court management -- the way it falls completely and squarely on her shoulders this year.

[+] EnlargeSherri Coale
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireSherri Coale's Sooners are 6-2, with the only losses coming against UConn and North Carolina.

"And she's grown exponentially; I can't tell you what a different player she is on the floor, in terms of her personal confidence, her confidence and her knowledge of the game as a whole and how to manage it, and then her ability to lead her teammates. She's gotten better control of her emotion, which makes her a better leader of her teammates."

That didn't appear to be something anyone on the roster had a handle on last season, when the Sooners, ranked No. 6 when the season began, drifted through the regular season and lost to Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Coale and her players tried to offer an optimistic outlook before the first round in West Lafayette, Ind., last March, suggesting that perhaps some measure of consensus had been reached during all the extra practice time an early exit in the Big 12 tournament afforded them.

But any progress there might have been was too little, too late. Illinois State tested Oklahoma in the first round, when the Sooners let the underdog back in the game after building a double-digit lead in the second half. And with a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City, the Sooners instead couldn't adjust to Notre Dame's Charel Allen and made the return flight to Will Rogers Airport without another game to play.

"We didn't have any leadership, we weren't together, we didn't play as a unit, we didn't make each other better, we didn't compete hard enough, we didn't have a defensive identity, we couldn't make 3-point shots," Coale fired in a quick staccato, looking back at the state of her team. "I could go on. There were lots of things that were wrong. We were very fortunate to win our way into the second round of the tournament and to do the things that we did. In many ways, our product was broken and we had to fix it."

Part of that involved turning the show over to the 5-foot-9 Robinson, who shared time at the point last season with Jenna Plumley, who left the program following an offseason suspension for an off-court incident. Robinson led the Sooners in assists last season, but she made arguably her most compelling case for Big 12 freshman of the year by showing off an Iverson-like first step and the accompanying fearlessness getting to the rim.

Nevertheless, in an age of combo guards, Robinson sees herself as a point guard first and foremost, albeit one with a knack for putting points directly on the scoreboard when necessary.

"I embrace the label point guard," Robinson said. "I mean, point guard comes with a lot of responsibilities, and you know, I've never stepped down from a challenge. I definitely love the title point guard. I mean, I've been a point guard for the majority of my life -- last year, I kind of went back and forth between the 1 and the 2 [positions], but I'm definitely excited to take on that challenge as being a point guard, not only leading your team but scoring some buckets when we need it and just getting everyone in the right place."

[Danielle Robinson] has to have a feel for the game and a feel for her position, and I have to trust her. And I do; I trust her decision-making. I feel completely comfortable now that she has a feel of when to push the envelope by going to the rim and when to circle the wagons and come back out and set something up. It's night and day from last year.

-- OU coach Sherri Coale

A 28-point loss might not seem like the best place to search for evidence of success, but Oklahoma's loss at Connecticut on Nov. 30 offered a surprisingly compelling example of just how much both Robinson and the Sooners have grown. As Coale suggested after the 106-78 defeat, there were certainly things her team could have done better against the Huskies, from defenders closing out more quickly on 3-point shooters to Courtney Paris playing at her own pace in the first half instead of at Tina Charles' pace.

But the final result had more to do with an opponent putting together one of the best collective performances of any single game in recent memory than anything the Sooners did wrong.

As Coale said, "I sat there in the second half and I said, 'This is the best we've ever played against them, and we're down 25.' And we played them with Taurasi and Bird and the whole crew. I don't know that I've seen them play better than they did tonight."

And an Oklahoma team that seemed adept at finding ways to lose last season spent much of Sunday's game playing like it felt it had a chance in a game it was never going to win. The Sooners trailed by 20 points with fewer than four minutes to play in the first half. Instead of waiting for a few minutes of respite in the locker room, they cut the lead to 11 at the break -- with Robinson on the court despite having picked up her second and third fouls on back-to-back plays at the 10:37 mark. She kept her cool, and so did her team.

Despite playing with foul trouble, Robinson was just about the only entity in Gampel Pavilion that made Renee Montgomery appear mortal for even a few moments on a night the Connecticut senior put up 30 points and 13 assists. Montgomery and the Huskies started out giving Robinson the midrange jump shot, but not only did she hit those gifts, she also managed to consistently get to the basket against the quickest defense in the country. And while the opportunities for assists were few and far between, she finished a game contested at a frenetic pace with just one turnover in 29 minutes.

Robinson, who turned the ball over more than three times per game as a freshman, turned it over seven times in an 80-79 loss against North Carolina on Nov. 23. Before the Connecticut game, Coale made no attempt to explain those miscues away, suggesting her patience with her point guard extends no farther than two turnovers in any given game.

The Sooners clearly can play an up-tempo pace, but any team whose best player makes her living on the block, as Courtney Paris does, can ill afford to squander possessions without getting touches for its star. That leaves Robinson with a balancing act to master.

"I think that's part of the genius of a point guard is knowing when to and when not to," Coale said. "And she has to have a feel for the game and a feel for her position, and I have to trust her. And I do; I trust her decision-making. I feel completely comfortable now that she has a feel of when to push the envelope by going to the rim and when to circle the wagons and come back out and set something up. It's night and day from last year. And that's the blessed thing about freshmen, is they turn into sophomores."

It's maturation still in progress, but it's one that appears to be on the upswing.

"I think where I mostly struggled was making decisions," Robinson said of her freshman campaign. "In high school, it wasn't so easy for people to get in passing lanes and get deflections and stuff like that. And I think that now I'm just more comfortable with the ball and game situations."

While there are a lot of similarities between a quarterback in football and a point guard in basketball, one significant difference is the nature of the postseason that awaits them at the end of the regular season. Losses to North Carolina and Connecticut might momentarily knock Oklahoma down in the polls, but they offer more hope for what's to come than did many of last season's unsatisfying wins. And certainly, that's as much because of Courtney and Ashley Paris, Amanda Thompson, Whitney Hand and others as it is because of the lithe, lighting-quick point guard from the Bay Area.

But at the end of the day in Oklahoma, the ball, the game and the season are usually in the quarterback's hands.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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