Straight from the coaches' mouths
Expansion? Sunday? Annual pre-Final Four coaches' teleconference hits all topics
There's a way most coaches talk about freshmen that they are trying to learn a lot in a short amount of time, and thus often get brain overload and might struggle to actually take any of it in.
Then there's the way Oklahoma's Sherri Coale describes it: "It's like they're thirsty for a drink -- and you're spraying them with a water hose."
The instant she said that, I knew that was my "best quote" on a day where I kind of knew how those freshmen feel. We media folks got drenched with insight on Wednesday, aka teleconference day.
All of the women's Final Four coaches -- Baylor's Kim Mulkey, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, UConn's Geno Auriemma and Coale -- were on for a half-hour each, which is a lot of time to get asked questions. They're all old pros at this, but I was still impressed by the effort they put into answering. Especially since they'll have to do it all again Saturday in San Antonio.
But it beats the alternative, right?
In the midst of this, by the way, the WNBA had its own teleconference in which Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve, Los Angeles' Jennifer Gillom and Tulsa's Nolan Richardson all talked about the upcoming draft, as did some of the likely draftees, such as Epiphanny Prince.
There is not necessarily a lot the WNBA coaches are going to reveal in such calls, because none are going to give away their draft plans. Nor are they ever going to say something like: "Sorry, that player's not getting drafted. Not a chance." Instead they'll say stuff like, "Well, it depends on what different teams' needs are."
Going between all these calls, some of the same names came up. Such as UConn's Tina Charles, who everybody knows will go No. 1 to the Connecticut Sun. And Stanford's Jayne Appel, who will go somewhere pretty high in the first round, although where is still unsure.
But it's actually worth pointing out the obvious: No talk, of course, about Baylor's Brittney Griner and the draft. She's not eligible due to the WNBA's setup and collective bargaining agreement.
On the men's side, two freshmen -- Kentucky's John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins -- were on the Associated Press All-America first team. But the Wildcats are not in the Final Four, and that extraordinarily talented duo won't ever play in one, as both are assumed to be NBA-bound.
There's no comparison in terms of the amount of money the NBA offers compared with the WNBA. Not saying one is good, one is bad. It would just feel incredibly weird to be simultaneously talking now about both Griner's beginning and end as a Baylor player.
Instead, we are talking only about the start of what's expected to be an amazing college career, the first season of which gets to be capped off with a Final Four appearance.
Griner, as you might expect, was a hot topic on the Final Four teleconferences. So was the overriding excellence of UConn, the commitment the four schools (all return visitors to the Final Four) have to women's hoops, the terrific defense played by all four teams, various individual matchups, and the idea of following the men if they go to a 96-team field.
We'll try to give you a representative sampling of what the Final Four coaches had to say before they headed to the Alamo city.
Baylor: The Young and the Rested?
Mulkey started the teleconference and even agreed to give an opening statement. Which, usually, she does not want to do. It's just, "Let's start with questions." Ohio State's Jim Foster usually does that, too. In his case, he's admitted he wants to see which reporters actually have paid attention to the game. (I'm not sure how much attention he'd want us to pay to how the Buckeyes have fared in the postseason but that's another topic.)
Frankly, opening statements can be a total waste of time, especially in these types of teleconferences, where they are usually, "We're very excited to be coming to [fill in name of city]."
But they sometimes provide insight, especially after games. Some coaches really do have a lot to say without any questions. Some just want to frame the game in the way they want it to be seen. Opening statements can tell you absolutely nothing they can tell you a tidbit about what's really going on or they can tell you a lot by a coach's tone of voice, body language, etc.
Even though I could pretty much guess the answer, I once asked Baylor's media relations person, Julie Bennett, why Mulkey tended not to make opening statements.
"Oh, that's just Kim," said Bennett, who's protective of Mulkey and thinks outsiders don't get to see enough of her "softer" side the way those close to the program do. (Which I think is not uncommon for Mulkey's personality type.)
As one former coach describes it, "You have to understand, with Kim everything is a competition."
That might be true or it might be only partially true. What seems more certain is that part of Mulkey's mystique and her success is that she usually figures out a way to get the upper hand.
At any rate, Mulkey actually did have a lot to say, including in her opening statement, when she offered, "I'm doing my best to sell tickets. Being in the state of Texas, we certainly want the people from Texas to show up."
The Women's Final Four is in a dome for the first time since 2005, when Baylor won the NCAA title in Indianapolis' RCA Dome and had a very good fan showing. Given Waco's proximity to San Antonio, the green and gold following should be even larger.
They'll cheer for the freshmen, led by the 6-foot-8 Griner, and the upper-class players, led by junior Melissa Jones. She missed 15 games with a stress reaction, but there might be a couple of silver linings to that. One, she's more rested than she might otherwise be at this time of the season. And, two, with her out, the freshmen such as Kimetria Hayden, Shanay Washington and Jordan Madden were forced to play more minutes and do more by themselves.
Now their comfort level when she's out on the floor is all the higher, as is their confidence. Griner, the freshman who everyone knew would play a lot, has had an excellent NCAA tournament already.
"She will tell you she came to Baylor not to become the greatest basketball player ever. She came to help win a championship," Mulkey said. "Because there's no greater feeling. She wants to win. She wants to get better. She doesn't want to disappoint people."
Coale, whose Sooners went against Griner three times this season and won two of those games, has as good an idea as any coach what the matchup is like.
Coale said that while stopping Griner offensively is very difficult, there are at least different things a team can do to try to limit her touches. However, there aren't many ways to stop her from having a huge impact on defense.
"She can stand in the middle of a lane and block your shock outside the elbow," Coale said. "And I'm not exaggerating, there's no hyperbole there. It's really, really hard to get to the basket.
"So to beat Baylor, you're going to have to make some outside shots. And not turn the ball over, and not be impacted emotionally and mentally once [she] blocks shots. Because until you've been on the floor with it, it's a really, really hard thing to handle."
Auriemma, asked about his 6-4 senior Charles facing Griner, referenced Charles' past matchups with LSU's Sylvia Fowles.
"Tina really struggled against Sylvia and Tina [also] outplayed Sylvia and won," Auriemma said. "So Tina's been on both ends of it. How is this going to be? You know, it's like the stock market. When people ask you to buy from a stockbroker, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Just because you play great against Sylvia doesn't mean that you're going to play great this time. But if you struggled, [it] doesn't mean you're going to struggle. It's its own matchup."
And Auriemma also hastened to add that this game would be about a lot more than Griner versus Charles. It will certainly be about how both teams pretty regularly shut down their opponents defensively.
"I think the story of them being No. 1 in field goal percentage defense [29.9], and Baylor being No. 2 [32.9] sends a strong message to recruits across the country," Mulkey said. "While we're going to help you make All-American teams and get to Final Fours, when you come to these two programs, you're going to have to guard people."
Near the end of the teleconference, Mulkey got a call from former President George W. Bush. Bennett asked if he could please call back in just a couple of minutes. Mulkey overhearing this, was somewhat aghast, saying, "Are you kidding? You told the president to call back?"
He did, though. Bush has attended Baylor games in the past, but will not be able to make this one because he's going to China. He wanted to wish Mulkey good luck against UConn.
Stanford: Whew, made it by that much
For what it's worth, Stanford is No. 3 in field goal percentage defense (33.8). Stanford is also fifth in field goal percentage (47.5). UConn is first there, too, at 51.8.
For much of the season, there has been talk about a UConn-Stanford rematch in the Final Four. They've met in the semifinals the past two years, with the Cardinal winning in 2008 and UConn winning last year.
Since that Stanford victory at the '08 Final Four is the last time any team has defeated UConn, VanDerveer was asked if there's anything to be gained from it, as long ago as it was.
"If a rematch materializes, I think it helps people's confidence on our team to be able to know that they have been on the winning side against Maya Moore or against Tina Charles," VanDerveer said. "Now, these are different teams. But when you go into a game like that, I think that would be helpful."
But VanDerveer addressed the subject of Connecticut only because she was asked. She knows the Cardinal will have their hands full with the Sooners.
"In preparing for Oklahoma, they are like us, I think, in that they're like maybe I call them a 'regular' team," VanDerveer said. "You look at Kentucky, they're extreme in what they do. You look at even Baylor with Griner, that's extreme. You know what I mean? With Xavier, that's extreme -- they're so big.
"For us and Oklahoma, we're kind of regular teams. [The Sooners] don't maybe have as much size as we do, but they have more backcourt quickness."
Some might question how "regular" it is to have three players like Appel, Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen, but VanDerveer's point still holds in this way: Both the Cardinal and the Sooners will probably not have to adjust anything "extreme" in facing each other. But it is interesting how close the matchup came to not happening.
Had Jeanette Pohlen's victory-saving layup in the Elite Eight been a tenth of a second slower to leave her hand, perhaps Xavier might have triumphed in overtime. VanDerveer acknowledged very frankly that it felt like the Cardinal ran right up to the edge of a cliff, almost teetered over, but then safely walked away.
"It was a shock, honestly, coming back on the bus," she said of the return trip from Sacramento after that 55-53 victory. "Waking up Tuesday morning, it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, we're still playing, we're in the Final Four. It's amazing.' I've felt bad, and I know a lot of people felt bad, for Xavier, because they really had us on the ropes. But somehow we wiggled out. And we definitely want to maximize our opportunity, and so I do think it has given us really a second life."
Now the Cardinal are in the Final Four a third year in a row -- which is the third time the program has done that (1990-92; 1995-97). Suffice to say, VanDerveer would have felt much worse if Xavier actually did win. Still the way it all happened did arouse sympathy even in a competitor such as VanDerveer. Perhaps that's the same egalitarian tendency that led her to say she would support the NCAA going to a 96-team field for the tournament if the men also did it.
"People might say it waters the tournament down, or maybe it's not as special," VanDerveer said. "But I think that we have to be open to change. One of the biggest problems we have is developing that group of teams it's almost like the development of the middle class of basketball, you know?
"I think it would give them more incentive it's a big carrot that could be used for teams and help develop our game."
At that point, VanDerveer dropped the teleconference phone because her cell was buzzing turns out George W. Bush wanted to wish her good luck, too.
"Dawg!" she said. "Why didn't you call the other night? Did you see Pohlen? Of course that's how I drew it up!"
(April Fools! Somehow, um, without getting into politics, we're going to assume VanDerveer and the former prez would not be best buds.)
Connecticut: Go all out or don't go at all
Speaking of unexpected phone calls, Auriemma said he received one earlier this year from the ruler of Morgantown, W.Va.
"Bob Huggins left me a nasty voice mail saying that I said at one time that we were the best team in college basketball, men or women," Auriemma said. "I guess he was tired of fighting with his team; he wants to fight with me now. So we had a big laugh about that.
"I always want to make sure, hey, I never said my team was the best team in the history of college women's basketball. I still don't say that to them. And if they say that to themselves, I have no control over that."
Other people, like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, have told Auriemma how much they admire his team.
"He's one of our biggest fans," Auriemma said. "He makes sure he lets us know all the time that he thinks we're great. I think people in this [business] that have done great things, they appreciate how hard it is to do.
"I challenge anybody to say that we're arrogant and we're cocky and we disrespect the game, our opponents, anything like that. So to see it being done the way it's being done by these particular players is just -- I think anybody who appreciates that kind of stuff is really taken by it."
Certainly his Huskies, 76-0 in the past two seasons, are highly praised by the coach of their next opponent.
"They're just darn good," Mulkey said. "And you try to think, 'Well, maybe we can do this against them,' and then they expose this. Or, 'Maybe we can play this defense against them,' and then they expose you here. They're good individually. They're great collectively. I have so much respect for what Connecticut has done. And I don't think there's anything but positive to be written about that program."
Auriemma also has positive things to say about both Baylor and Oklahoma, two programs from the Big 12 that have risen thanks in part to administrative support that once wasn't there.
"[It's] schools getting behind their program, hiring coaches that are committed to winning and doing it right, and then giving them the tools that they need to be successful," Auriemma said. "If you're a school of limited resources and facilities, you can't be where Baylor, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Stanford are right now. But you certainly can be better than where you are -- if you aspire to be.
"Find the right coach, give them what they need. Nurture and grow in your community, and you're going to wake up one day and be in the Final Four. If you do that, and after a couple of years you don't see any progress, get rid of the coach or whoever is running your women's basketball program and start over again. But to just sit there and have the status quo over and over and over again I don't think Oklahoma or Baylor would be where they are right now if they just kept on doing business the way they were doing it before."
In that same vein, Auriemma said he didn't see expanding the NCAA field to 96 teams as a move that would really help the tournament.
"If you're doing it for other reasons, you're trying to grow the game, you're trying to make coaches feel like we've accomplished something, you're trying to give kids that experience, you know, it's like going into a bowl system," he said, comparing it with football. "Do that many teams deserve to be in a bowl game? Because they've had great seasons? I don't know.
"If you're saying for the experience of the college student-athlete, sure. I'm all for that. But if you're asking me from a competitive standpoint, does it make the field better? I would say no."
Coale later would be even blunter on this topic, and there's little doubt that Auriemma would agree.
"I don't think it's good for the men's game," she said. "How could you -- why would you -- touch what just happened in the men's tournament? How could you ask for a better sporting event than what's just occurred?"
Auriemma and Coale do tend to see many things alike although she might not mind seeing her team at a Final Four some year when UConn does not have a perfect record coming into the event. As it is, that has been the case for all three of the Sooners' Final Four trips.
"Somebody's gotta beat Connecticut, somebody has got to stop the madness at some point," she said, chuckling. "And I don't know if it really matters if they're undefeated or not. They seem to always be in the Final Four."
It might seem that way but let's not forget that it's not actually the case. The Huskies not all that long ago went through a (heavy sigh from the Northeast) three-year stretch (2005-07) where they didn't make it that far.
During that time, Auriemma was reloading and re-energizing. What we've seen the past two seasons is a tribute to how much zest he has for achieving excellence, and how effectively he has instilled that in his players.
"If every kid playing college basketball today just put it upon themselves and said, 'Look, I'm going to compete as hard as I can every possession' I'm not saying you would win more, but if this makes any sense, you lose a hell of a lot less. It would take somebody to have to beat you. The only thing I've tried to do is tell my guys, 'Listen, just compete on every possession, at everything.' And that's the way I was brought up."
Oklahoma: Yeah, we're here again, too
A little more of how Coale feels about the mere mention of expanding the tournament field to 96 tells you a lot about her philosophy about success.
"Look at our women's tournament and we've had all kinds of close games, and victories at the end, and overtimes," she said. "We're getting it. We're figuring it out. And I think anytime you expand that field, what you're doing is a couple of things. No. 1, watering down what happens. And, No. 2, you're sort of defeating what you're trying to accomplish with parity in terms of competitive games and earning the right to be in something special.
"I just feel very strongly that getting into the tournament is something that you earn over the course of a season. I don't think that just everybody should get to go. You know, I'm about to go on the soapbox about my daughter's third-place soccer trophy in the garage. I won't go there. I'll spare you. But I just think that getting an invitation to go means you have accomplished something. And the wider and broader we make that field, maybe the less significant that accomplishment."
The Sooners had every reason to expect they would get the equivalent of a third-place soccer trophy this season. They had lost a lot to graduation/injury. The Big 12 presented its typical challenges.
Boo-hoo-hoo, Coale might say. Life is tough, get over it. But she didn't actually have to say that to her players. They never thought of themselves as a lesser version of last season's Final Four team. Just a different version.
"I go back to the day following the game when Whitney [Hand] tore her knee up," Coale said of this past November. "And when I called the team together, just the look in their eyes I can't say they looked at me with complete conviction that, 'We're going to the Final Four.' But they looked at me believing that we could become special.
"They knew it would take awhile. But they believed that the end result -- if everybody bought in and did what they were supposed to do -- that we could become extraordinary. And I say that 'if' because that was the thing. They looked at each other with an honesty and sincerity: 'Here's where you make the choice, the line in the sand has been drawn. Either we all buy in completely, 100 percent to taking care of our business, or we don't and it's over.'"
They all bought in. Point guard Danielle Robinson drives the car at 100 mph as much as possible. Forward Amanda Thompson cleans the glass. Center Abi Olajuwon got into much better shape for her senior season. Hand is on the bench, watching everything they do and offering critiques and encouragement.
And they have wing player Nyeshia Stevenson, who once considered herself a shooter who ran away from taking big shots. No more. She buried that once and for all as the most outstanding player of the Kansas City Regional.
"Nyeshia is one of those cases where when we signed her, she was really raw," Coale said. "She was an athlete who had a very, very limited skill package. And she has grown and progressed as much as any kid I've ever had in our program.
"But I don't think she's playing as well as she's going to play at the next level. She's probably piqued the interest of a lot of WNBA coaches. She's one of those where you can't afford to not take a look at her, because if there's this other level up there, it could be something really special. She's given us some glimpse of that."
The Sooners' perseverance means the program goes back to San Antonio, where in 2002 Oklahoma made its first Final Four visit.
"The atmosphere that surrounds the Riverwalk -- it's just festive, and it presents opportunities for the charm of the tournament to really grow," Coale said. "The city of San Antonio loves basketball. Here's the most impressive thing. I've been to Final Fours, not as a participant but as a coach attending a convention and a championship, all over the United States.
"You go in some cities and three-fourths of the people don't know what's going on in their city. I didn't encounter one individual in San Antonio who said, 'Now why are you here?' Everybody would say, 'Oh, you must be here for the women's championship.' That was a cool feeling."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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