Monday, October 16, 2017

Pac-12 preview: the University of Southern California

This is the second in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

If the 2017-2018 USC Trojans had a movie title, it might be “Back to the Future.”

The program enters the season with a new-but-not-new coaching staff, a sixth-year senior, plenty of upper-class leadership and a bevy of young talent. With experience and a fresh approach, they aim to better the 14-16 overall finish they had last year, which also tied them for last place in the Pac-12, with a 5-13 showing.

One day after USC’s conference tournament first-round loss last March, coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke was let go. After almost a two-month search, the school re-hired Mark Trakh, who coached the Trojan women from 2005-2009. Senior guard Sadie Edwards said Trakh wasted no time in establishing team goals upon his arrival.

“From day one coach Trakh and our new staff were very clear about their vision for our program moving forward,” Edwards said. “I think every single day, we’re taking a step towards that goal. The foundation we’re building right now is very strong, and it’s founded on togetherness and unselfishness. Giving your best effort every day, every second. Being consistent is a big thing for them.”

Something else that is major is that senior guard Jordan Adams will be back for a sixth season, after being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA last spring. Adams tore her ACL after playing – and starting in – only five games last season. Trakh said his return coupled with hers was ironic.

“I’ll tell you a story about Jordan,” Trakh said. “I started coaching her and she came up to me. She said, ‘coach Trakh?….you realize that you recruited me when you were a coach the first time here.’ That’s how long she’s been at SC.”

Edwards (9.2 points per game) returns to the starting five, as does senior forward Kristen Simon (14.6 points, 8.7 rebounds per game), and three others who started most games between them after Adams was out. Sophomore guard Minyon Moore (11.7 points, 3.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds per game) is poised to electrify fans again with her hustle play. Junior guard Aliyah Mazyck (6.6 points per game) and sophomore guard Ja’Tavia Tapley (5.7 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) will likely pick up where they left off, as well. Moore’s sister, senior guard Mariya Moore, transferred to USC from Louisville last spring and will sit out the year due to transfer rules, but she practices with – and helps – the team.

Also returning to the Trojans are sophomore forwards Asiah Jones and Dani Milisic, and junior forward Marguerite Effa. USC has one new international player in junior guard Candela Abajon, from Spain, and one true freshman: guard Shalexxus Aaron.

The team worked all summer and is focusing on consistency. Simon said they should not be underestimated.

“We’re ready for this year, we’re ready,” she said. “I think we’ll shock a lot of people.”

Henrickson reconstructing UC Santa Barbara from the ground up

Bonnie Henrickson conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Cal State Santa Barbara Athletics.
Bonnie Henrickson conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Cal State Santa Barbara Athletics.
Bonnie Henrickson conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Cal State Santa Barbara Athletics.

Down with 11 seconds left in the Big West Championship game last March, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos found themselves in the midst of the most intense possession of their season.

The team had entered the tournament with a .500 record, but won its first two tournament games in convincing fashion, setting up a showdown with Long Beach State for the title. The Gauchos started off slowly, but began to dig their way out of a double-digit deficit in the second half. With 2:04 remaining, they took their first lead of the game.

The 49ers regained the lead with a layup, leaving the Gauchos 11 seconds to decide their fate. Following a timeout, UCSB ran a handoff for point guard Drea Toiler, who drove to the paint and kicked the ball out to Sarah Porter.

Porter, who had broken the Big West Tournament record for most made three-point shots – going 9 for 11 from beyond the arc against UC Riverside – was in her sweet spot.

UCSB guard Drea Toler goes for the layup under pressure against CSLB forward Madison Montgomery during the Big West Championship game last March. Photo by Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.
UCSB guard Drea Toler goes for the layup under pressure against CSLB forward Madison Montgomery during the Big West Championship game last March. Photo by Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Porter’s uncontested shot went up, silencing the Honda Center. Then Long Beach State players began jumping in excitement as Porter’s shot hit the front iron.

“We gave ourselves a chance. We’ll kick ourselves for a while but we’ll get better,” Gaucho coach Bonnie Henrickson said after the game.

The feeling of defeat haunts every athlete on any level, but the feeling of defeat in a championship game is a whole different beast. To be so close and not finish the job leaves a bitter ache in any player’s chest.

But for UCSB, that painful feeling was something new. Just two years earlier, they would never have dreamed of making a conference tournament run, let alone coming remotely close to a championship.

In 2014-15 the Gauchos were just 2-27 overall, with both victories coming in conference play. That led to the firing of coach Carlene Mitchell and the hiring of Henrickson, the former coach at Kansas.

In taking the post, Henrickson knew that changing the culture of the program from the ground up was necessary for success, so she set to work.

Senior forward Chaya Durr said Henrickson laid out her expectations for the team quickly.

“(She) wanted us to know how she ran her program, and we followed pretty well,” Durr said. “She set expectations off the court as well.”

Assistant coach Nate Fripp said those high standards were expected of the coaching staff, as well.

“She wanted everyone — players and coaches alike — to give their all into the season. She made that clear early,” he said.

Henrickson started with establishing trust between coaches and players.

“I wanted to communicate and get them to buy in,” she said. “I feel that for players to buy into the culture change, they have to buy into me and my vision first. I wanted each player to know that even though I wasn’t the reason they were there, I was committed and excited for the opportunity to coach them.”

Henrickson quickly gained her team’s trust through preseason workouts, team bonding at her home and an through her open-door policy at school.

“(Coach Henrickson) emphasized championships,” Durr said. “She explained the time and effort it took and made us believe we were capable of winning, whereas before it was like yeah we want to go to the Big West Tournament but it wasn’t like a real goal.”

Henrickson’s track record also helped, as she led the Jayhawks to 186 wins and  two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances during her tenure. In coming to Santa Barbara, she discovered that in order to be successful, she needed to conform to her new team.

“We play more motion (offense), and have a better three-point arsenal,” she explained. “We have the best three-point percentage of any team I’ve coached. We tried to isolate players and struggled. We switched to our motion, built on it and found success there.”

In two seasons, coach Bonnie Henrickson has changed the culture of Gaucho women's basketball. Photo by Tony Mastres.
In two seasons, coach Bonnie Henrickson has changed the culture of Gaucho women’s basketball. Photo by Tony Mastres.

Henrickson’s adjustment allowed for multiple players to flourish in her first season. Junior guard Coco Miller excelled that year, her freshman campaign. Her 187 three-point attempts rank fourth in school history, and her season-high 24 points at Wyoming tied the tenth-most points in a single game by a UCSB freshman.

“We identified that our offensive style at the time wasn’t good and we changed it,” Miller said. “This really created more ball movement and I got better shot opportunities.”

Henrickson is a game film junkie, and instilled in her players the importance of learning from past performances. Film references also allows her to talk with athletes about the big picture.

“Coach is really straight to the point,” Miller said. “When we sit and watch our film, there is never any beating around the bush. We are always aware of what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”

The Gauchos have a rich basketball history, holding the most Big West Conference tournament titles (14), with 11 regular-season titles, as well. In 2004 they advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Connecticut. UCSB continued to make tournament runs until the 2013-14 season, where they fell to an overall record of 8-22.

Then came the dismal campaign the following year that sparked change.

“We really didn’t have a goal, Durr admitted.

That changed with Henrickson and her assistants.

“One of the biggest things coming in was for us, as a coaching staff, to emphasize the overall end goal of winning a championship,” Fripp said.

Porter transferred to the school during Henrickson’s first year from Mississippi after a quick courtship.

“When I first stepped on campus for my official visit, (Henrickson) made it clear that she wanted to win a championship, and that it will take time and require a lot of work,” Porter said. “From that point, I was sold.”

Durr said goal-setting has given the team a razor-sharp focus.

“She set the standards pretty high,” Durr said. “Coach emphasized championships the most. She said we were there to make it to the Big West Tournament, and then the NCAA Tournament. So that was always in the back of our heads; win one game at a time, and eventually we’ll make it to the Big West Tournament.”

The Gauchos were able to make the transition thanks to the work and effort in practice, and especially endurance.

“We take pride in hard work,” Henrickson said. “Preseason is a lot of teaching. We are very big on player development. It’s a lot of ball handling, shooting, and breakdown drills. Sometimes we break it down to small groups for volume shooting, then we’ll throw everybody together for team drills.”

In her first season, Henrickson guided UCSB to and 8-8 record in conference play.

“Just her goals and expectations made me believe it was all possible,” Porter said.

The Gauchos finished fourth in the conference last year to make their Cinderella run in the Big West Tournament. It felt, to athletes and coaches alike, that the program had made a turnaround.

While UCSB showed significant improvement in their record, they also grew as a team off the court through the support of boosters, community outreach and in forming strong bonds.

The boosters are more than donors. Through the Living Scholar Program, they are able to be part of player’s lives on and off the court. In this program, each player is adopted by one booster and is treated like a family member. Some players receive text messages after rough games from their booster, while other have home-cooked meals. The program allows for each player to have a home away from home.

“The boosters definitely made me feel more comfortable,” Porter said. “They reached out to me and their support made me feel more comfortable. To have my booster text me words of encouragement after games meant a lot.”

Miller also loves the program.

“(They) are there whenever you need them,” she said. “The support I got from my booster helped me in my transition from high school to college. We have tons of home away from home.”

Along with those personal connections, the program also reconnected with the Santa Barbara community. One of Henrickson’s goals coming into her first year was to grow the team’s fan base.

One of the ways they do that is by hosting camps where local kids can come out and work out with the players. The Gauchos also go out to local schools and volunteer for the Special Olympics, among other endeavors.

“It’s hard telling people near the Thunderdome, ‘come see us, come see us,’ without saying, ‘hey we’re going to come see you and give back,’” Henrickson said.

The team has gone to hospitals to sing Christmas carols to terminally ill children, and they have made trips around town to personally invite people to their games. Durr said she and her teammates want to encourage more kids to come out and support their team. After games, players sign autographs and take pictures with the children.

The community activities have also helped the team bond. Durr said they are “one big happy family.”

“(The coaches) are really cool off of the court, so we’re all really close,” she said. “No matter what kind of day we have in practice, we can always talk to them about literally anything.”

Porter said the caring of the coaching staff is evident.

“They care more about your well being on and off the court,” she said.

Such testimonies are music to Hendrickson’s ears.

“I wanted everyone to know we were here to take care of them,” she said. “I never wanted anyone to think we were trying to run them off. Even when we talked about the previous season, I only used ‘we’ and ‘us.’”

Gaucho players, who say the team is like a family, pause before a fundraising dinner last month. Bottom row: Coco Miller and Juliana Ramey. Top row: Je Zhe’ Newton, Drea Toler, Sarah Porter, Onome Jemerigbe, Chaya Durr, Mi’chael Wright and Taylor Farris. Photo courtesy of Cal State Santa Barbara Athletics.
Gaucho players, who say the team is like a family, pause before a fundraising dinner last month. Bottom row: Coco Miller and Juliana Ramey. Top row: Je Zhe’ Newton, Drea Toler, Sarah Porter, Onome Jemerigbe, Chaya Durr, Mi’chael Wright and Taylor Farris. Photo courtesy of Cal State Santa Barbara Athletics.

The hard work and personal relationship forming has paid off in a short period of time for Henrickson and the Gauchos.

“I told everyone that the quickest way into the dog house is to not take care of your teammates,” Henrickson said.

The message has been received.

“Our culture is built on our relationships with each other,” Durr said. “On and off the court we have great chemistry. We’re hanging with each other off the court. We have fun in pickup games together, team bonding at coach Bonnie’s house, and we even joke in a team group chat. We’re around each other 24/7.”

Miller said their strong on-court chemistry comes from the relationships they have off of the court.

“The biggest thing with our team is our bond. We’re always around each other,” she said. “We laugh together, struggle together, we go through things every day as a unit, and that built our family.”

The wild world of hoops

College conference news:

Five must-see ACC matchups this season.

College program news:

How five persistent women were able to restore the Lady Vol name and logo.

North Carolina escapes NCAA punishment after years-long academic scandal.

The University isn’t celebrating – they’re ready to move on.

Jan Boxill, a former professor and counselor to the Tarheel women, is relieved with the NCAA result.

College team news:

Notre Dame is looking to transcend their injury woes.

The new pieces are a puzzle for coach Muffet McGraw and the Irish.

The Wynn era has begun at the University of Washington.

Kentucky showed out during Big Blue Madness earlier tonight.

UNCW has a new vibe this year.

College player news:

UConn’s Kia Nurse is ready to lead on and off the court.

Kelsey Mitchell’s USA Basketball experience this summer broadened her horizons.

Notre Dame will have a steady hand at the point in Lili Thompson.

Kansas senior guard Jessica Washington will miss the season with a torn ACL.

WNBA news:

A source told ESPN that Bill Laimbeer will be the new coach and GM of the WNBA’s new Las Vegas franchise. The league and Spurs Sports and Entertainment is still not disclosing information about the buyer.

“Negotiations with a potential buyer of the Stars team are ongoing,” WNBA spokesperson Dina Skokos said in a statement Thursday. “Once those discussions are concluded, we will provide additional information.”

WNBA franchises go where there’s an owner ready to spend the money.

Becky Hammon says the Stars leaving San Antonio sucks.

Wide-ranging storylines

NCAA news:

Condoleezza Rice will head a new NCAA commission in response to the recent bribery scheme.

College conference news:

The Pac-12 Conference has announced a task force to address issues threatening the integrity of collegiate athletics.

College program news:

AP sources say the NCAA will release a ruling on the North Carolina academic fraud case tomorrow.

Preseason predictions for South Carolina and the SEC.

College team news:

Shakayla Thomas and Florida State are hungry for the next step.

Washington is preparing for life without Kelsey Plum.

College player news:

Texas guard Brooke McCarty got engaged during practice today.

The queen of Mississippi State’s basketball court is now the queen of the homecoming court.

Is Kristine Anigwe the best dancer on Cal’s team?

Meet Washington freshman Missy Peterson.

Montana’s Kayleigh Valley has sustained a knee injury and is out for the season, for the second year in a row.

College coach news:

Utah coach Lynne Roberts said her team’s foundation has been laid, but it’s about the long game in the Pac-12.

Oral Roberts coach Misti Cussen is happy to ditch 2017.

Colorado’s Alexis Robinson and Kennedy Leonard poked fun at coach JR Payne during Pac-12 media day.

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard impersonate coach Kelly Graves.

WNBA team news:

Earlier this afternoon the news began to break that Spurs Sports and Entertainment was selling the San Antonio Stars.

Just up moments ago: WNBA’s San Antonio Stars have deal for Las Vegas relocation.

The franchise issued a statement in a tweet.

Women in sports careers:

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson has been named NBA Senior Vice President and Head of Referee Operations.

High school recruiting news:

No. 1 Samantha Brunnelle is a prospect with a cause.

Texas commit Charli Collier wanted her family to be able to see her play.

Pac-12 preview: the University of Oregon

This is the first in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

The Oregon team that finished the 2016-2017 season was a dangerous one. They upset Temple, Duke and Maryland en route to reaching the first Elite 8 in program history, before finally reaching a road block in top-seeded Connecticut.

The only thing scarier than that is the Duck squad that is going into this season: they return all five starters and their top eight scorers from last year. What’s more, they also add a second consecutive stellar freshman class. A preseason poll this week tabbed Oregon to finish second in the Pac-12.

Coach Kelly Graves said that their new depth has already made a difference.

“There is competition at every position, which makes for some intense practices,” he said. “We could sustain an injury and be OK for the day.”

Graves praised his four freshmen, whom he called “awesome.”

“It’s crazy how good they are,” he said.

At the same time, the 24-year collegiate coach is realistic, with only two senior and two juniors poised to lead the team.

“We’re still young, and we will play that way from time to time,” he said.

Youth didn’t seem to matter last year, as a pair of freshmen were Oregon’s leading scorers. Forward Ruthy Hebard (14.9 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) and guard Sabrina Ionescu (14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game) helped set the tone early, leading the team to a 10-2 preconference record that included an upset of No. 24 Michigan State and a win over Clemson.

The Ducks stumbled a bit in Pac-12 play, going 8-10. But the regrouping they did for their postseason run showed their tremendous potential – as well as the fact that they are unafraid.

Graves acknowledged that the expectations of his team are higher this year, but he said they are ready.

“I think they, in the backs of their minds, think they can do more and do better, and that’s certainly what we’re gunning for this year,” he said.

Senior guard Lexi Bando (10.2 points per game), junior guard Maite Cazorla (8.1 points, 3.9 assists per game) and sophomore forward Mallory McGwire (7.3 points, 4.2 rebounds per game) also return to start with Hebard and Ionescu.

Returning reserves include junior forward Oti Gildon, senior guard Justine Hall, sophomore guard Sierra Campisano and sophomore guard Morgan Yaeger.

Newcomers include German forward Satou Sabally; Australian guard Anneli Maley; and guard Aina Ayuso from Spain. Redshirt freshman Lydia Giomi, who received a medical hardship after breaking her hand a few games into last season, is also ready to play.

Sophomore forward Erin Boley, who transferred to Oregon from Notre Dame last spring, is practicing with the team despite being ineligible for play this year due to transfer rules.

“Erin is an elite player, and having her here, in practices, makes a huge difference,” Graves said.

Ionescu said the Ducks will continue to focus on playing team basketball.

“I think everyone’s going to have a huge role on our team this year,” she said. “I don’t think there is one player in particular that’s going to play more minutes, or do this or do that. That all takes care of itself.”

Graves said Oregon’s annual retreat is this weekend, where the team will hash out individual and collective goals. But in the first two weeks of practice, they are headed in the right direction.

“The chemistry is good, and everyone is working hard. No one has to be prodded along,” Graves said. “They are all great students. We’re in a great place right now.”

UCLA, Oregon picked to go 1 and 2 in preseason Pac-12 poll

Yep, I have been prognosticating this too, that UCLA will likely be top dog and Oregon second. The preseason poll confirms I’m not alone.

More conference news:

Big 12 preseason awards.

There was much friendly competition on Pac-12 media day.

The Pac-12 is committed to conference integrity, the commissioner says.

SWAC preseason all-conference honors.

College team news:

UCLA made a big statement on an international stage this summer.

Preseason notebook from Vanderbilt.

Connecticut is hitting the practice floor running.

Behind the scenes at Pac-12 media day with USC.

Trips to the outdoors helped team bonding at Stanford.

Florida has opened practices with drills, dancing and a new coach.

OSU at Pac-12 media day. They are ready to reload after losing Sydney Wiese.

Oregon is young again, the the expectations are high. They carry the weight of those expectations into a new season.

The Canadian pipeline keeps paying off for Utah. The Utes are already feeling midseason chemistry.

Washington brings fresh faces and energy. No Kelsey Plum, but energy.

New Mexico State is picked to win the WAC.

Offense-rich Ohio State continues their effort to improve defense.

Arizona is making strides, but the best may be yet to come.

Nebraska is working to finish stronger.

Kentucky is ready to paint their own picture.

Baylor pioneer Suzie Snider Eppers is proud of the program.

College player news:

UCLA’s Monique Billings and Jordin Canada “turn up.”

Florida spotlight on Dyandria Anderson.

South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson is the SEC preseason player of the year.

Oregon State’s Mikayla Pivec turned to javelin last spring to help her prepare for basketball.

Washington’s Hannah Johnson got coaching advice from Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.

Utah’s Tanaeya Boclair wants to empower youth through the Teach for America program.

Washington State guard Pinelopi Pavlopoulou shined in the team’s postseason run last year.

Kansas State has dismissed sophomore forward Eternati Willock for repeatedly violating team rules.

College coach news:

Tara VanDerveer’s contract has been extended through the 2019-2020 season.

VanDerveer still flashes her game for her players.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes has players going out of their comfort zones.

Coach Charli Turner Thorne uses storytime to explain ASU’s youth. She and her players busted moves at media day.

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb is balancing motherhood and coaching.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly says his player was disrespected in preseason rankings.


I was a guest on Chasity Melvin’s podcast. Check it out.

A tiny bit of WNBA:

Overseas assignments so far. What’s interesting about this list is who is NOT on it.

NCAA launching pilot program to grow women’s basketball

The NCAA has launched a new Division I initiative to raise awareness of women’s basketball and enhance attendance at games.

“The program also will seek out the creativity of college basketball marketers throughout the country.”

The NCAA is on top of things. I’ve long advocated this approach for the WNBA. I’m glad the NCAA is doing their part to grow the game.

College team news:

New players could mean a return to an old style for Kentucky.

The Wildcats have the tools to replace what they lost last year.

High-scoring Ohio State is making defense a top priority this season.

Two tiny teammates have joined the Cal Bears.

Cal State Bakersfield is looking for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Oklahoma is beginning practices with a commitment to defense.

Athletic complex updates are a game-changer for Siena.

College player news:

Kelsey Mitchell reflects on her USA Basketball experience over the summer.

Senior Emily Durr has stepped into a leadership role for Iowa State.

How Kansas sophomore Kylee Kopatich found and embraced her own leadership role.

Alabama gave walk-on Taylor Berry a scholarship.

College coach news:

Interview with Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard.

First-year New Mexico coach Brooke Atkinson looks to build on the team’s recent success.

Boise State’s Connie Thorngren was a mentor and friend.

College recruiting news:

Aquira DeCosta and Honesty Scott-Grayson both verballed to Baylor today. DeCosta is No. 4 in the 2018 class and Scott-Grayson is the No. 2-ranked guard.

WNBA player news:

Brionna Jones and Emma Cannon were denied entry to Turkey this week after a fallout between that country and the U.S.

Former WNBA player news:

Becky Hammon continues to blaze an impressive trail in the NBA coaching ranks.

Oklahoma will retire Courtney Paris’ jersey Nov. 10.

International news:

ESPN and FIBA have announced a multiyear agreement that includes the right to distribute events across ESPN’s platforms through September 2021.

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