The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 13, 2021
Leadership matters, Lisa Baird and Cathy Engelbert prove it — Kellie Harper talks Tennessee's ranking — Must-click women's basketball links
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At the risk of stepping into the territory of my Soccer Monday colleague, Annie Peterson, my mind’s been on soccer quite a bit this week. Megan Rapinoe is back on the practice field. The NWSL Draft is in just a few hours.
But it matters for basketball, which is itself a reflection of how much better the women’s sports world is getting at connecting, capitalizing on the networking effect that men’s sports takes for granted. (Why The IX exists in the first place is to fix this on the sports media side!)
Breanna Stewart will be part of the festivities tonight, which you can watch on Twitch.tv. And commissioner Lisa Baird of the NWSL told us on Tuesday that she speaks regularly with Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner, about an array of topics relevant to both leagues.
“There is a camaraderie and a collaboration between the leagues,” Baird said. “I’ve talked to Cathy at the WNBA a couple times over the course of the year. I reached out because we are we are unified in our mission to grow the exposure that women’s sports has.”
Those of you here know the extent of growth we saw on both the WNBA and NWSL side in 2020. That it happened amid a pandemic, with up arrows alongside all the other men’s sports seeing reductions in everything from television ratings to revenue, means the opportunity in 2021 is another level altogether, as the country gets vaccinated, fans can return to venues, and both basketball and soccer can benefit, potentially, from an Olympic bounce.
But those of us veterans of the scene understand the opportunity must be capitalized on, and there hasn’t been leadership in place to do that, way too often, in either club soccer or basketball here in America. The presidents of the WNBA who have followed Val Ackerman were, well, no Val Ackerman. It’s hard to call Jeff Plush, Lisa Baird’s predecessor as NWSL commissioner, anything other than inertia in human form.
There has been a focus on the here and now, or even worse, the just-was: a reactive leadership style that did not hope or plan for tomorrow, let alone have a plan for how to get there. Survive and react is no way to grow a sports league.
But both Baird and Engelbert have now gone beyond the high hopes many of us had for them when they took over the two leagues. They’ve navigated a crisis unlike any that came before. In Engelbert’s case, she did it right after negotiating a landmark CBA that changes the equation of the league.
I’ve spoken to both of them enough to know they each wanted to get comfortable in their first year, survey the landscape, before making bigger moves. Well, each of their first years wouldn’t be what I think they’d describe as comfortable, but they’re settled in. The progress is evident, the number of companies, and the size of them, sponsoring the leagues have multiplied. (Getting Plush to explain why he hadn’t added a single new sponsor the year the USWNT won the 2015 World Cup was one of the more frustrating experiences of my journalistic life.)
It all means that there’s not just opportunity, but leadership, in the two biggest professional sports leagues in America. That is not to say there aren’t huge challenges in getting them to grow to where we all want them, to reach equality with men’s sports.
But Engelbert signed an eight-year agreement with the players. Baird outlined the process of creating, in 2021, a ten-year plan for NWSL. Gone are the days when every other article you’d read about pro women’s soccer or basketball in this country would ask, “Will it survive?”
The WNBA and NWSL survived a pandemic. And they’re working together to get even bigger in this, a year with more promise for women’s sports than any I can remember.
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This week in women’s basketball
Candace Buckner has reporting on Kelly Loeffler here that includes the league saying there are ongoing conversations with potential buyers.
Ora Washington is one to know. Bria Felicien, who is another to know, explains.
Really enjoyed this father-daughter Magarity chat, courtesy of Doug Feinberg.
Just under the wire! Chantel Jennings on Hailey Van Lith. My reward for sending this out to you is reading this piece, but I’ll link to it on faith.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Kellie Harper talks Tennessee’s return to the Top 25 and more
On being in the Top-25 every year since the rankings began and what that does for recruiting:
“Well, that’s where we belong. This program is a program of excellence, and I think the bar is set really high here. The expectation is that’s where we are. Our name on that list is important. I’ll say this though, when we were getting back to practice after our COVID break, on every ticker I saw, (it said) we were coming back to practice. I don’t know many other programs that they are going to do that for and say we are actually practicing. I think our program still resonates strongly nationally and having that name in that poll only reiterates that.”
On the progress of Jordan Horston from last year to this year:
“Anytime you’re working with players who are really talented, you’re going to see improvements. After the season last year, I knew 100 percent that Jordan Horston was going to be a better player her sophomore year, just for the fact that she was going to be a year older, and a year more experienced. Her game is more mature – she is playing consistent basketball right now, and she is still unbelievably talented. She is playing with a lot of confidence, and when she makes a mistake she can move on because she is comfortable enough doing that. It’s a process, and you have to learn who you are as a college basketball player, and that’s for every freshman. She had some great games, great moments, and great minutes last year, and I think it was a good freshman year, and she’s continuing to improve.”
On what are some things she is going to try do offensively and defensively against Georgia and how to contain Jenna Staiti:
“For them, the interesting thing is they got some dynamic and quick guards on the perimeter that we’re going to have to guard. If we don’t guard them, it is going to give their post players more opportunities. We’ve got to start with our one-on-one defense, and we have got to be able to guard a little bit better so we are not having to rotate and move around. Our players understand the scouting report and who you have to lock into, be physical with, guard early, be aware of, and I think all of those things are definitely in play when we are guarding Georgia and how they will attack us. For us, offensively, it’s going to be real important that we take care of the basketball. They guard, and Georgia will get down and guard as well as anybody. We’re going to have to really work, be strong with the ball, be careful with the ball, so that we can find offensive production.”
On if it’s better for Tamari Key to face post players, rather than smaller guards in the paint:
“I think Tamari is more comfortable guarding a post player on the block. That’s what she is conditioned to do. A lot of times throughout the year, we have to move her around depending on our opponent. For the most part, her strength is definitely on the block. They have those little guards that can get in there, and we don’t want them to get to her, obviously. If they (Georgia) do get to her, we have to rotate. There are going to be a lot of things that have to happen for us to be able to contain them.”
On what she has emphasized to the team after wins over Arkansas and LSU to begin conference play:
“Coming out of the Arkansas game, I thought our players were really locked in and executed the game plan. I thought our transition defense was solid. I thought our ball movement was terrific. I thought our patience offensively and our work on the boards was good. (Against) LSU, our transition defense was OK when they weren’t getting steals and scoring. Our work on the boards was OK. Defensively, we could have been a lot better, I felt like. I thought they really took it to us, and we did not do a good job of containing penetration. Offensively, we scored enough. I thought there were times where we didn’t get enough ball movement, and I thought we were a little stagnant, especially in the second half.”
On the challenges that Alabama will present on Sunday:
“Fortunately, I’ve actually seen them play a little bit more than I normally would at this point, due to our week off. I think they come in with very experienced players, very confident players. They execute a game plan on both ends of the court. It’s very apparent and obvious what their goal is and what they’re trying to do. I think they have balanced scoring. They have a point guard that is terrific right now. They’ve got a post player that’s shooting an unbelievable percentage in the paint. The players around them are doing exactly what they need to do. I’ve been really impressed with Alabama.”
On the way the team has been securing wins with strong finishes to games:
“I think we’ve had three close games, and we lost one in overtime. We were down six going into the fourth quarter and gave ourselves a chance to win (at West Virginia), so you could say we closed OK. The fourth quarter was OK. We got ourselves in position to win, but we didn’t close it. We just didn’t close it. We didn’t finish it. We had a close game at Indiana and did finish it. We got the buckets when we needed them and got the stops when we needed them. Those were important. (Against) LSU, we missed four free throws and a layup inside of a minute. Fortunately, we had a defensive stop to end the game. I don’t know that we necessarily closed that one well, but we found a way to win.”