The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, November 4, 2020

Incremental change — Kellie Harper talks Lady Vols — Must-click women's basketball links

(Hi! Howard Megdal here. The IX helps build the necessary infrastructure for women’s sports media. By connecting these worlds, it gives women’s sports the networking boost men’s sports can take for granted.

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Good afternoon. I trust you are tired, I trust you are both hopeful and disappointed in various increments.

And I think there are lessons for the larger project all of you are on with us at The IX in what we saw last night.

This is an election that did not deliver the kind of repudiation to the fascist regime we all hoped for. It did, however, appear to put Joe Biden within striking distance of a victory as I write this on Wednesday afternoon. This is progress. For our parochial purposes, having a Secretary of Education overseeing Title IX who isn’t Betsy DeVos, in and of itself, will have major implications for so many people. And a new president means things like that change, writ large, even without a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

There are many of us who are focused on what didn’t happen, and I’m not here to tell you how to react. But it does strike me that what we’ve seen is some significant, incremental progress that reflects more buy-in from people joining the fight, while the true institutional limitations of that are equally clear.

The opposition has been mobilized for decades. A progressive push on the left just, it appears, elected a Democratic president with the most progressive agenda in American history, in large part due to a need to center himself within the party.

All of which brings us to women’s sports, the coverage of it and the place for it in the American landscape. To cite just one example: when mainstream sports reporters do things like this…

… there’s a lot of response that reminds the person responsible that yes, women exist, and they are part of “pro sports history”.

And no, not just me.

I mean, regarding the last two: they tried. A for effort.

The point here is, there’s accountability in sports media that didn’t exist five years ago. And it makes a difference. Writers who fail to evolve and adapt get dragged, and a large, increasing portion of the stories they’d cover are not available to them.

Even so: there’s no satisfying switch to flip. It requires the every day work. There’s a reason we do what we do here every day, why The Next is a 24/7 outlet. The organizing and changing a landscape that looks past women, particularly women of color, requires the work to be decades-long and without rest. It is aggravating: some people, in bad faith, continue to hold it at arm’s length. Some would-be allies are ineffectual or actively make it harder. (Sound familiar, Democrats?) But the work cannot, must not stop.

And we have to think of the election the same way. I came to make peace with the Amy Coney Barrett nomination for a simple reason: it was a battle we’d already lost. That happened when previous elections weren’t fought the way they needed to be, voter suppression unchallenged, our base improperly motivated and activated.

How many people do you know who were more involved in 2020 than they were in 2014, when Democrats lost the Senate? Because that’s when we lost the chance to fight back on the basis of power earned, rather than hoping norms would be respected.

And that’s what needs to happen going forward. Incremental wins, banked. The fight, continued. Every day. That’s what the other side does. I won’t get into how or why it took this long for elements of our coalition to join the fight fully, but if the second straight close call has done anything, it has hopefully reinforced to those who are finally awake that there’s no “sitting this one out”, that politics is not a game, it is a direct relationship to how our lives are governed, who has rights and who needs to play by the rules.

The fight for women’s sports and the fight for America don’t just overlap. They’re the same thing. And they require the same level of engagement. I’m here for all of it.

This week in women’s basketball

PJ Brown caught up with Aari McDonald.

Just Women’s Sports weighs in on Niele Ivey.

Lindsay Whalen keeps it local.

Jacqueline LeBlanc writes about Duke trailblazer Vanessa de Jesus.

Erica L. Ayala profiled Terri Jackson.

Sabreena Merchant spoke with LaChina Robinson.

A beautiful reckoning here by Abbie Wolf about her own mental health.

Here’s Russ Steinberg on what Geno Auriemma had to say at Big East Media Day.

Must-read Natalie Weiner with outtakes from her New York Times interview of Sue Wicks, this time at FanByte.

Jacqueline LeBlanc also looks at the burgeoning women’s professional game in The Philippines.

Nneka Ogwumike joined the Just Women’s Sports podcast.

Hear from Megan McPeak and Pepper Persley on the same interview show!

Terrific Katie Davidson player-by-player Minnesota Lynx offseason guide!

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Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee head coach

Kellie spoke to the media last week. Here’s some of what she had to say.

Opening statement:
“We’re excited. We’re excited about getting to play basketball and this upcoming season. I understand we still have to be flexible and we have to be able to pivot at any moment, but we’ve had good practices. We’ve had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and our players have been really positive throughout this time. They seem pretty eager to take the court against an opponent. So, I’ve been thrilled. I love the way that this team is shaping up, and I’m excited to see what we can do.”

On whether Tennessee is still going to be able to open the season at a tournament in Florida:
“We found out last night that we are not. So, we are still working on non-conference scheduling. The landscape is changing weekly, if not daily, so we’re hoping to finalize our non-conference and get our conference schedule out sooner rather than later. It’s definitely been a challenge.”

On what she’s been most pleased about so far in practice:
“I think everybody has been on the same page in terms of learning and putting things in. I think we’ve worked hard, and our players have really come with great energy each and every day. Our communication has been much better than it was a year ago. Everybody has been very positive, and I think really embraced our returners and newcomers alike, so it’s been a really good atmosphere. In terms of basketball, it’s still early and we’re still putting things in, but I like the energy that we’re using on defense and I like the thought process that we have offensively at this point.”

On whether the Tennessee-UConn game scheduled for January is still on:
“Right now, we haven’t been able to announce anything on our end, but with it being a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame game and a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame game along with the Pat Summitt Foundation, it is still scheduled for January 21. I have not had conversations with them, but I know the administration for both schools, as well folks in both of those parties, have been in touch.”

On keeping the team engaged during an abnormal time:
“Early on, back in the spring, which seems like a lifetime ago now, we couldn’t do a whole lot. We were trying to make sure we were face to face, just like this, having Zoom calls with them, talking to them about what they could be doing. Did they have access to a basketball goal outside? Did they have access to just a basketball where they could dribble inside? So, we had a lot of conversations throughout that time and we were really intentional with our meetings. We had book clubs, we had diversity training, we had leadership meetings. We tried to be very intentional about staying engaged with our team, even when it was not on the court. And we tried to take advantage of that time and take advantage of those meetings because that was a really great opportunity for growth for our team.”

On where the newcomers are at in their transition into college basketball:
“We weren’t able to get them here as early as normal. Typically, they would have been here toward the end of May. It was several weeks later that we got them on campus, but we’ve been able to work with them in one-on-one settings and small groups and then as a team. So, I think right now, they’re comfortable with what we’re doing. They’re pretty excited about coming to practice every day and getting better. I think they have picked things up very quickly. The only thing that they’re missing at this point is the experience, and they’re not going to get that until they step out there in their first college game. With where they’re at right now, I’ve been very pleased.”

On whether she wants to continue to take the approach of using lots of substitutions:
“Going into this season, I feel more comfortable with our depth. I like playing players. They come to practice every day, they want to play. I think when they go out there and earn playing time, I want to reward them with that. In terms of having a substitution pattern, we want to do that. It has to make sense, but I think right now just numbers wise, we have a little more depth.”

On Rennia Davis’ development:
“Historically, one of the things that you can look at with Rennia’s performances is you can see how she has improved every year. I think she had a really good junior campaign, and what we would like to do is build on that. For her to take a really good season last year and even improve on that. She’s finding a little more diversity in her game. She’s gotten better at ball handling, she can really shoot, she can really score, and she’s a great athlete. I’ve been really impressed with her defense this preseason. She’s done a really good job on the ball and off the ball. She’s an excellent rebounder. She can continue to improve in almost all of those areas. We just want her to be Rennia and just find small ways to be better each and every day.”

On whether she believes the team’s improved communication is due to the offseason Zoom calls and the communication built there:
“Our communication has been better, but we’re still working on it, we’re still a work in progress and will continue to improve in that area. I think it’s three things. I think one, we have worked so much off the court this summer, I think it is translating to the court. I think they understand how much they have to communicate to be successful. Two, I think our upperclassmen just have another year under their belts and are more experienced, a little bit more confident. And when you have that confidence, it’s easier to speak, it’s easier to communicate on the court, and I think we’re seeing that from them which has been a really good positive. And then our newcomers, who I think by nature are pretty vocal. They’re bringing a lot of energy, and so I think it’s been a wonderful addition to our team not only with X’s and O’s, but also just their personalities and how they blend and fit in with this group.”

On how she would say the team’s chemistry has progressed since she was hired:
“I think right now it’s really good. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not one of those things that you finally arrive at, you check a box for and move on from. It’s constant. You have to work on it. And we do. We are very intentional about working on our team chemistry and finding ways to continue to build that confidence with each other. But it just feels good when you walk in, there’s a really good vibe to practice right now, or to any of our meetings. I think they’re legitimately pulling for each other and understand how important that the teammate next to them is. Everybody has to be pulling in the right direction for us to do something special. It’s not four people. Four people can’t pull the whole team along. It’s everybody, and I think they’re really buying into that.”

On what she likes out of each freshman so far:
Tess Darby is an excellent shooter and a really hard worker. She is one of those players that will ask a lot of questions just because she wants to get it right. She comes from a winning program, and we can feel that from her.

Destiny Salary, same thing in terms of coming from a winning program. She brings a lot of energy, a lot of personality, which I think is just as important as any basketball skills she can bring. But right now, on the court, she’s doing a really good job handling the ball, she’s doing a good job getting to the basket and knocking down shots, too. We’ve really liked seeing her development this preseason.

Marta Suárez is very dynamic. She has a wide skill set, she can play several positions, she’s got a little ‘baller’ in her and is really fun to watch because she can make plays.”

On Jordan Horston and Tamari Key’s development:
“I’ll start with Jordan. I feel like her maturity level has been raised. She is already more consistent in showing up at practice and in doing what she needs to do to be successful. She looks amazing right now. She looks the part. She walks out on the court, and she’s bigger and stronger than everybody. And I think what we’re trying to work on is let’s translate that into your aggressiveness at the basket. She’s knocking down shots, she’s getting to the basket. Her strength and size right now could allow her to play more powerfully this season.

“I think Tamari is still just really talented. I think for her, her growth is still just taking that talent to the next level and not just being talented, but outworking someone, or being more aggressive on the court and not letting plays happen to her, her going out and making plays because she’s so capable of doing that.”

On Rae Burrell:
“First off, I think she was the ultimate sixth man last year. That is what you want. You want somebody coming in fearless, playing downhill, being aggressive coming off the bench, because that’s firepower coming off the bench. So, I thought that was a great role that she filled for us. But she also did a really good job when she stepped in the starting role. She’s still showing that aggressiveness, she’s showing a lot of high energy plays. She’s not gotten a lot of shots, but she’s had some really good practices. The more that she plays, the better she’s going to get in my opinion.”

On defense being behind the offense heading into the season:
“We have spent more time on our offense. I will say we’ve spent a lot of time on offense this offseason, and a lot of that is by design. At any point we could lose practices due to COVID, and so what we’ve tried to do is front-load and put in as much of the teaching aspects early, so that at any point we’re still going to be in pretty good shape in terms of what we can do. For us, we felt like the defense would be one of those things that we could pick up late if we needed to. So, we’ve been heavy on the offense early on by design, and then we’ve really picked up defense. I’ve been proud of them how they’ve started off the preseason defensively, so hopefully we can stick with that.”

On the challenges of developing a deep rotation:
“The issues arise because players want to play, and everybody wants to play as many minutes as they possibly can. But I think if you go back and look at my teams historically, we play a lot of people. It just takes communication with your players. I think it also takes them buying in and understanding how effective and beneficial it is to have a solid, deep rotation. When and where the positives will show will be at the end of the year, at the end of a game when you have a little bit more fresh legs. I feel really good about.”

On Jordan HorstonJordan Walker and Keyen Green:
“Both Jordan Horston and Jordan Walker are playing point guard right now, as well as Destiny Salary. We’re trying to get those three solid reps throughout the practices. Jordan Horston and Destiny Salary can also play the off-guard with no problem, so we can play those players together which gives us depth and a lot of different combinations, which I think is really valuable and useful. But they’ve done well. I think they’re picking things up. I’ve been really impressed with Destiny Salary and Jordan Walker walking in and stepping up and being vocal, asking questions, getting things right, being aggressive. They haven’t played timid at all, and I think that’s hard to do, especially at a point guard position when you’re new.

Keyen Green has made a big impact on our team already. She comes in with great maturity, great leadership, unbelievable work ethic on the court. I think she took four charges in one practice. This is a tough, hard-nosed kid that wants the basketball, and if you don’t throw it to her, she’ll just go get the rebound. She’s been really good for us thus far.”

On the recent roundtable discussion with UTPD?
“We are having ongoing diversity, inclusion and equality discussions. We are consistently having conversations with our team to educate, to find our voice, and to also find where we can make a difference and where our team as a whole can make a difference. We have different discussions every couple of weeks, and we were very fortunate to have Chief Lane and one of his officers come and answer questions from our group. It was very insightful, and I think that our players really appreciated their time and also their experience and them just sharing a different lens on what’s going on in the world.”

On the importance of getting consistent scoring from the low post position:
“We’re definitely capable. I think the consistency was lacking last year. We would have a game where we’d really score underneath and then maybe have a couple games where we didn’t. We’re talented enough, and I think we’ve got the personnel to do it. I think, for us, for our offense to be as good as it can possibly be, we need great balance with not just interior scoring, but scoring in the paint, off the dribble, scoring behind the 3-point line, scoring in transition, scoring at the free-throw line. We want to be able to put points on the board in a variety of ways; obviously, low-post work will be part of that.”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.