The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, October 28, 2020
Uncontrolled — Yolett McPhee-McCuin talks Ole Miss hoops — Must-click women's basketball links
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This morning, the Big East held its men’s basketball media day. Women’s hoops gets its own tomorrow. The event is usually held jointly, at Madison Square Garden, and I’ve covered it for well over a decade.
But things are different in 2020, you may have noticed, and that extends into what kind of season can be expected at the collegiate level. I covered it via Zoom, of course.
Accordingly, a statement from Jay Wright, men’s coach at Villanova, reminded me for more than the first time in the past 24 hours just how little control women’s basketball will have over its own season.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s do it.
Wright points out, correctly, that students can’t and shouldn’t be treated the same way as professional athletes in terms of obligations and expectations. There’s also the cost factor, which is to say: men’s basketball currently drives more revenue at almost every school, but any effort that fails to provide the same opportunities for men and women will run afoul of the law.
If not for bubbles, though, you can and should expect cases to proliferate. Even in the cases of conferences attempting to limit spread, though, there’s still a danger inherent in whichever school is least capable of following the rules.
Accordingly, Val Ackerman has wisely created wiggle room in the Big East schedule — after December, there’s a period of re-evaluation, to see what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what is possible for the Big East going forward. (I’m not surprised the conference smart enough to purchase pandemic insurance ahead of the conference tournament is ahead of the curve on this, but it is worth pointing out just the same.)
Even so: there are “models” they are looking at, not just one. And there simply aren’t ways to predict just how much and how often they’ll need to adjust.
For perspective: Major League Baseball, made up of professional athletes, during a period when the virus was not as widespread as it is now, had to cancel dozens of games, and saw its World Series celebration last night marred by a player ignoring the rules and celebrating among his teammates with a positive test to his name.
Now imagine expecting full buy-in and implementation free of problems from schools all over the country. It’s not realistic. It’s the goal, but planning for when hiccups occur is the responsible way to do it.
But expect the entirety of the season to feel very different. Normally, I enter The Garden, and I can feel the season shift as I do, immersing myself in the new campaign, walking out with media guides to study and preparing for the familiar rhythms.
There’s no familiar rhythms these days. It’s something we’re all going to have to navigate, from the conferences on down. But women’s college basketball — at the mercy of a disease our country has done little to slow, working opposite the men’s game that tends to drive decisions, within athletic departments that are often held hostage to football revenues — is in a particular period of unknown.
It’s not great. But it is very 2020.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Some real progress in some outlets, covering the WNBA! In others… not so much!
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Around The Rim’s founding duo, Terrika Foster-Brasby and LaChina Robinson. Read more here on why.
Five at The IX: Yolett McPhee-McCuin, Ole Miss head coach
Screenshot via Ole Miss Athletics
Here’s what Coach Yo had to say to us in the media earlier this month.
“I feel like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t sleep last night. I was up all night as if it was my first official practice. Intentionally, I wanted to give the team some time off before we really got going, and I wanted to build that excitement that I had as a player, giving them a break and the anticipation to have them ready for the season. It’s obviously different times, unique, but I am excited about my group and just look forward to getting better with them every single day.”
On freshman Madison Scott
“I didn’t think I would get that lucky for her to be able to just come in and break onto the scene, but I can tell you that she is far along as a freshman. I think every freshman coming into the SEC needs an acclimation opportunity, but she’s looking great, really playing and practicing at a high level. You can tell that there’s an immediate level of talent when she’s on the floor. Really excited about her growth and her impact even as a freshman, and she has big goals as well, so you know she really wants to make a mark as a freshman, so we’re just helping her along in that aspect.”
“I can’t comment on certain things as far as COVID and personnel is concerned, but I can tell you that we have been doing a great job. We have been paying attention to the rules, our athletic trainer Meredith (Pendergast), we call her the COVID police, she’s been phenomenal. She drives me nuts, that’s why I know she’s doing a good job, but our players understand, and they want to have a season, so we’ve been kind of lucky over here.”
“Well, for the new players that was easy because that’s how we got them here. We were able to get them here because they wanted to be different, they wanted to bring their winning attitude. Everybody that we have committed is from a wining high school or college program as a transfer, so that’s something that they expect. It’s been a transition for the returners, not a bad one. You just don’t know what you don’t know, and so they have been extremely open, they have embraced their new teammates and the level of competition has risen tremendously. The level of expectation has, and I think as we continue to go throughout the season, and the returners get to really see that it’s different, it’ll make them more comfortable in going into this new phase of the program which were trying to reach.”
On her philosophy
I’ve always been about winning. I think I’m way more demanding this year, but I think I can be that way because you know that I’ve had two years with the young ladies that are returning, and I’ve spent a lot of time recruiting the ones that are here, and so we don’t have to get to know each other. Everybody understands what the expectation is and the newcomers, we called them the new bloods, they know why they’re here, and they know that they’re going to be held to that expectation every single day.”
On the top-ranked recruiting class
“First of all, we’re way more athletic. We have more size, so when you walk into our practice, you know we don’t have a 5-4 guard playing the three. You know we’re 6 foot, 6-1 at that position, and so that’s been great for me. Two, their mentality and work ethic. Those first two years, honestly, I felt like I was in survival mode, just trying to get through changing a lot of what I wanted to do with personnel. This is the first year hoping that we stay healthy that we’ll be able to see the fans, we’ll be able to see the type of basketball that we want to play, more aggressive, 94 feet up-tempo and you’ll be able to see that. The third thing is you’re going to see a team that’s young, but a team that is extremely tough. That’s one thing we’ll focus on all preseason, is trying to get them to a mental place where they can compete night-in and night-out in the SEC.”
On who’s standing out
“Man, I have a few people. Donnetta Johnson, we’ve been patiently waiting on her and I mean she has been incredible. She just knows how to score in a multiple amount of ways, and she’s taking defense to another level, and that’s probably credited to Georgia. They play defense there, so it’s not something that was foreign to her, so she came in and really bought into the defensive philosophy right away. Her work ethic, she’s really silent, but she’s in the gym all the time, and the things she’s able to do, I just don’t think you can coach all of it.
Madison Scott has been, you know the All-American that we thought she would be. She’s unique because she’s a four-player, so it’s not like she’s a scoring guard, you know so she will impact the game defensively. She’s just so long and takes up a lot of space on the defensive side.
I’ll tell you this, if the basketball gods really want to bless, me we may get Shakira Austin because Shakira is a pro. She has just really raised the level of everything the team does from the day she stepped on campus. She works extremely hard. One thing I love about her a lot is she’s curious, so you’ll see her in the point guard workout, she’ll sneak in there and want to do everything they’re doing.”
“We really spent a lot of time on just growing in multiple ways, from having guest speakers to having talks amongst each other to just little projects that we’ve been working on, and I really see it paying off every single day that we’re together. As far as the leadership is concerned, all over the place it’s kind of been surprising to me to see Shakira be as vocal as she’s been. The girls really lean on her. We know they believe in her. She’s proven to the program and she’s not shy to give her opinion on things. She’s gonna be fun to coach in a good way. And then Mimi has been there. She’s been great with her leadership, and Donnetta leads by what she shows. She’s our hardest worker by far, she just brings it every single day, so I’m really excited about seeing other people stepping in that role. I kind of try to let it organically grow and give people a space and opportunity to step into that role if that’s what they want.”
On sports influence in society
“I just think that’s sports in general. That’s why I can’t believe that people try to box athletes and coaches in. Where we have so much influence on an everyday basis. This offseason gave me a chance to really understand how important it is to teach our players to exercise who they are and use their platform. I just remember as a college athlete no one ever talked to us about voting. No one ever talked to us about what was going on. And I’m sure at that point we had something that was going on that some type of social unrest. It’s not like this is something new, this has been going on. And so, I’m just really excited that I have allowed our players to use their voice, use their platform, educate, we’ve learned so much about voting, what that means, the judicial system, the branches. And then, I think the most powerful the most memorable thing I’ve done as a coach was going down to Jackson at the capital with the rest of the colleagues in the state and being a part of changing something that symbolized so much hate, and being a part of that, changing our flag. There were so many people that have fought for centuries, for decades, trying to get that change. The fact that we were able to be the icing on the cake, that means the world to me. And the fact that my players had the chance to witness that, I know that that will empower them to use their platform when they get their opportunity.”
On possibility of changing the ‘spread the floor’ style of offense
“No, we’re coming with that. That’s our money, that’s how we’re gonna eat. If we can be in games with that with the personnel that I had last year, then I’d be a fool to change it. Obviously, I have players that can do different things. So, it was very simple. This year you will see different sets and packages that will allow the rest of the pieces that we have to show what they can. I don’t feel we had an inside game last year. We’ll have an inside game this year. With Andeija Puckett and Iyanla Kitchens. And then small ball, with Caitlin McGee playing down there. Yes, we will be downhill, we will space the floor, we will make it simple. But then you’ll see we’re gonna put Donnetta in situations and Madi (Scott) in situations where they can be their best. I’m really looking forward to playing different combinations and packages so that they can show what they are capable of doing.”
On Andeija Puckett and Iyanla Kitchens…
“With Andeija Puckett, that’s our transfer that sat-out from Cincinnati. She’s like a black hole, when it goes in it’s going up. People just need to be ready to go, she ain’t passing that thing out. She’s gonna get touches and she finishes really well around the basket. Iyanla last year was the best rated screener. I know people don’t look at that, but she was so productive with setting screens last year. If she can do that with the type of players we have coming off of it this year, with Tiya Douglas shooting the way she’s shooting, and Donnetta, and Snudda, that’s gonna help us a lot. Offensively, she’s gotten better. But we don’t have the expectations that we have for A.P. (Puckett) to be that dominant presence down there and score. We have her more being that bruiser, that physical player that can clear some space out for us. We have two different looks and then we have small ball where Caitlin and Sarah will play down there and be able to give us some Miami Heat offense that we’re excited about.