The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, February 20, 2019

The uphill climb to play in the WNBA—Interview with Susan Robinson Fruchtl—Must-click women's basketball links

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Jess Kovatch has done everything anyone could have asked of her during four seasons at St. Francis of Loretto, Pennsylvania. Her scoring numbers are legendary. The way she pushes her teammates, just the confident strut she exhibits around the court—there’s a reason she’s consistently among the national leaders in scoring, and St. Francis reached the NCAA Tournament in 2018.

And yet, she understands there will be doubters, purely because she plays for a Northeast Conference school, and not a Power Five institution.

“I hear it all the time,” Kovatch said to me, as we stood in the media room at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “People say like she’s making these numbers because it’s not a tough conference, she’s not in a big conference, but at the end of the day, we have out of conference and we play bigger schools and we prepare and it’s still D-1 basketball.”

Kovatch is one of two highly-decorated seniors on Susan Robinson Fruchtl’s team. (You’ll hear from the coach in this week’s Five at The IX.) Fellow senior Courtney Zezza set the school record for blocks on Saturday, a skill she combines with a long 6’4 frame and propensity for shooting threes.

And yet: in a league with 144 jobs, total, and a well-stocked group of seniors and draft-eligible juniors prepared to take up each of the 36 draft slots, can Kovatch and Zezza break through? It’s hard enough for WNBA front offices to get eyes on the Power Five players, and with television appearances at a minimum, players like Kovatch and Zezza have trouble getting attention.

Robinson Fruchtl expressed a desire to help them both find jobs playing basketball overseas. And down the stretch of the game against FDU, the two teammates took over when the game was in the balance. Kovatch, primarily a scorer who plays off the ball, made an extra pass to Zezza for a big three that drew extended praise from her coach. This is a fun team, and I’d urge you to see them when you can. And then?

“I definitely want to look at the opportunity and see where I could go,” Zezza told me of playing professionally after the game, adding that she and Kovatch will play at the WNBA combine in Tampa this April.

A long, projectable big like Zezza, in the men’s game, would possibly find a roster spot among the 450 NBA jobs. She’d certainly have the chance to play for one of the 30 G-League teams, and develop there.

But for women’s basketball here in the United States? 144 jobs. That’s the whole ballgame. And so, as I left FDU Saturday afternoon, buoyed by watching a well-coached team and two elite talents, I also considered how much developmental time, how many careers were stalled before ever starting, thanks to a dramatically smaller funnel in the game of women’s basketball. Grow the game isn’t just a slogan. It matters, in ways large and small.

This Week in Women’s Basketball

Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me!

Natalie Nakase is coaching the Clippers, Mirjam Swanson has the story.

Enjoyed this Jenn Hatfield weekend in Duke with Zion and Coach P.

Valorie Whiteside was the truth, Kurtis Zimmerman takes us back.

Good stuff from SLAM on Stephanie Ready.

The Basketball Legend Next Door.

Sami Whitcomb is dominating EuroCup.

Mitchell Northam traces Maryland Eastern Shore’s journey to the doorstep of its first NCAA bid.

Megan Gustafson gets the Graham Hays treatment.

And Dargan Southard does this Gustafson story that should be par for the course with every standout NCAA senior, about her WNBA draft stock. (This is all the same sport!)

I love what Kelli Stacy is doing on the UConn beat, and her story on the wooden boards Geno Auriemma uses is a great example of why.

PJ Brown is tracking the progress of Arizona’s program, and has this crazy stat: first weekend Pac-12 sweep by the Wildcats in eight years!

Maggie Vanoni captures the Oti Gildon story so well here.

Make sure you are following Jordan Small’s coverage of Notre Dame.

Andy Katz chats with Shaylee Gonzales.

And a huge congratulations to Joni Taylor and Darius Taylor, Georgia head coach and Atlanta Dream assistant coach, respectively, on the birth of their second child, Drew Simone Taylor.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: Susan Robinson Fruchtl

I spoke to the legendary Penn State star and current St. Francis PA coach this weekend.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Something I find really interesting is that you guys are doing it a little bit differently. You know, so obviously you’re still playing fast at times, but you were third in the country in pace last year, you’re 30th coming in today. You’re still playing fast but it seems like you’re picking your spots. I’m wondering how you go about, especially coming in to meet here to make that change. How do you do it?

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: I always feel like just personally, there’s definitely a difference between playing fast and shooting fast. I’m more into playing fast. And taking good shots. Getting the one more shot, like you saw the day in the fourth quarter, Kovatch passed up a shot that she probably could have hit, taken, but at that point in the quarter, it was wide open.

So, I’m more that philosophy, I always have been. Pass up a good shot to get a great shot, it’s higher percentage. But if you move the ball quick enough, you can get just as many shots. We did a good job on getting the foul line in the fourth quarter, we did a good job at rebounding, defensive rebounding in the fourth quarter, that really limited them to one opportunity. And we got some key offensive boards in that fourth quarter that really sealed the deal. So our kids gutted it out, we didn’t shoot our best, at times we didn’t play our best with the turnovers, but I felt we played with no fear. We had an attack mentality down the stretch. And we played together. And that’s what we’re gonna have to continue to do.

HOWARD MEGDAL: For you to have someone like [Courtney Zezza], at that size, who’s able, she’s not just hitting trail three, you’re getting her involved in the corner as well. What kind of added weapon is that, not just for this year, but, even when you think about what she can be at the next level?

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: It’s big, a 6’4 kid being able to pop out and, for once a play, after St. Francis we’re gonna do everything we can do to help her fulfill that dream. If it’s in Europe, that is the European game, so she’ll fit in pretty well.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I mean in the W, it’s the norm right now too, and it’s not just the starting centers who are doing that either. Players like Theresa Plaisance off the bench in Dallas and she gets threes as well.

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: I mean the players have become a lot more versatile, I feel the three, there was a time a few years ago where I said there weren’t as many shooters as there once was. And I think Steph Curry, I honestly do, I think Steph Curry has had an impact on the men’s and women’s game. That you’re seeing more shooters. And then I think the European influence in the league both in the WNBA and NBA has had an influence on the style of basketball.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Do you think it’s EDD also, and Stewie, just the fact that we have two signature stars in the W who are not only doing that but doing it from an early age? Elena grew up learning to do it, and Stewie as well.

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: I remember [Delle Donne] going into ninth grade watching her at the WBCA camp when I was an assistant and she was amazing, even at that age. So, those kind of stars had a big influence on this generation.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Can I ask you about your own game? Just out of curiosity, I was recently talking to Cheryl Reeve, and she threw a Jess Shepard comp on you as a player.

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: I’m not as big as Shepherd, I don’t think.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Well, she’s 6’4.

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: I wish I would’ve been 6’4, after I’ve played a lot longer. I was definitely inside outside. First. Inside outside first. I had a lot of power. Passing, I would say. Especially with like Notre Dame’s, they were on their triangle offense, options. She’s a very good passer. I really loved passing the basketball. And as I got to junior year, senior year, I worked on the threes a lot more, so that pick and pop, I did a lot junior, senior year. But yeah I was mostly 15 feet, 16 feet, 17 feet along the base line and the high post area. You know I worked a ton on that part of myself.

HOWARD MEGDAL: You had a career that comes a handful of years before the W. And I just, I wonder, do you think about that in terms of if time had been, like I remember talking with Rebecca Lobo about this, and she talked, when she entered college, which is pre W, it wasn’t even on her radar to be playing professionally. Do you think about it?

SUSAN ROBINSON FRUCHTL: Well, I don’t know. I probably did a little bit then, but I played one year professionally in Japan, and then at that time I was in the last class that the Japanese league said “No more international females.” The men were still there, but I was in the last class in Japan. That had been going on for years. They still had the league, but if you look that ’92, ’93 year was no more international women.

I could’ve gone to Europe, but at that time the money in Europe was about the same as coaching, and I knew I always wanted to coach, so Dan Durkin, who was my position coach and assistant at Penn State, got the Duquesne head job. And then I interviewed for the assistant at my alma mater and stayed there.

I always wanted to coach and I love playing, of course, I was in the gym all the time. But I love teaching and I was the class coach and loved working with those big kids, and still keep in touch with them today. So no regrets. No regrets ’cause I hopefully I’ve had an impact on a lot of people in a good manner and hopefully will continue to do that.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by The IX Team