The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 6, 2021

Kelly Loeffler is the WNBA's problem now — Kyra Elzy talks Kentucky's big week — Must-click women's basketball links

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When the story of 2020 is told, the WNBA players, particularly those of the Atlanta Dream, will be an iconic part of that story forever.

A group of players in an often-marginalized league organized against their team’s owner to win an election that determined, it appears, control of the United States Senate.

They make movies about things like this. They’re usually fictional, a stretching of the imagination.

But that’s what the WNBPA accomplished in 2020. Those of us who love this sport deeply, who care about it in ways both meaningful and trivial, won’t soon forget Breanna Stewart’s on-court heroics, the rise of A’ja Wilson to MVP levels, the remarkable debut of Chennedy Carter on the court and Betnijah Laney’s ascension.

But we’re going to start by telling our grandkids about the women who saved America.

That’s the place we’re living, as a country, here in early January. The U.S. Senate is well-rid of the woman who plans to spend today, apparently, talking about how our electoral process itself is a problem. To tell lies on behalf of Donald Trump, no matter the damage to our democracy.

Here’s the problem from a WNBA perspective: she’s still got an ownership stake, as of the last accounting from the league, in the Atlanta Dream. And so a problem that threatened America writ-large is now a hyperlocal, but still absolutely, a problem in need of solving.

There are already players on the record who have said they will not play for Kelly Loeffler’s Dream. The reason this team did not self-destruct is that the players all understood the difficulty of altering an ownership structure not merely in-season, but in-season during a pandemic.

But it’s 2021. The vaccine is here. 2020, for all its faults, showed example after example of folks investing in women’s sports and getting richly rewarded for it.

And now, the person or people who buy the Atlanta Dream even get the added benefit of providing the league and its players with the same emotional release that so much of America experienced late into the night on Tuesday. Investing in women’s sports often requires a leap of faith, since it has been done so infrequently, a leap that men with money have been usually unwilling to take.

But no one has to guess what that will look or sound like when it happens. Just remember Tuesday night.

Beyond issues of morality, beyond the need for the WNBA to do right by its incredible players, the women who saved America, there are numerous, purely practical reasons why this has to happen. But there’s a simple question of competitive balance in the league. Nicki Collen and Chris Sienko have built a competitive, interesting young team with the Dream, one that gets to add another pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft lottery and, hopefully, a stretch five in free agency.

Free agency begins… next week. How anyone expects Collen and Sienko to make the case to stay in Atlanta (Laney, for instance, is a free agent) or to join that team without a resolution and expulsion of Loeffler is hard to fathom. They threaded this needle on the league’s behalf for more than a year. Now the league needs to do right by them too, a pair of exceptional basketball executives.

But look no further than to Sky Blue FC to see what happens when a team in the league becomes a place players simply will not play. It reached a point where Sky Blue’s own first round picks, from New Jersey, refused to sign there. It led to a single-win Sky Blue season and a competitive hole that, for all her acumen, GM Alyse LaHue is still digging her way out more than a year after ownership finally changed administrations and began spending at a level commensurate with professional soccer.

In that case, it was a Democratic politician who underfunded the team for years — an unfortunate reality of women’s sports history is that people across the political spectrum have refused to fully buy-in, to believe at a level that allows dreams to convert the And-1 to reality. Incidentally, once that investment came, players followed, record crowds showed up at Red Bull Arena, and Sky Blue FC is on its way to becoming a force. The same story can, and must, play out for whoever owns the Atlanta Dream next.

But last night, January 5, 2021, the Atlanta Dream and their allies across the WNBPA did just that, and scored a win for America that will reverberate across the political and public policy landscapes for decades to come.

They reduced the tumor to a manageable level.

Now it’s time for the WNBA to cut it out.

This week in women’s basketball

Terrific roundtable with NCAA refs from Doug Feinberg.

Jenn Hatfield is her usual, incisive self on the long-term effects of the Ivy League.

Also: Jenn on the best names of the season!

Jacqueline LeBlanc takes you around the NCAA with win shares and more.

Good stuff from Zac Boyer on Vivian Gray.

Here’s Dorothy J. Gentry on Rhyne Howard’s latest explosion.

Ken Belson looks at the role the Atlanta Dream played in the Georgia elections.

And Alex Azzi focused on Elizabeth Williams specifically.

Catch up with Tulsa’s Matilda Mossman.

Good stuff from Dan Gardella on how Kelsey Wood chose Sacred Heart.

Sean Hurd writes on Angel McCoughtry’s offseason, which is as eclectic and fascinating as Angel herself.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Kyra Elzy, Kentucky head coach

Kyra Elzy. (Screenshot from Kentucky Athletics Zoom)

You better believe I’m excited to watch Texas A&M vs. Kentucky this week. And we’ll have plenty more hoops talk next week. Meantime, here’s Coach Elzy on the matchup ahead.

On how it feels to be espnW National Coach of the Week…

“I am so honored that I received the award, but it is definitely way bigger than me. I’ve talked about it, but this staff is so amazing – Coach Amber Smith, Coach Niya Butts, Coach Lin Dunn, Daniel Boice and our support staff. It definitely wouldn’t be possible without them. Quick thing, I received the award, then I get a text message, it was from Amber Smit and she said, ‘National Coach of the Week, here is your list of recruits to call, please make sure you call these recruits and check back in with the staff.’ So, you know, way to keep you humble, right?”

On if you called all of those recruits…

“Yes. Coach Amber (Smith), I don’t know how the roles have changed, I recruited her and coached her at the University of Kentucky, and now she has become my boss. But yes, I do get my checklist done so that she won’t fuss at me, so I have to remain coachable.”

On going to No. 8 Texas A&M…

“Well, Texas A&M, they’re extremely tough. Coach Gary Blair, he is a legend, a living legend in this business, and they are extremely talented with a lot of depth. They look to push in transition, they’re hunting paint points, they play out in the ball screen as well as anybody in the country. So, we will definitely have our hands full, and obviously, Ciera Johnson in the paint, you know, she is a physical post that creates problems for us. You know, just going in, we will continue to focus on our transition defense, our one-on-one defense, keeping people out of the paint, and obviously we are working on our post defense to make sure that we’re prepared.”

On if there is a difference between SEC Rhyne Howard and non-conference Rhyne Howard…

“Well, I don’t think there is a difference. Obviously, she is playing extremely well right now with a lot of confidence. But the thing about Rhyne Howard, I’ve said it over and over and over again, she is the best player in the nation and she showed why. Her ability to score is just uncanny, she has ice water in her veins, and she can score at all three levels. But, what I think that people don’t appreciate about her as much, her ability to pass the basketball, her IQ, and she just does things so effortless that people don’t think she is playing hard all the time, but then you look at the stat sheet and she has eight assists, 10 rebounds, seven steals, so the body of work… and she has the ability to play the 1-5 and defend the 1-5, and that is what makes her special.”

On how traveling for road games this season differs from traveling for road games in a normal season…

“Great question. Traveling right now during COVID, obviously it is very strict. Our medical team has done a great job of keeping us healthy. Courtney Jones (athletic trainer) has worked tiredly to make sure that we are safe. But, as far as traveling, we have assigned seats, there is no eating on the bus, there is no eating on the plane. So, it does take away from some of the comradery of being able to sit with your friends. When we get to a hotel, everyone has their own assigned rooms and they can’t be in each other’s rooms, which takes out some of the fun of it, but what I love about this team, they know the sacrifice that they have to make in order to hit the floor.”

On where Treasure Hunt is in practice and will fans see her more this year…

“Treasure (Hunt) continues to progress, and our freshmen are very talented, our future is extremely bright. But, it is a change of pace, coming from high school to college, learning to play at the intensity on both ends of the floor, the physicality of the game, and it is just a learning curve for everyone. So, they continue to progress. Treasure Hunt is skilled offensively, she’s still trying to learn our defensive system, which will come in time, but I am extremely happy with all of their progress.”

On how the players and the coaches are fostering comradery through a pandemic season…

“Our team chemistry is undeniable, just great. This team just gels, they love each other, they are sisters and they are competitive. They want to win, and they’re going to look out for each other. We have said from the beginning, we have to be resilient, we have to be tough, and we have to stay together. It’s only us in the trenches, and they really take that to heart. But, you know, they spend a lot of time together off the basketball court because they’re here, they’re together in practice, and they’re friends off the court, which I think translates to them on the court.”

On what Blue Magic means…

“Yes, a lot of Blue Magic. You know, Blue Magic, that could mean for a great win. You know, we want to earn everything that we have, but there is something about Big Blue Nation and the Blue Magic that comes with it, and that we want people to be a part of it, so let’s continue with the Blue Magic.”

On what you learned from the road game at No. 12 Mississippi State that can help you in your road game at No. 8 Texas A&M…

“Great question, you know, what I learned about this team is they are tough and resilient. Not all of the calls went our way, we missed some layups, so, there were times in that game that we could’ve folded, but we hung in there, we faced adversity, and we just had players make big play, after big play, after big play, when we had to have it. Obviously, Rhyne (Howard) came up huge offensively for us, but let’s talk about KeKe McKinney, her leadership on the floor. She made some huge defensive stops, but she hit open shots. Jazmine Massengill came in, turned the corner, hit some shots, hit a huge 3 when we needed it. But, I can go down the list, Olivia Owens, how about what she did in the paint, her post presence and her physicality. So, what we can learn from that is, we’re still a work in progress, there are still a lot of things that we need to get better at, however, when our backs are against the wall, we are going to stick together and face adversity and never give up.”

On what Kentucky did poorly in last game that you’d like to correct going forward…

“You know, Mississippi State is a great team. Nikki McCray-Penson has them playing very hard. But, they were dribble driving. You know, we did not stay in front of our man. We did build a wall, but we gave too much ground where they were getting easy points in the paint, and they capitalized on it. And, that’s something that you work on when you go back to practice. So, all of the things that we did not do well, you know, you go back, you reevaluate yourself as a coach, you reevaluate your team, and then you work on it in practice. That’s why I say, we are a working progress, it’s still early in the season, we are still learning as we go, and we will continue to put in the work we need.”

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.