Oct. 27, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The teaching approach appeared to alternate without rhyme or reason, with Greg Williams frequently watching his trusted assistants steer his players through grueling individual workouts before occasionally jumping in to lend his own brand of experienced, detailed instruction.
Williams is an exhaustive teacher, a fact clearly evident through even casual observation. And it is that relentless desire to share the nuances of basketball that explains why Williams remains so flummoxed over the complete breakdown his women's program endured last season.
The discouraging spate of injuries were nothing new for Williams unfortunately, but the Owls' inability to showcase throughout the season what they had learned during those private offseason sessions ate away at Williams, tearing through his spirit like a famished parasite.
"One of the most disappointing things in our season last year was not seeing as much carryover as we had anticipated and hoped for from these individual skill sessions to game situations," Williams said of the Owls' 7-23 record. "And I'm hoping that's not the case again this year."
If the Owls scuffle again this coming season, it won't be due to a lack of effort. Their labor through individual drills was ratcheted up several notches when preseason camp opened, with Williams committed to the virtues of teaching the finer points of the game with unyielding fervor.
His commitment to offensive skill development was not compromised by the Owls' misery-ravaged 2008-09 campaign, and Williams pushed forward with improving the Owls' footwork and ball handling while refining their shots to develop a higher release point. He insisted that players add a running jump shot to their repertoire to compensate for the increased athleticism in college basketball. The work was intensive, but in seeking distance for last season, the players did not resist.
"Everybody is putting in the effort for us to do better this year," Owls sophomore point guard D'Frantz Smart said. "It was an embarrassment to the program, it was an embarrassment to us, an embarrassment to the coaches, and we're just trying to redeem ourselves.
"So we're putting in the extra work. This preseason was crazy - we were running about five times a week, really, and doing some off-the-wall stuff. But it's mentally prepared us and physically prepared us to compete with people in Conference USA and others in the NCAA."
If this preseason isn't solely about instruction, experimentation is the secondary buzzword. The Owls were ineffective from the perimeter and inefficient on the interior, so Williams is tinkering with using a handful of players in multiple roles. Smart is locked in at point guard and sophomore transfer Jackie Stanley, a bullish yet skilled post presence, should revitalize the Owls' interior scoring, but several others could help Williams devise multiple combinations offensively and defensively.
Freshman Jessica Goswitz has the size of a lead guard (5-5) but the shooting touch of an off-guard. Her ball handling and defensive aggression could allow Williams to get away with pairing her with Smart, a tandem that should push tempo and disrupt offensive sets.
Sophomore Brianna Hypolite appears to have developed the confidence to complement her athleticism. With a consistent perimeter shot Hypolite could thrive on the wing, for she is capable of penetrating when pressed and big enough (at 6-0) to shoot over smaller defenders.
And while Megan Elliott and Morgan Mayse are savvy and stout enough to manage both forward positions, the Owls will rely mostly on Stanley to not only score inside but to command the attention to allow sharpshooter Tara Watts to regain the range she displayed two years ago as a sophomore when she shot 36-of-103 from behind the arc. But Williams is reluctant to lean too heavily on Stanley, who showed considerable prowess (7.2 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 15.8 minutes) in her one semester as a reserve at Kansas State in 2007.
Stanley underwent extensive knee surgery in July 2008, and 15 months later she still isn't quite herself. She admits to not having fully regained her explosiveness or speed, but acknowledges having made strides throughout summer and preseason conditioning. On one hand Stanley readily embraces how vital a role she will play for the Owls this season, but on the other she begrudgingly concedes that she must take it slow.
"Of course it's very different than what I'm used to," Stanley said. "I'm used to always being out there and going a hundred percent all the time, but I don't really mind pulling off. I know what's best for me and I'd rather pull off them be hurting really bad the next day. Hopefully during the games I'll be able to let loose, and this will all pay off."
Added Williams: "It's going to be trial by error because we really don't have any gauge. We've never had a player with this rare type of injury. She had microfracture (surgery) and it's a very unique type of basketball injury to the kneecap, so that's something we're going to have to play by ear. She did get through our preseason, but that's not near as intense or as long as we will be going now, and she did have some ups and downs during that period of time.
"She's got a great work ethic and she's a very tough-minded young lady, so we're going to have to really make sure that she communicates with us when she's having some problems because she's not going to want to miss anything, she's not going to want to sit out, she's not going to want to have modified practices. But quite frankly that's what we're going to have to do."
Williams' list of imperatives runs long, from snapping the Owls' 13-game road losing skid to seamlessly integrating five newcomers (including four freshmen) to finding ways to win close games (Rice lost five contests by three points or less). Several of those issues can be resolved by developing a hard-edged mentality, and that's why Williams continues to push his players to extend far beyond their comfort zones.
The Owls didn't necessarily need the prodding. They share Williams' zeal to erase the memory of last season, and they recognize the rationale behind his asking so much of them even before the season commences.
"This preseason brought us together. It upped our level of play," Smart said. "I don't want to say last (pre)season was easy - it wasn't at all - but it wasn't as difficult as this (pre)season was.
"After the last game we set in our mind that we weren't going to repeat last season. We weren't going to go 7-23 and we're going to try and flip it and (finish) 23-7 or get someplace close and at least be able to be .500. We know it's going to be tough, but we can't dwell on the past."