Has the String(er) Been Played Out?
Old school tactics aren’t working.
by Clay Kallam
It happens. It happens to the best of them, and for a while, C. Vivian Stringer was one of the best women’s basketball coaches around.
But it’s happened before, and now it’s happened to her: The game has passed her by.
I flicked on ESPNU Sunday, and there was Rutgers, again. And there was Rutgers, again, taking a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans, and doing absolutely nothing with them – except getting pasted by Syracuse. At home.
The Scarlet Knights, as with all Stringer’s teams, are abysmal offensively. The players seem lost at that end of the court, don’t shoot when they should, and sputter aimlessly unless they’re getting points off their defense. Of course, that was Stringer’s trademark, a pressing defense that no one could break. Now, though, she can’t play it because she only has nine players on her roster – and that too is symptomatic of the problems old-school coaches now face.
So, to make it clear, though Stringer is the trigger for this column, the shot goes across the bow of a style of coaching that no longer works in the women’s game – and in fact, no longer should. We’ll start with the obvious:
1) There’s more to the game than defense. Stringer focuses exclusively on defense, it’s said, and the results show it. Her teams are befuddled on offense, and though her defense can be stifling, with the increase in females who can create offensively, it’s harder and harder to keep people from scoring – or forcing turnovers from overwhelmed ballhandlers.
There are a lot of justified criticisms of the way girls’ basketball players are developed, but one positive that comes from the emphasis on tournaments and games is young players are exposed to a lot more athleticism at a younger age than ever before. That means they learn, at an earlier age, how to deal with pressure, what kinds of ballhandling skills they need to have to overcome an athletic defender, and getting through a doubleteam is much more mental than physical.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, Stringer’s defensive style won more games than it does today, and especially since she is a brilliant recruiter and generally had superior athletes. She still is a brilliant recruiter, but even superior athletes have to spend time practicing offense.
2) More is not always better. Stringer’s most prominent old-school tactic is lengthy practices (devoted mostly to defense). She works her players very, very hard, some say in excess of the 20 hours a week the NCAA allows. In fact, the play-by-play man during the 76-45 loss to Syracuse said he had never seen a longer pre-game shootaround – and the analyst added it wasn’t really a shootaround, it was drills and hard work.
Back in the day, the negative effects of those long practices weren’t as important because:
a) Players didn’t mind because high school coaching, and coaching in general, was much more authoritarian (Bobby Knight was still king);
b) Stringer’s teams won, and did well in the NCAA tournament; and
c) Her teams were so much better than their opposition that even if they were overtrained, they still were very hard to beat.
3) Players have more options – and not just in college. Again, 15 or 20 years ago, a high school girl’s horizon was college, and what happened in college was the culmination of her career. So a team that did well in the NCAA Tournament was the holy grail, and that was one of the prime reasons behind choosing a particular school.
Now, however, young players are not only aware of the WNBA, but also professional options overseas, and thus what happens in college is not the be-all and end-all of their basketball experience. So when Stringer offers grueling practices and no offensive development, it’s not nearly as attractive as it used to be, especially for a 15-12 team that just lost by 31 on national TV.
4) Girls just want to have fun. It’s fun to shoot, it’s fun to score, it’s fun to have fun in practice, it’s fun to win. At Rutgers, players get none of the above, and that’s why young women like Brooklynn Pope and Jasmine Dixon fled Piscataway after just one season – and that’s one of the reasons why Stringer doesn’t have enough players to press.
5) It’s bad for the game. What women’s basketball needs is more Paul Westhead (who’s older than Stringer but far from old school) and fewer 42-38 defensive extravaganzas. Just imagine what would happen if all the talent at Rutgers was playing for Westhead at Oregon; imagine how many points they’d score; imagine how much fun the players would have; and imagine how much fun the fans and TV viewers would have.
Women’s basketball is far from a rock-solid, established sport, and it needs to be as entertaining as possible in these hard times if it expects to survive, much less grow. The defensive grinders like Stringer used to be able to offset their boring style with wins, but at 15-12, teams like Rutgers hurt the sport rather than help it.
Unfortunately, this has turned out to be more about Stringer than anticipated, but she is one of the last remnants of a dying breed, and so there aren’t many other examples to choose from. Coaching and teaching styles change over time, and what worked back in the day may not work here in 2010, as a lot of people have discovered.
The old school, to paraphrase Alice Cooper, is out forever.