Seattle University coach Joan Bonvicini high-fives center Tatiana Heck. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com
Facing the relatively similar challenge of making the transition from Division II to Division I, Seattle University took very different approaches to its men's and women's basketball programs.
The men's team hired a coach with no previous NCAA head coaching experience in Cameron Dollar who was able to bring in NBA prospect and former University of Washington recruit Charles Garcia, who helped not only to win games but also to bring attention to the program. The women's team on the other hand hired a well-seasoned coach in Joan Bonvicini whose top player had an offer from Boeing awaiting her upon graduation and began the season with potential starters suspended.
In the end, different approaches led to different results: while the men's team was wildly successful in posting the best record of any transitioning Division I program in NCAA history, the women's team only went 6-24 with only one win on the road.
That said, the goal in acknowledging the difference is not to make a comparative judgment - the circumstances around the two teams were very different - but to illustrate that even within one athletic department there isn't necessarily a well-established formula to success. The men's team was extremely fortunate to bring in a talent like Garcia whereas the women's team was forced to pay for mistakes made before Bonvicini arrived which was compounded by the loss of center Carley Butcher after 11 games.
But despite the different approaches, mitigating circumstances, and results, watching each coach navigate the process of building a Division I program from scratch was a fascinating and rare opportunity all by itself. However, Bonvicini wasn't even trying to sugar coat last season's losses - yes, they were "keeping score differently" as a transitioning program, but there was no point in the season when it appeared that Bonvicini would tolerate losing for long.
"This is not a reflection of what I expect from this team or for my staff or for myself," said Bonvicini after a rough 24 point loss to North Dakota at KeyArena in February. "This is not ok. I don't like it. I didn't come here to lose like this and I'm not going to settle for it. And so, we're going to work hard until it doesn't happen."
On many occasions she was visibly frustrated and for a competitor like Bonvicini, that frustration led to action. So what exactly will it take for the Redhawks to have a more successful second year?
1. How well can a coach recruit to a small, transitioning Division I program?
Bonvicini's first big off-season move was to bring in a Pac-10 talent of her own in Talisa Rhea who transferred from Oregon State. Although Oregon State finished last in the Pac-10, Rhea was their leading scorer and named to the All-Pac 10 team. Rhea will be the strongest talent on the court in many games on the Redhawks' schedule when she plays - she's required by NCAA rules to sit out this season.
But Bonvicini remained busy in the meantime, making herself visible in the Seattle community with speaking engagements and at Seattle Storm games and hitting the recruiting trail with fervor that indicated she had no desire to coach a losing program long. Working on recruits around the state, Bonvicini already got a verbal agreement from local star Renee Dillard-Brown (Garfield High School/2011), who is a three star prospect according to ESPN's Hoopgurlz.
Renee Dillard- Brown 2011 Women's Basketball Recruiting Profile - ESPN
March 09: De Aundrency Dillard-Brown is a budding star for Garfield at the forward position. At 6-foot-1, she has all the physical tools to dominate. The length, quickness, hands and leaping ability are all there for this kid. Defensively, she gambles on steals and reaches a little too often. With her size and athleticism she could be a shut down defender, if she wanted to be. With the ball, she covers a tremendous amount of ground with her drop-step and pivot moves.
That description of Dillard-Brown pretty much describes one of the biggest problems for Seattle U in their first season.
2. How will this team adjust to the more physical nature of Division I basketball?
The reason that North Dakota game was so significant is that they were a team that was similarly going through the process of transition as well but beat the Redhawks by 20 points at KeyArena. In doing so, perhaps they are a vision for Seattle U to strive for and how far they have to go.
"This is the thing about their program -- they're in transition, like us," said Bonivicini after that game. "The difference is they were a Division II team used to championships -- they won two national championships. When you have the attitude that you're a winner and you know what it means to win- they improved a lot in the past year. We need to improve a lot."
Part of that process of improving is getting used to the toughness of the athletes in Division I, both at physically and mentally. Something she mentioned on a few occasions last season was working with the hand she was dealt: players recruited to play Division II who hadn't simply weren't familiar with the Division I play.
"A lot of it is just toughness," said Bonivicini after that game. "They played like a real Division I team: physical, nasty. That's how you play...This is the hand I'm dealt this year and we are working really hard to teach these girls about toughness and some get it and some don't."
3. How will they defend the post?
Given that one of the chief problems Bonvicini identified throughout the season was toughness, it follows that the Redhawks struggled to defend the post last season.
Their tallest players last season were 6'1" redshirt freshman Carley Butcher and 6'1" junior center Tatiana Heck. Put simply, Seattle struggled with teams who had players taller than that. Where that showed up most significantly in the numbers was their offensive rebounding percentage - they had a minus seven differential for the season. It's hard to beat teams when they're allowed to extend possessions and get second chance opportunities so often. Obviously, it was a concern Bonvicini acknowledged and tried to work on.
The team will also have some help coming in with 6'2" freshman post Kacie Sowell, who Bonvicini considers a "strong and excellent rebounder". The HoopGurlz account of Sowell provides additional detail on Sowell's game.
HoopGurlz: TOC Final Tip Sheet - ESPN
At 6-2 she has the size that recruiters covet and looking at her build she will be able to take the punishment that comes with post play at the Division I level. Where exactly she will be playing has yet to be determined but she will undoubtedly be a strong spring signing for some school. She's not a 20-and-10 player, but she will probably hover right around a double-double for her team. She uses her body extremely well, which makes her an effective defender. She is a not the most athletic post on the west coast but again playing physical and using her size for position makes her a solid rebounder as well. She will bump cutters, set strong screens and do all the little things you need in a post player.
4. Who will step up as a consistent leader for the Redhawks?
On most occasions last season, point guard Cassidy Murillo outplayed the opposing point guard - and that's not excluding the game against cross-town Pac-10 opponent University of Washington.
Murillo may not have been the quickest or most athletic, but even after watching Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot - easily the nation's best distributor last season - it's not an overstatement to say that Murillo had outstanding court vision and passing ability, not matter how you define it.
And in losing their floor general to Boeing as well as their leading scorer in three point bomber Ashley Brown, the team will certainly be looking to step up and take the leadership role this year. While senior Tatiana Heck would definitely appear to be the natural next leader in line as last season's second-leading scorer, in terms of establishing consistency on a growing team identifying leadership from someone who will be around next season would seem important.
Juniors Elle Kerfoot and Maggie McCarthy would certainly be strong candidates for leadership roles. McCarthy was among the team's most aggressive scorers last season. After returning from the school's self-imposed suspension, Kerfoot was among the most productive players on the team particularly with the ability to share ball handling duties with Murillo. As for newcomers, College of Southern Idaho transfer and Kennedy High School alum Daidra Brown has been lauded for her leadership ability and looks to provide some help in replacing Murillo at the point.
5. How should the Redhawks define success this season given where they are?
Obviously, Bonvicini is not going to tolerate losing for too long. So simply learning how to win more often - particularly on the road, but also pulling out some of the close ones at home -- will be one marker of success this season. But given the team's struggle to keep pace with bigger and more physical teams last season, another marker of success might just be showing a bit more fight inside.
"It's not about being nice all the time," continued Bonvicini after that North Dakota game. "It's about the team that wants it a lot more and you gotta be able to handle pressure and you've gotta be able to dish it out...For some this is a whole different level for them. And what we're going to do is work real hard to prepare for the future, that's what we're doing."
With last year's experience, some key new additions this year, and more talent coming on the horizon, Bonvicini is certainly in a position to move this program forward.
For more on Seattle U's transition to Division I, see the men's basketball preview at SBN Seattle: Seattle U Basketball Preview: Defining Success In Year Two Of Their Transition To Division I.