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2011 Connecticut Sun: Rounding Into Shape More Than Halfway Through Preseason

A lot has happened for the Connecticut Sun as they prepare to compete for the 2011 Eastern Conference Championship.

Rewind to a week and a half ago to the Sun’s media day and an up to the minute account of all that has transpired throughout the preseason.

Media Day

Media Days can be equated to the first day of school. There is the introduction of the "new kids," the getting reacquainted with old friends and the laying of the framework for what is to come. At the Connecticut Sun’s media day and Scrimmage for Sun Season Ticket Holders, one thing was made abundantly clear, last year result are unacceptable.  This team is more seasoned, mature, healthier and ready to compete.

The 2010 season for the Connecticut Sun was marred with the mistakes of youth. There were times of pure brilliance and times that the team failed to show up. A number of games were lost in the game’s final possessions.

The Sun introduced a number of newcomers to the training camp roster including rookie Danielle McCray who spent last season with the Sun recovering from a torn ACL that she suffered at Kansas and draft picks Adrienne Johnson and Tahnee Robinson. Johnson was selected in the 3rd round by the Sun and Robinson was selected in the 3rd round by Phoenix and traded to the Sun for a 2012 3rd round pick. The Sun signed unsigned free agents Rachele Fitz and Stefanie Murphy to training camp contracts. Perhaps in the move that will have the biggest impact on the 2011 season, the Sun acquired Kalana Greene from the New York Liberty in exchange for 2nd rounder Sydney Colson.

This move reunited Greene with Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery members of UConn’s 2009 NCAA Championship squad. While Connecticut Sun Mike Thibault has made it a point of emphasis that he does not select or keep players just because of their college affiliation, having a number of players from cultures of winning can only be seen as a positive.

Connecticut has more than just new players to look to they also have a new approach.  Gone are the days of two-a-days and grueling practices in the beginning. Coach Thibault has a new approach of patience, teaching and easing his team into the season.

"He has eased into things a bit more than in past seasons," said 10th year veteran Asjha Jones. "He understands that the last few years we may have come out of the gates a little too hard, too fast. If any can change his approach, it’s coach Thibault. He’s the best."

That kinder, gentler approach has led to mixed results.

Sun vs. China

The Sun opened their preseason competition Thursday against the Chinese National Team. The Sun got to work putting their past demons behind them.

The Connecticut Sun blasted China 101-63 before 4,666 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT.

Behind a balance attack, the Sun out-manned China in every facet of the foul plagued game.  Xu Nao acquired 4 fouls in the 1st quarter and her Chinese teammates did not fair much better.

The Sun started Kalana Greene, Asjha Jones, Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Kara Lawson. That’s UConn 4 - Tennessee 1, in case you were counting. Connecticut and China traded baskets for the first few minutes before the Sun went on a 12 – 2 run to take the lead for the final time.

The Sun were led in scoring by Kalana Greene and Kelsey Griffin with 13 points each. Noteworthy only because Greene is known more for her defensive prowess but it helps to be familiar with the system and the players. She also spent most of the winter working on her shot in Poland. That work seems to have paid off as she was 6-for-12 from the floor.

While the typical players for the Sun put up their typical numbers like any preseason, it is a lot more interesting to look at the players whose certainty on this team is in question.

The Sun started with 15 players in camp, with what many consider to be 8 locks on their roster. Included in that is Greene, Jones, Charles, Montgomery, Lawson, Griffin, Danielle McCray and Tan White. Competing for the final 3 spots will be Rachel Fitz, Kerri Gardin, Allison Hightower, Adrienne Johnson, Stefanie Murphy, Tahnee Robinson and DeMya Walker.

The inside edge seems to be going to post players Murphy and Walker due to Sandrine Gruda's decision not to return to the WNBA for the 2011 season. The most impressive of those not guaranteed a spot in the game against China was Murphy as she showed a soft touch around the basket and the ability to be a solid utility player. 

All 15 players at the Connecticut Sun played and all scored minus DeMya Walker who is still working herself into playing shape according to Thibault. Walker did not score but there is that old saying that you can’t teach height.

The Connecticut Sun hit 50.7% of their shots while holding China to 39.3%. They outrebounded China 54 -26 and collected 24 assists to China’s 16.

While there were lots of positives, the Sun also showed that their Achilles heel from the last two seasons might rear its ugly head again: the Sun hit 5 of 18 on 3’s (27.8%), after hitting (33%) last season. Their lack of outside shooters has allowed defenders to collapse, making life extremely difficult for Charles and undersized posts Griffin and Walker.

The Chinese National Team did not include 4 of their 5 best players and was playing after only being in the country for 24 hours. So while it wasn’t the stiffest completion, the game allowed Sun players to beat someone else up for a while.

The game allowed the Sun to play 9 players at least 10 minutes and 5 players to score in double figures.

If Thursday’s game showed the Sun how good they can look when they have balance and the ability to get and take good shots, Wednesday’s game against the San Antonio Silver Stars showed the Sun exactly how much work still needs to be done.

And Then There Were 12...

Prior to the game, the Sun cut 3 players, including Rachele Fitz, Adrienne Johnson and Tahnee Robinson, to reduce their roster to 12. While these cuts were obvious to many, Robinson and Johnson did have the ability to extend defenses with their outside shot. In terms of an overall floor game these players were always going to have a hard time beating the players in front of them for a spot.

Johnson was selected by the Sun in the 3rd round from Louisiana Tech where she finished 5th in points from the storied program.

"She needs more experience playing on the wing," Thibault said. "Hopefully playing overseas she can get some of that. She played mostly in the post in college and she needs to work on that."

Robinson was selected by Phoenix in the 3rd round and traded for a 3rd round pick in 2012.

"Tahnee just hadn’t been able to beat out the people in front of her," Thibault said. "The players at out guard position are pretty solid veterans and there really isn’t a roster spot for her at this point."

Fitz averaged 26.5 points and 11.5 rebounds points for Basket Esch over the winter. She left Marist as the all-time leading scorer but at 6-0 she will have a hard time making the WNBA as a post.

"Rachele was obviously a very good college player, but she is an undersized post," said Thibault. "With Tina, DeMya, Ashja, and Kelsey we are pretty solid at that spot right now."

Thibault was very vocal during media day on the effect of an 11 player roster has on a GM’s approach to dwindling down players to the final rosters.

"You can’t take as many chances," he said. "Players that a few years ago you would have given the chance to develop and grow you have to let go because you don’t have the time to wait."

The Sun still have one more cut to make to get down to the league maximum of 11 players, with that player most likely being a guard.

Sun vs. Silver Stars

The Silver Stars featured a veteran club that make up for their lack of a dominant post presence by lighting it up from the outside.

Thibault again turned to his UConn alumni to start, with Tan White starting for some offensive punch.

Unfortunately this didn’t result in the quick start that the previous game did.

While Connecticut struggled to hold onto the ball in the first quarter with 7 turnovers they were only down 4 as both teams struggled shooting the ball. The difference was simply shot selection. San Antonio was taking and missing a number of 3’s while the Sun were taking and missing a number of wide open lay-ups. This is the part that was most disheartening to Thibault.

This leads to the chicken or egg question: Do missed lay-ups lead to players getting out on shooters and contesting shots or do missed outside shots lead to collapsing on the post and making inside shots harder? Both seem to do the Sun in and they simply didn’t respond.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the number of shots that Montgomery got. Montgomery was the Suns second-leading scorer a season ago behind Charles. She only took 4 shots on Wednesday. All contested and she made none of them. Her 3 points were all scored from the foul line.

"We need to do a better job of getting Renee shots. That’s on me, that’s on our team."

Probably of higher apprehension was Montgomery’s 5 turnovers. Her starting backcourt mate Tan White did not fare much better collecting 4 turnovers. They combined for 2 assists. The lack of assists can possibly be explained by the number of missed bunnies but the turnovers were simply lackadaisical play. This did not go unnoticed by coach Thibault.

"I thought that they were able to read our eyes on passes where we stared at people and we gave up turnovers on that. Then we made hustle plays to come up with the ball sometimes then we started dribbling into crowds and they took the ball right back."

The guard play can also be questioned with their game management. Bad decisions by White marred the end of the 2nd and 3rd quarters leading to open jump shots for the Silver Stars.

Even with the missed chippies and the lack of awareness of the amount of time on the shot clock, the Sun found themselves only down 6 points, minutes into the 4th quarter. That is when San Antonio went on a 19-0 run and the Sun had no answers much to the dismay of the 4,801 in the Mohegan Sun Arena.

"I wish I could tell you what we did. It wasn’t any great strategy, but we played out of our defense a little and when you get that, we got some lay-ups thrown in and we knocked down a couple of shots and that is typical preseason," said San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes. "It’s a good start for us, a good effort. Connecticut is going to be a very good team and our ladies were ready to play them."

Tina Charles was a bright spot for the Sun as she had her 2nd double- double of the post season with 12 points and 17 rebounds. White was the only other play in double figures for Connecticut with 15 points.

The difference in score is directly related to the 21 additional points scored from the 3 point line. The dagger 3’s were delivered by San Antonio’s post who had an easy time getting shots over Connecticut’s post who are not as mobile on the perimeter.

Preseason games are not the be-all and end-all of any team but after watching the Sun over the last week and a half there are some things becoming transparent.

  • The Sun are not equipped to outscore teams this season. Their victories will be won on the defensive side of the floor along with their ability to rebound the basketball.
  • While some teams might struggle to make final cuts, the loss of Gruda hurts. The Sun will not be deep and will not go more than 7-8 deep. This is perfectly fine baring no injuries.
  • The Sun shot 42.7% and their opponents shot 43% from the floor last season.  That stands a very good chance of repeating itself this season.

The Silver Stars' Physical Play

While the talk after the game was of San Antonio’s great defense, I disagree.  The Stars lack an inside presence and their answer was to play physical. That resulted in 27 fouls called, while another 15 could have been called. It wasn’t dirty, just physical with lots of slapping at the ball. A number of these led to those rushed lay ups and missed chippies. You can’t always win that way, especially if their posts pick up the number of fouls on a reduced roster.

Danielle Robinson was impressive for the Stars as she had the ability to penetrate and dish. Her one area of concern is being able to control her speed to be productive. 3 out of 4 of her fouls were charges. Rookie Danielle Adams showed the ability to hit shots but she also picked up 3 of her 4 fouls on plays just due to lack of conditioning.

Take 2

The Connecticut Sun and the San Antonio Silver Stars will face off again Friday May 27th 7:00 PM at the Mohegan Sun at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

"One of the good things about this situation is we’re going to see the same team in two days which is a lot like out league," said coach Thibault. "Sometimes you play a team Friday and Sunday, home and home. We have a chance to make some improvements, but this league is full of great players. We have to understand that the type of effort and focus, more importantly, that we have to have on a nightly basis in order to contend with the teams in the league."