New Year, Same Challenges

With the Cardinal heading off on the first road trip of the Pac-10 conference season, The Bootleg thought it would be a good time to check in with Associate Head Coach Amy Tucker to get her assessment of the season so far and her thoughts on some of the issues fans love to ponder.

Back seat coaching is a time-honored pastime, and of course fans can instantly tell exactly what should be done in any situation. For coaches it is surely a necessary annoyance with the tradeoff being cheering and support for their team from interested and involved fanatics. If nobody cares enough to second-guess, than nobody cares. The Bootleg recently had the pleasure of a lengthy chat with Associate Head Coach Amy Tucker to discuss the state of the team, her efforts as the Card's post "guru," and some currently relevant issues about which fans most enjoy cogitating and debating. The New Year has begun and the opponents will now be familiar conference rivals, but the challenges and concerns facing Stanford have not really changed.

How would you assess the team's performance through the non-conference portion of the schedule?

Given that we've played probably the toughest schedule that we've ever had - it's actually the #1-rated strength-of-schedule in the country – and we've played some tough games on the road, I think we've done very well. Having said that, we're disappointed that we didn't win some games that were winnable. We were in them and could have made plays to win them but we didn't. That's disappointing. But I think we all feel the same in that playing those types of games is going to help us much more than playing teams that we can beat by 30 or 40. And hopefully the payoff will be in March.

The good thing about this team is that they're disappointed, they're frustrated, but they played hard, they played together, they have great attitudes, they showed up for practice on the 26th ready to go, so this is not a team we have to worry about in terms of having any carryover effects. They let things go and they move on – hey let's get better. They've been receptive to coaching and making changes.

What hurt the team the most against Duke and Tennessee? Where did Stanford fall short?

In the Duke game, we missed 15 free throws and more than 10 lay-ups that we counted – just like point blank lay-ups. When you look at those two factors alone, that's the game. And those are things we can control. Those are things that we can improve. If they were things we had no chance of improving, it would be a lot more disappointing and frustrating, but they're not. We know we can shoot better.

In the Tennessee game, some of it is we might have made different choices in what we ran at the end of the game. We had the chance to win the game at the end. We had the ball. We'd run something different maybe. And that's helpful for us to see what we need to run in a time-and-score situation. But again, we did out-rebound Tennessee, which is great. That was a huge focus in terms of getting our team ready to rebound and box out. Again we didn't shoot very well from the line. Our free throw percentage has really plummeted.

Why did the team struggle so much all of a sudden with free throw shooting?

Who knows, you know? Before that Jayne (Appel) was shooting 88%. If you asked me [why she shot 88%], I'd say I don't know either. I think it's probably a combination of concentration, fatigue, a lot of things. You miss your first two and it plants a seed in your mind.

Is there a fix other than simply more practice?

Just work on it, yeah. We create time-and-score situations in practice. We create situations where you put something on the line like you have to run if you miss so they have to really think about it. You hope that makes them concentrate more on their shot if they don't want to do a down-and-back or two. I think the worst thing to do is make a big deal about it. It's not going to help Jayne's confidence or her concentration to give her a hard time about her free throws. But we do put in a lot more time.

What has been the biggest challenge for the coaching staff thus far this season?

The biggest challenge has been losing JJ (Hones) and what that's meant to our team in terms of getting other people to step up in that position. Last year when JJ wasn't playing, Candice (Wiggins) could be our "1." Ros (Gold-Onwude) was our "3." Now Ros and Mel (Murphy) are our point guards. Jeanette (Pohlen) plays point. She's never played point before. The biggest challenge is getting our point guard play up to speed and giving them the confidence they need to help run the team. We want to put them in situations where they can be successful, but at the same time, the schedule has not been kind. We're throwing people right in against the toughest competition.

What has been the biggest positive?

The improvement of Jeanette has been great. She had a solid freshman year. She was kind of our sixth or seventh player. She got some good time. But she really transformed her game. She was not a consistent three-point shooter as a freshman. She's now our leading three-point shooter percentage-wise and she's someone who has hit some huge baskets for us in time-and-score situations. Her improvement has been first of all a blessing to our team, but also as coaches that's what you want to see from kids – that they listen and take to heart what you say to them about what they need to do. They go home and do it and they come back and it makes a huge difference.

Jeanette is a very hard worker. She's extremely coachable. I think she'll just keep getting better. And we've put her in situations she hasn't been in before, being a point guard, and she's responded. She has a really good sense of the game. The challenge is to figure out where we need her the most now. Do we need her at the "1" more or the "2" more? And then figuring out if other people can help us at the "1" to free her up to play the "2."

So the guard rotation is still up in the air and Pohlen may get another run as a point guard, as she did in the first few games of the season?

I don't think we've set on that. We went with her (at the "1") initially and we liked it. The only reason she was moved is because we thought we could get more scoring production if we moved her. I don't know if that necessarily happened. We might have to look at it again.

Tucker spends a lot of her time in practice working with the bigs. What is her focus as she works with the Cardinal posts, especially when developing a younger player?

First of all, we have a very talented group of front line players, as talented as anyone has. The challenge is to figure out how to maximize their abilities and get them on the floor. Initially what you start with is where we get our shots from in our offense and that's kind of where we get to work with our post players. We start with our back-to-the-basket moves, what we call our low block series.

All players have habits and favorite moves. They come in with their favorite move and we try to develop a counter to their favorite move, so when someone takes that away, which they will do eventually – if you become very prolific at it they'll make you do something else – they can go to that. So we work on their counter move. And we work on their high post game. Kayla (Pedersen) has a high post game. We'd like Nneka (Ogwumike) to develop her high post game. So we're working on Nneka's high post shot so she's comfortable taking the shot and we're comfortable with her taking that shot. And Jayne (Appel) a little bit too I think would like to expand her game as well.

As an example, what was Appel's favorite move coming in and how did she develop her game?

Her favorite move, or the move she used the most, was like a left-handed hook shot. Eventually people would just camp on that shoulder and not let her use that. So she had to go with either a power move, a power slide move, a turn-around jump shot, or a face-up move – we have several different face-up moves we work on. And some of it is just getting players to slow down enough to read the defense.

First we do all of our stuff without defense and eventually you add defense to where they have to read it. They have to read what move they should make based on where the defense is. That's the next step.

What is the hardest thing for a young post to learn?

The hardest thing is getting them to slow down and not do what they're used to doing. If they just get in and they want to do what they're used to doing because they've been able to do it and no one has ever stopped them, well all of a sudden it's not there. Either someone has taken it away or they're doubled and they still want to make the move. So they have to slow down enough to read what's there. You remember when Jayne was a freshman? Her biggest problem was she got in foul trouble. And she's really matured. I think Sarah (Boothe) will make that same maturation. She's coming in and getting like two fouls right away or two turnovers right away. She just has to slow down enough to read things. I think as young players, they want to go in and make a great impression so that sometimes they just do things too fast, just try to do things at a faster pace that what is called for.

Stanford is said to have good depth this season but in the tougher games we usually don't see more than 7 or maybe 8 players. Could you explain how you utilize and develop the bench, especially the younger players?

Fans need to remember that they only see one component of the whole big picture and that's games. They don't see any of the practices that go on. For a lot of kids practice is their game time initially. That's when the players are working to make an impression on the coaches – this is what I can do and this is what I do consistently. We look at their stats. We look at the video. And they're showing us every day what they do and how quickly they pick things up.

Again, coming back to our schedule, we can't get game experience for young players with the schedule we've had. To do that would be to risk losing games because they're not ready and they would make mistakes or we'd put them in situations where they can't do well. That would hurt their confidence and it would hurt our confidence in them. I think had we played ten teams like UC-Davis, Sarah could average 20 minutes per game. Nneka could get even more time and could even work on more things in her game. But with our schedule we can't. We have to go with what we know and what we know now are the returners and what they do. But the young players, their opportunities are every day in practice to show us what they consistently do.

So is the tough schedule a bit of a two-edged sword in that it toughens the team as a whole but maybe inhibits some players from getting game time?

It only inhibits them in games, which is the only component that you are seeing. If there's one game a week, there are six practices. So that is a lot of game time for kids.

Is practice a good equivalent to playing in games?

It is a good indicator, especially if we can bring in five guys who [our players] don't see every day and who are running something random, so [our players] have to make adjustments on the fly. We can get a good indicator of what they do consistently. There is nothing that will substitute for a game, a real game. We could put on the uniform, the lights go on, referee throws up the ball… There is a different element of pressure put on people but there's nothing you can do about that. The best mix is to have a schedule where you can get kids some time but also have games that are extremely competitive.

Are there players now who might be in line for more minutes because they've done well in practice?

Obviously Nneka has already broken through. We're not even talking about Nneka. She's in our top rotation. I think Sarah is going to be getting time. For Sarah it's not a lack of confidence. We know that Sarah can help us and we know that she will help us. We just have to find her more time. Michelle (Harrison) has made steady deposits in her game, in her game bank account. She has really listened and made some changes that we wanted her to make. We've moved her between the "3" and "4" positions. We're trying to concentrate maybe a bit more on the "3" now with her. And I think she has done very well in the last couple of games.

So I think Michelle, Sarah, and some people might be situational based on what style we play against. That might be Hannah (Donaghe) and Lindy (La Rocque). In terms of what we need, I think they both have the ability to shoot the basketball, to extend the range with their three-point shot. We know that and have confidence in their ability to do that. But at the same token, that doesn't translate to playing against pressure. If they're not going to give you that shot, not let you shoot that, what can you do now? That's the adjustment they need to make.

What's hard is you play against all that stuff. Like against Arizona State we're going to play against extreme pressure. So we have to figure out who can play against that, who can help you against that. Sometimes people who can help you against that can't at other times. So it's a very small rotation. When people say where's this depth we've been hearing about, well you can't just play people because you have them. You have to be able to be successful at it. And because we play against so much, it just depends on what we are playing against that game, who we are playing and what they do.

We have heard that the coaching staff has a lot of fun working together. How would you describe your fellow coaches and their coaching styles?

I know you've heard Tara (VanDerveer) say before that we really enjoy working with each other. We have a great staff. We have fun in the office. We work hard but it's a good time. What's really great is we challenge each other in terms of ideas. Tara doesn't want people just saying yes, yes, yes. I think it's great that everyone is strong with X's and O's and brings something to the table so we can sit and talk about things, be critical, and help our team make adjustments.

Bobbie (Kelsey) is funny, very lighthearted with the kids; she has good rapport. But when it's time to do business, she can be very serious and the kids know that.

Listening to Kelsey speak in Fast Break Club sponsored pre-game Chalk Talks, it is obvious she tells it like it is.

She does, yeah. And I think our whole staff is pretty much that way, which is good and bad. [Laughs]

Kate (Paye) works with the guards and she does a great job with them. She has a great X and O mind. She really understands the game. She sees it from a point guard's perspective, which I think has been huge for our team in helping our point guard play develop. She can be very intense on the floor, which is good, but she's got her goofy side as well. And she also has great rapport with our team.

I think the kids have a lot of confidence in Kate and Bobbie, which I think is really, really key. When they get advice or constructive criticism from Kate and Bobbie, they know that [Kate and Bobbie] have been there; they've played for Tara and been to Final Fours. They have a lot of confidence in those two, what they bring to the table.

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