Whitney D's Media Day Diary (Part II)

Part 2 of Whitney D's SEC Basketball Media Day Diary focuses on Vanderbilt women's basketball coach Melanie Balcomb. Balcomb gives VandyMania readers a thorough explanation of her offensive philosophy, and offers some hints as to how some of her talented freshmen may fit in; while senior players Hillary Hager and Jenni Benningfield add a few choice tidbits.

Vanderbilt was assigned to the first session of the day, along with Tennessee and Alabama. Senior captains Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager, the player representatives from the women's team, started off the session with TV interviews, while Head Coach Melanie Balcomb was available for interviews in the main media room.

I talked to some of the other coaches in the room, then waited until Dan Fleser of the Knoxville News-Sentinel and Wendy Parker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution finished their interviews. Then I stopped by her table for a vist.

My main objective was to talk to her about the freshman class, but I thought a little background information would help. Last year, I'd heard Coach Balcomb use the term "3-guard", which was a term I hadn't heard before. So first I asked her to tell me about about the terms she uses to describe the roles or positions of players.

She said that she uses the 1-5 number system that everybody else uses, with the point guard being No. 1. Other players are either 2's/3's, with the 2 and the 3 playing similar roles, or else 4's/5's with the 4 and the 5 playing similar roles. So there are three basic groups of players: 1s, 2/3s, and 4/5s.

When putting players on the court at a given point in time, there will be two 2/3 players. Of those players, she wants a shooter and a ball-handler. That was one problem the team had last year: there weren't any true ball-handlers to put in at the 2/3 spots. Abi Ramsey filled the role as the shooter at the 2, which put Hillary Hager as the ball-handler at the 3, but since Hillary isn't a natural ball-handler, it wasn't an ideal situation.

That's one area in which the freshmen provide more options, she said. Both Cherish Stringfield and Katie Antony are "ball-handlers", who can play 1, 2, or 3, and Caroline Williams is a shooter who will be a 2/3.

Coach said that she also looks for different height combinations in the game at the same time, to help out with rebounding, for example. So when she's deciding who's going to be on the floor, she's looking at more than just the individual player herself; she's looking for the right combinations of players based on several factors.

The other freshmen -- Jenn Hall, Carla Thomas, and Rachel Brockman -- are all 4's/5's, as are the returning players Jenni Benningfield and Nicole Jules.

While we were talking about the freshmen, I asked her about the scrimmage on Oct. 26. Afterwards, I had her say that the team wasn't as far along as at this point last year because last year they'd had the practices associated with the European trip. However, fans I'd talked to afterwards generally seemed to feel that the team was farther this year than last year.

I'd been wondering about the reason for the disparity in viewpoints. My hypothesis was that it might be due to the differences in what fans and coaches were looking for. I thought that fans would pick up on things like athleticism, hustle, shooting and rebounding. Coaches, on the other hand, know what exactly what elements of the offense and defense they've teaching every day in the gym and are looking for those.

She thought that was probably a pretty accurate assessment. When she's watching a scrimmage like that, she's looking for execution of the things they're teaching. She pointed out that while the freshmen show more speed and athleticism than the returning players do, when they squared off against each other, the veterans obliterated the frosh.

What happened, she said, is that the returning players stayed within their system, while the freshmen would break down and end up going one-on-one instead of operating within the system. The result was that the returning players won in a rout-- which Coach Balcomb thought might be the best thing that could have happened, since it provided a vivid illustration of what happens when you don't execute and rely on athleticism instead.

Finally, I asked Coach Balcomb about the changes in the recruiting rules affecting the summer evaluation period. She said that one result is that more kids are committing later than in the past, because the opportunities to get information are reduced over the summer from what they used to be. There are more prospects making verbal commitments on official visits in the fall than on unofficial visits during the summer.

But overall, Coach Balcomb sees the changes as a step in the right direction, although she thinks that some tweaking is needed. For example, on the men's side there's a mandated break in the summer evaluation events when the prospects are at home. During that time, coaches can check in with prospects to assess interest and confirm travel plans.

As it stands now for the women, however, some prospects are on the road almost continuously through the month of July, and if they change their travel plans, such as if they change teams, the college coach doesn't necessarily know and may take a trip for nothing. Coach Balcomb believes that building in a break for the women, like they do for the men, would save both time and money.

After a while, Jenni and Hillary had finished their TV interviews and took their places in the main media room. While the Tennessean's Maurice Patton and other reporters finished their interviews, I took a few photos. Then when there was a break in the action, I stopped by to chat for a little while.

They told me that they'd awakened around 5 a.m. and arrived at the airport around 6 for the flight to Birmingham on a charter jet. The jet was a 7-seater, the smallest plane that either of them had ever flown in. The next smallest before that was a 19-seater. The pilot was awesome, and there was hardly any turbulence. Besides Hillary and Jenni, Coach Balcomb, Coach Stallings, Matt Freije and Russell Lakey were on the plane, with Russell getting to be the co-pilot.

Then they'd caught a van to the hotel, where they got a little breakfast, then did TV interviews. Besides the serious questions the team, they were also asked things like, "Who's your favorite muppet?" and "How many cheeses can you name in 15 seconds?" They didn't have to answer that last one, though, the producers were just kidding around with it.

At that point, VandyMania's own Brent Wiseman joined us, and after introductions, he had a few questions for them, so I decided it was a good time to talk to Tennessee's Ashley Robinson, who was all alone at that particular moment.

After I finished with Ashley, I returned to the Vandy table. Brent had finished his interview. I looked through the photos I had taken. In that kind of photo, I like both smiling and serious faces, and I didn't have a single one with Jenni smiling. So on impulse, I handed one of my tape recorders to Hillary and asked her to ask Jenni questions that would make her smile so that I could get a photo of her smiling while she was talking.

I didn't hear what was being said, but whatever it started Jenni laughing, and Hillary was relentless. After a few minutes, I said that was enough, and they both looked at me and said emphatically, "You can't use that!" They obviously meant it, which naturally made me very curious about what had been said..

But alas, I would never find out. At the break, I re-wound the tape, only to find that it had nothing on it. Not that intriguing conversation, not Ashley Robinson's 20 questions, Coach Sharon Fanning's restaurant recommendations, nor my discussion with Coach Balcomb. Nothing but white noise.

I figure that the subject matter had been so hot it burned right through the tape. Either that, or else the solar flares that I'd been hearing about on the way down had erased it. Fortunately, I'd taken thorough notes when talking to Coach Balcomb, but Jenni and Hillary's private conversation was only recorded in photos.
After that, Session One began winding down. Coach Balcomb had finished her TV interviews and returned to the main media room and sat down with Jenni and Hillary. Brian Davis, who'd just been hired as the new media contactfor women's basketball, joined the group, too.

The reporters by this time had mostly finished their interviews and had drifted out for coffee or gathered in informal clumps around the room. So it was time for casual conversation while waiting for the trip back to the airport.

Jenni talked about how much she's enjoying the ceramics class she's taking this semester. She'd done ceramics for two years in middle school and was thinking that she'd take another class next semester.

Jenni and Hillary talked about what they'd be doing after their flight back to Nashville. Hillary said that she'd be going to a 3 o'clock class after returning to Nashvile. Then they'd have practice at 5, and she'd do her lifting after that. Jenni said that she'd go then, too, so Hillary wouldn't be lifting alone.

Coach Balcomb told the story of how she ruptured her achilles tendon several years ago during the NCAA tournament. I won't repeat it here, but suffice it to say that the coach knows how to tell a story and that this particular rendition left me with the vivid image of a window shade.

Coach Balcomb and the players posed for one more photograph. Then, only a little over two hours after they'd arrived, the Vanderbilt contingent departed for to the airport to take the charter jet back to Nashville. I spent the rest of the day talking with as many coaches, players and reporters as I could, but for the coaches and players, it was back home to business as usual.

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Photos by WhitneyD for Vandymania.com. Click on thumbnails to view a larger image of the photograph.

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