Balcomb: Vandy can be stronger despite losses

Can a team that loses two players the caliber of Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager actually improve. In Part Four of a series of reports from SEC Media Days, Vanderbilt women's basketball head coach Melanie Balcomb says the answer is an emphatic yes.


VandyMania: Coach, you obviously lost two key players from last year's team, and you're bringing in only one new player. Do you see this as possibly being a stronger team this year, even in light of losing Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager? If so, how do you see that happening?

Coach Balcomb: You lose something, but then you gain something. You lose a lot of points and minutes and a lot of great stats from Hillary and Jenni, like rebounding and assists, you name it. A lot of leadership too. You do have to make up for those losses. But the other thing you gain is experience in a large freshman class that becomes sophomores. You get to see them develop and improve. What's really been important in our position this year with our program, not bringing in a lot of kids in that class last year, is that development in the off-season has become really important. Last year when they came in as freshmen, they didn't even know what to work on. They didn't even know what to expect at practice. They lifted weights. They went to summer school, and they were happy to play pickup. This summer they knew what to work on, and they worked on those skills. How much they improved in the offseason is going to make a big difference in how we improve this year.

VandyMania: Carla Thomas was named first-team All-SEC by both the coaches and the media. Did what she did last year surprise you? Or did you pretty much know this time last year that she was going to have that kind of a freshman season?

Coach Balcomb: It didn't really surprise me. I thought she was a great recruit who was kind of under-exposed. I knew how good she was, but I don't think a lot of people did, so she didn't get all that publicity. Sometimes that's nice. There wasn't as much pressure on her as there was on some of our other recruits. I think that helped her. But what also helped her was Jenni Benningfield getting her stress fracture. That gave Carla an opportunity to get a lot of minutes she probably wouldn't have gotten. That really pushed her role forward, and she made the most of it. She just got better and better all year. It was exciting to watch.

VandyMania: What have you learned at practices so far?

Coach Balcomb: I think our biggest goal is to be a smarter team than last year. I think our players have got to take the next step. We were successful last year because we were in great shape, and we won four games in four days in the SEC Tournament. There are two parts to the game, the mental and the physical. And we're talking a lot more about the mental part this year.

Last year, we were just happy to run the offense right, and the coaches make reads, and changes. And now we're trying to get them to make the reads and be a smarter, more intelligent team on the floor. It would make us a lot tougher to guard if we could make those adjustments ourselves on the court. So we're going to be in great shape, and that's my job, to make sure they're in great shape. We're stronger. I think we wore people down last year; I think that's how we played so well four straight days, and now we have to get working on the mental part, because we only brought in one player. So we have to get smarter. I think that's the biggest thing we're spending a lot more time on.

VandyMania: You renovated the locker room, you've added laptops, you've got a new full-time position for a video director and a graduate assistant. How did that come about?

Coach Balcomb: We just got a lot of support at the end of the season from being successful. I was asked what I would like for the program and for myself, and, to be honest with you, I didn't do anything for myself. I really wanted to do a couple of things for my staff, and one was to give them more of a quality of life, and getting them laptops, raises and things like that is for them to have more time with their families and friends when we get into town. They can do things now on planes and buses. So a lot of things we did were to make their lives better. I thought it was really important, because I want to maintain my staff. I think I've got a great staff.

The other things I wanted to do were for the program, and that was to get a larger staff. That also helps staff because they don't have to put up as much time because we can split up their responsibilities. To add the position that Justin's in - video coordination - is something that I think is really important. Because that takes a lot of time, breaking down tapes, and that really helps my staff in scouting and recruiting.

VandyMania: How has that been done in the past? Did your assistant coaches do it?

Coach Balcomb: Actually, our managers did a lot of it combined with our assistants. James Strong worked with both the men's and women's teams, but since he played with the men and was at all their practices and traveled with them, there wasn't a lot he could do then for us. We wanted somebody that now travels and watches our practices and is at our games, so he can break down that game film because you have to be there and know what they're doing. So that was really important to me.

And then the Hillary situation-- I really wanted to do something for Hillary because of what she's done for our program, and I wanted her around our players for another year. She's deciding on grad school, and she's deciding on being a coach, and I thought it would give her a year to look at both things and decide what she wants to do. Whenever you can keep a former player around like that, that has shown such loyalty and you want to give back to her, so that's what I wanted to do with that position.

And the other pieces were, when they redid the arena, things were gorgeous, and they were excellent when we came in, but one thing they did not tackle was the locker room. We really felt like for recruiting especially, and for quality of our players' lives-- they hang out in there a lot-- we needed to re-do our locker room. I thought for the team that was the most important facility that we needed updated to compete against what we're going against that other people have.

VandyMania: What kinds of things did you do in there?

Coach Balcomb: We knocked down walls, opened space. We needed a larger area. We're putting in new furniture, and we added showers. One of the biggest things was that we didn't have enough showers at a time for them to get ready when we left on trips, so we've doubled our shower space and just make it a lot bigger and a nicer area for them.

VandyMania: You've been here two years now, and some things are starting to fall into place. What do you see as the areas that you need to focus on to make the program stronger and better?

Coach Balcomb: I think recruiting is obviously the biggest part of the program. You can't win without players, and you can't win without players that are recruited for your philosophy. So we're trying to balance out our recruiting classes and balance out our positions and our depth at those certain positions. It's like a puzzle; you're trying to fit those pieces to the puzzle, and we still have a lot of pieces. That's why people get five-year contracts because it really takes four years of recruiting to fit those pieces, and not every year are you going to have the best class because of positions you recruit. And the following year, people know that you have great kids in those positions, so you're not going to have that perfect class every year. But I think we're doing a good job of getting different pieces of the puzzle, and hopefully in another year or two we'll see more depth. That's one of the things we're working on and need to continue work on, and that's just recruiting-- getting more depth at more positions. Top Stories