Optimism is a contagious force. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than on Wisconsin's women's basketball team.
"I am very proud of this team. They have embraced my enthusiasm, my energy, my intensity," Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone said. "And every day they come to practice, they compete, they battle and I see improvement."
Stone pauses for a moment, then adds, "We have a long way to go—we're on our way."
No less an expert than legendary women's basketball player/coach/analyst Nancy Lieberman agrees the Badgers are on their way. The 45-year old Lieberman, currently an analyst for ESPN, competed against Wisconsin in an exhibition Tuesday night for the Wisconsin AAU Select team that recently won the AAU Women's National Championship.
"I have the privilege of seeing a lot of teams from a lot of different conferences," Lieberman said following the Badgers 84-58 win. "Wisconsin is a great place to play basketball. Give (coach Stone) time. Support her. Rally around these players who are very good. (The Badgers) are going to be a very competitive basketball team."
Yes, it was only an exhibition. Wisconsin, though, lost to the Vikings 85-74 in last season's first exhibition game on its way to a miserable 7-21 campaign. The Badgers won their two exhibitions this fall by a combined 55 points.
The improvement, one year later—in attitude, energy and above all, results—is palpable.
"I like what they do," Lieberman said. "They run a lot of high post hits, they have great cuts to the basket (with) the hi-lo game."
"You are obviously very big in the middle because I have a neck strain," Lieberman said with a laugh. Lieberman, though, offered that, "I think your bigs have got to fill out a little bit, get a little bit stronger because there is going to be a lot of physical play (in the Big Ten)."
One player that Lieberman does not feel needs to fill out is sophomore forward Kjersten Bakke, who started the first exhibition against Mankato State, but will likely back up Lello and junior Ebba Gebisa.
"Bakke, is that the girl who beat the crap out of me?" Lieberman asked after Tuesday's game. "Yeah she came in and she is big, she's strong, she's ripped and…she is going to be really good. I mean she is very physical."
Lieberman also credited the Badgers' passing.
"I think as you see passing is an art and the better passing you have, especially with shooters like you, getting the ball to the players at the right spots is going to be key for this team," she said.
This is, by and large, the same team that fought through last season. All five starters—center Ashbaugh, forwards Lello and Ebba Gebisa and guards Stephanie Rich and Ashley Josephson—reaped significant starting experience last year.
"I've got a group of women here that are ready to work," Stone said. "They are responding to whatever I address. Whatever we emphasize we do. They are students of the game, they want to learn, they want to get better, they want to win, they want to be held accountable for good and bad. If we turn the ball over we are going to address that. If we are missing box outs we are going to address that."
If there is continued cause for concern it is ball handling. Perhaps more than anything else, turnovers were Wisconsin's undoing last season, with nearly 22 per game. The Badgers turned it over 16 times against Mankato State and followed with 21 turnovers versus the Vikings.
In fighting the turnover woes, Stone and her staff have gone back to a basics, employing tennis balls in practice drills.
"We just break into stations and (assistant) coach (Stephanie) Schmitz does a thing where we just throw it back and forth and watch it into our hand," Rich said. "Maybe someday they are going to show up with eggs, who knows?"
Rich, a junior, led the team in scoring last season at 11.6 points per game playing the point and off-guard positions. She will predominantly run the point this season due to a season-ending, and possibly career-threatening injury to top reserve guard Shawna Nicols. The former Milwaukee Pius XI star is taking a medical redshirt after UW team physicians mandated that she not play this season due to multiple head injuries.
"She is just such a vocal leader on the floor. It was just a devastating blow that I didn't think would ever happen," Rich said. "I thought she would just take some time every once in a while, but it's what is best for Shawna."
Rich was a dominant presence in the two exhibitions, totaling 46 points, six assists, six steals and four turnovers.
Stone and the Badgers readily acknowledge that they have plenty to work on, but the energy and optimism that resonates from the team's practices could not be stronger.
"I love this place," Stone said. "It's a place I'd like to see a ton of people in and have our team bring some success to the Kohl Center and that's going to happen by what we are doing right now—little teeny steps and trying to get better every day."