The University of Minnesota women’s basketball team’s first full practice of the fall was well underway Monday in its shiny, new fifth-floor facility. On different points of the court, assistant coaches Carly Thibault-Dudonis, Danielle O’Banion and Kelly Roysland were working with players.
On the sideline, near the floor-to-ceiling windows on the north end of the court, head coach Lindsay Whalen was in discussion with senior guard Kenisha Bell.
Anyone who watched Whalen during her years in the WNBA with the Lynx will remember how often she and coach Cheryl Reeve stood, off to the side, talking. So Monday there was a feeling of continuity.
A coach and her guard, sharing a vision. And it hit home, Whalen, deep into preparation for her first year as coach, has truly made the transition.
She’s the coach now. Not the player.
“It’s nice to not have to do the sprints down and back, I’ll tell you that much,” Whalen said when asked the difference between being a player and a coach.
But seriously: The practice was upbeat. It went longer than scheduled, which shouldn’t surprise; Whalen said she was tempted to have the team run a rebounding drill after they gave up too many offensive boards during a scrimmage drill.
Talking to the players, there was a marked difference in the energy of the practice, at least compared to last year.
“It’s very intense, it’s very competitive as well,” Bell said. “It gets everybody moving. We have more fun while doing it, ’cause everybody wants to win.”
Said sophomore Destiny Pitts: “The coaches bring it. They are able to demonstrate drills to us if we’re not understanding something. Our team is really excited to start something new. We have a good bond with our coaches.”
Much of the drills in practice were on defense, with Whalen intent on making the Gophers — a zone team last season — a tough man-to-man team, something both Pitts and Bell enthusiastically endorsed.
“We’ve all bought in,” Pitts said.
That said, there is still a learning curve here, for both players and coaches.
For Whalen, that’s why she is utilizing her assistants so much. “I’ve always had a feel for as a point guard, but then to make decisions,” she said. “When do we move on in a drill? When do we put something in? It’s a little different. But I’m getting there.”
Sometimes the process goes like this: Whalen will be talking to her assistants, and she will identify an area where the team needs to improve. Maybe the team is getting beat back door too often. And her assistants will have a handful of drills ready to go.
“They’re great for that,” Whalen said. “I’m still getting the teaching part, getting that done. That’s why it’s great we have all of us complementing each other. I’m learning to find what works.”
The players are all ears. The team, coming off a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament last spring, has big goals: a conference title, a deeper NCAA run.
And her players say having Whalen as their coach makes that goal more tangible.
“If you’re a coach putting so much effort and time into it, and investing so much in us, we’re just going to pay forward with that,” Pitts said.
Bell has her own WNBA dreams, and she believes Whalen could help make them come true; it’s a subtext of nearly every conversation the two have.
“She brings a lot of drills to us that we’ve never done,” Bell said. “And it’s all fun. She reminds us every day to have fun while we’re playing. This is why we’re here. It has to be fun to get better.”
• Gophers freshman guard Mercedes Staples appeared to injure her left ankle early in practice. She was tended to by athletic trainers and watched the rest of practice wearing a protective boot.
Gophers women’s basketball Opener: Nov. 9 vs. New Hampshire