The whole women’s basketball world will be watching Friday, Nov. 9, as Minnesota hosts New Hampshire at the Barn in an announced sellout contest, the Gophers’ 2018-19 season opener. Based on all accounts with the expected local media frenzy in tow, it’s more than a basketball game. It’s the Lindsay Whalen “show” with the first former Gopher woman hoopster to return to her alma mater as head coach.
At Whalen’s first game as a Gopher player in the 2000-01 season, only four reporters were in attendance; two of them were the late Kwame McDonald and this reporter, who is beginning his 32nd season of covering Minnesota hoops. It wasn’t until midway through Whalen’s second year that Gopher women’s hoops attracted both more media and fans.
But Friday will be something not seen before. Fairly or unfairly, the spotlight will be squarely on Whalen quite literally as soon as she emerges from the bowels of the Barn, a few months since being hired as a female Elmer Gantry to bring U of M women’s basketball to national prominence.
“I’m getting to the point where I am feeling pretty good about all that,” Whalen said of the hoopla building up to Friday’s home opener. In a sit-down MSR interview in her Athletes Village office, the two of us talked for almost an hour, more as longtime friends rather than as a scheduled reporter-coach interview.
The last time Whalen officially stepped onto the Williams Arena’s famed raised floor, she was in a Minnesota Lynx uniform in the deciding game of the 2017 WNBA Finals. She left with her fourth league championship in hand, winning her first championship on her home college court.
Now she’s back, a newly retired pro player after 15 seasons and a first-time-ever coach at her alma mater, the state’s only Division I university where expectations can be unrealistic, but such things are now at a fever pitch.
“I’m glad everyone is coming, but I want people to come see my players and not just me. It’s their time now,” she points out. The current hoopla, however, says otherwise.
“No two days are ever alike,” Whalen continued on her coaching career thus far. “I am still learning what is going to work for our team. It’s all happening so fast at times I am still trying to figure out [things], but I am getting better.”
A free public scrimmage against the team’s male scout team, as well as closed scrimmages against two opponents in the last two weeks, have offered Whalen the chance to work out the sideline coaching glitches before the games count in the standings. “I want to have as many reps as I can get so I can be as good as I can be” as a coach, she stressed. “All the things I don’t know, [I’ll] learn.”
As a first-time-ever coach at any level, Whalen assembled a staff with both familiarity and experience soon after she was hired this past spring. Danielle O’Banion was an assistant coach during Whalen’s Gopher days and a former Division I head coach. Kelly Roysland was a teammate, former Minnesota assistant coach, and Macalester College head coach for four seasons.
Carly Thibault-DuDonis is a proven recruiter, and Melissa Maines, with over two decades of work in basketball operations, was available after former U of M coach Marlene Stollngs left the school this spring for Texas Tech and took her entire staff with her. “It was a no-brainer” in the aforementioned hires, Whalen said proudly.
So Friday is show time for the new face of Gopher women’s basketball. “It’s taken a little bit of adjusting,” Whalen said of her preparation.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.