Second-year Gophers coach offers a pre-season assessment
The Minnesota Gophers’ 2019-20 women’s basketball season opens Nov. 5, an afternoon home contest vs. Missouri State. This is Lindsay Whalen’s second year at the helm.
“I’m a year removed from playing,” Whalen recently observed while we sat in her Stadium Village corner office. “Last year I was asking everybody how to plan out a preseason, how to plan out different things,” she recalled. “I was the coach, but I was still watching [WNBA] games. I was in and out, still in season with the Lynx.
“Now I feel a lot better,” Whalen continued. “Having a year that you don’t know, asking advice…but you got to find out how you want to do it.” Also, during her novice season, she suspected there were times her players probably wondered if Whalen really knew what she was doing.
“But they were patient with me,” she said. “I think they knew deep down that I genuinely care for them and really want to do the right thing. They allowed me to grow [as coach].”
“They all call me Coach Whay,” the Gopher head coach said, smiling proudly. “Now I know how I want it, and I know how I want to do things.”
Whalen’s Gophers look to improve next week on last year’s 21-11 record and to later improve their 9-9 conference record when Big Ten play begins December 28, hopefully securing an NCAA bid next March.
She speaks now like a coach rather than a player, but Whalen’s feistiness, her competitiveness that fueled her as a player, still remains. “I told them, ‘You guys can be good. We can be great if you bring [effort] every day,’ the coach counseled her team during a practice earlier this month. “Effort is non-negotiable.”
Minnesota returns three starters from last season: junior guard-forward Destiny Pitts, senior guard Jasmine Brunson, and senior forward Taiye Bello. “I’m going to rely on them a lot,” Whalen stated. “We are relying on them a lot for their leadership” as well as their scoring [with a combined 34 points on average per game].
The 5’-10” Pitts averaged nearly 17 points last season. “Destiny can be in the running for [conference] player of the year,” Whalen said. Pitts was picked both by the coaches and media for the preseason All-Big Ten team. “She played so well in the second half of the Big Ten last year,” the coach recalled.
“She’s got more that she can do after posting season highs [in points] last season,” Whalen said of the 5’-8” Brunson at point guard, who averaged 8.4 ppg. Taiye Bello also posted career highs in points (9.7) and rebounds (11.9) last season. “Tye is so quiet, but she leads by example,” her coach said. “A 20/20 game this year isn’t out of her reach.”
But a healthy Gadiva Hubbard, who missed all last season due to injury, can provide the Gophers a proven third scorer (a career 13 point scorer). Whalen said that the 5’-9” guard should be at full strength when the season begins. “We missed her last year, and we’re very excited to have her back and healthy.”
Understandably, the Gophers are being careful with the junior: “We are taking it one week, one day at a time. We are trying to minimize the amount of pounding that she has to endure,” Whalen explained.
The coach concluded, “We are looking forward to this year. We know the season is a lot of fun, but there are ups and downs. When we defend at a high level, we can be a real good team.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.