December 31, 2021

New Year’s Thoughts on Coaching


Warren Grimes

Coaches, even very good ones, have notably different approaches to coaching.   

True, any good coach has to have certain common skills, such as recruiting, organizing, teaching, strategizing, and motivating.  That’s a pretty long list.  But coaches can differ substantially over things such as game strategies, how they organize, how they teach, and how they motivate.

Take Brenda Frese, the well-known coach of the Maryland Terrapins since 2002.  Her achievements include a national championship in 2006 and two other Final Four appearances.  She has won conference titles in the ACC and, after Maryland switched to the Big Ten, in that conference as well.

Frese is known as an excellent recruiter.  She has demonstrated an ability to recruit high octane offensive players that contribute to high scoring teams.  No doubt, the free-wheeling offensive style of her teams is an attraction for many gifted high school athletes. 

On defense, her teams have had less success.  Stanford has played Maryland twice since Frese began coaching there.  The first time was a tournament regional final in Candice Wiggins’ senior year.  Maryland was the number one seed in the region, but could not stop second-seeded Stanford from pulling the upset.   The game was an offensive explosion, with a final score of 98-87.   Not sterling defense by either team.

Earlier this season, Stanford met up with a Frese-led Maryland team in the Bahamas tournament.  Stanford again prevailed, this time 86 to 68.  For Stanford to score 86 points against a top ten opponent is unusual.  This year, Stanford is averaging 72 points per game and has scored more than 86 points only against two lower ranked opponents (Pacific and Morgan State). 

Take a look at this comparison of Maryland and Stanford stats for this season.

                                                                Ave. Points                         Ave. Opponent Points

Maryland (13 Games)                    82.8                                                        66.5

Stanford (11 Games)                      72.1                                                        57.9

Maryland is scoring roughly 11 points more per game than Stanford.  And Maryland opponents are averaging roughly 9 points more than Stanford opponents.

So, it might be concluded, Maryland teams led by Frese have excelled on offense but not so much on defense.  The reasons for less impressive defensive stats may lie in part on the emphasis Maryland places on offense.  If Maryland puts up more shots in a forty minute game, the opponent will also shoot more.  Other factors include defensive game planning, discipline, and the type of athletes that Maryland recruits. 

The fact remains, however, that in this year’s contest, Stanford held Maryland to 14 points below its season average, while, in the same game, Stanford scored 14 more points than its season average.  That Stanford uses a scouting defense (and Maryland evidently does not) must account for some of this difference.   

Defensive approaches are just one of many ways in which coaches may differ.  Some teams emphasize quickness and risk taking on defense.  If successful, this approach can lead to more steals and opponent turnovers that allow for fast breaks on offense.   This year’s Texas team used that approach against Stanford with considerable success.  So did South Carolina in its second half comeback against Stanford.  And Pac-12 opponents such as Arizona and UCLA can be expected to do the same.  Indeed, this may be Stanford’s greatest vulnerability this season. 

VanDerveer-coached teams will also go for steals, but tend to emphasize a positioning defense with less risk taking but potentially superior results in suppressing an opponent’s scoring.   The Hull twins, among the team’s best theft artists, have demonstrated superiority in intelligent risk taking, often involving a well-timed intervention into the passing lane. 

Motivating techniques are another area of variance.  The late Pat Summit once locked her team out of a brand new locker room, telling players that until they became more focused and hard working, the locker room would remain locked.  Addressing this point, Tara VanDerveer once told this writer that she could not (and would not) use this technique for her Stanford team. 

The differing approaches that various coaches take will affect recruiting.  Do the UCLA and Arizona coaches have greater success than Stanford in recruiting the quick and athletic guard?  Does Stanford have greater success in recruiting disciplined players who appreciate the VanDerveer scouting defense?

The most valuable skill a coach can bring?  I’d say creativity.  Every coach must match both offensive and defensive strategy to the opponent; to matchups, to the player with the hot hand; to the score and the time left on the clock.  I’d say Tara VanDerveer does that as well as anyone.

Happy New Year. 

Covid permitting, more coaching creativity and excitement awaits as Stanford begins the conference run.  

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