Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guru's WNBA Report: The (Invisible) Elephant in the Washington Mystics' Upbeat Room

By Mel Greenberg

The double dateline means catching up with WNBA material from two different locations, including up in New England where Monday the Guru viewed the Connecticut Sun opening exhibition game with the New York Liberty and where the Guru will return Thursday night when the Sun hosts the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.

While a political party, whose symbol is an elephant, is busy trying to reclaim residency in November nearby here in the nation's capital at a fashionable adress in a house painted white along Pennsylvania Avenue, an elephant of a different sort was hanging out invisibly in the Verizon Center Tuesday afternoon during the annual WNBA Washington Mystics media day.

In discussiions about trying to improve from last season's woeful six-game win effort, Mystics coaches and players spoke about an attempt to get better like the happy times of two seasons ago and make the playoffs.

For the second straight season there's been a major makeover in a roster in which this time perennial All-Star candidate Crystal Langhorne, the former Maryland All-American; former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon, second-year pro and former Duke All-American Jasmine Thomas, and former Blue Devils All-American Monique Currie, who misssed most of last season with a leg injury, are the only holdovers.

Kerri Gardin, a fifth holdover from the final 2011 statistics sheet, was let go prior to Tuesday's media fest.

Newcomers include first-round draft picks Natalie Novosel of NCAA national runnerup Notre Dame and former LSU star LaSondra Barrett while Langhorne's former Maryland teammate Laura Harper is on the list as a free agent after missing last season with a leg injury.

Former Tennessee stars Michelle Snow and Ashley Robinson -- Snow via free agency after spending 2011 with the Chicago Sky and Robinson via trade with the Seattle Storm -- are also on the list of hopefuls.

Still around for a second-straight season as head coach-general manager is Trudi Lacey, the former North Carolina State star who if she has any staying power might make her a rarity in the 15-year history of the Mystics.

Actually, a second person with somewhat staying power is former Washington head coach Marianne Stanley, the women's basketball hall of famer who has returned the last several seasons as an assistant. Former Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom, who will also be an aide to UConn's Geno Auriemma on the U.S. Olympic team, joined the staff in January.

But while everyone talked a good game about the future, those listening to it all, given the 6-28 record of last season, wondered sometimes in audible whispers why would one want to get much improved and land in the playoffs, given the opportunity that to land in the 2013 draft lottery means perhaps getting a superior talent that could actually bring the Mystics closer to a long-sought WNBA title.

Why blow an opportunity that could see Baylor star Brittany Griner become the second Bears super sensation arrive on the local landscape in the wake of NFL Washington Redskins quarterback draftee Robert Griffin III.

And if not that, why pass up the chance to land Delaware star Elena Delle Donne who has the potential to draw a huge crowd of her fans from within two hours distance as well as, if he is still in office, Vice President Biden, the Delaware grad and newly-acclaimed Blue Hens women's basketball fan of his alma mater.

Still, even a drop to No. 3 in the lotto could mean Novosel could be reunited with former Irish teammate Skylar Diggins.

As much as there is the painful reminisce of 2011, the reality is that as bad as the final record was, the Mystics still had a chance to win a slew of games as the clock approached the final two minutes.

"Fifteen to be exact," Lacey responded quickly when the reference was made.

Injuries also factored into the demise with Currie out as mentioned as well as Alana Beard, the former Duke All-American and league All-Star who went two straight seasons without playing following a new injury just before play got under way.

The Mystics and Beard parted ways in the offseason.

Snow was upbeat in her interviews Tuesday, noting, "It's great to see a team with so many players that can do so many different things, so I'm really watching and observing right now. Just learning what we have at the guard spot."

She pointed out as a reason for coming, even though she had been well aware of the Mystics' struggles: "I've always loved this organization. This is where I interned when I was much, much younger (2001). This organization is really special, it's a cornerstone of the league, especially when I think of the owner Dr. (Sheila) Johnson. We have the potential to do a lot of great things. It's just a matter of us coming together as a team and that's going to come day by day everyday coming in here working by itself."

Asked how she got hooked with her front office internship, Snow quickly responded, "(Former Tennessee coach) Pat Summitt. She has some pull."

Summitt, who has been fighting early onset dementia, Alzheimer type, and recently stepped aside to become head coach emeritus in Knoxville, was a consultant at the time to the Mystics when former Lady Vols sensation Chamique Holdsclaw was on the roster following her pick by the Mystics in 1999.

As for the roster turnover, in terms of her own experience, Snow said, "Most of my early career I spent in Houston (with the former Comets who won the first four WNBA titles), so I really got to play with a lot of great players.

"Turnovers come and go so you can look at it either as you have a pessimistic view or an optimistic view. I say it's an opportunity. Competition is great. If you're a player on this level and you don't want to compete (for spots and wins), you don't deserve to be here."

Langhorne is happy to have the newcomers at post positions. "Now we have all the shot blockers in the league and I won't have to go against Snow, I'll be playing with her."

When Beard stayed sidelined, former Rutgers star Ajavon became a starter and bloomed though she noted, "I still need to be more consistent than a year ago."

Asked about her former Rutgers associate head coach Jolette Law landing a spot on Holly Warlick's staff at Tennessee, a national rival of the Scarlet Knights over the years, Ajavon said, "It's bittersweet. I'm happy for Jolette, but, you know, it's Tennessee."

Novosel talked about her introduction to the pro level after her stellar career with the Irish.

"Notre Dame did an excellent job preparing me for the next level in terms of professionalism, and athleticism. It's tough transitioning into these two-a-days in terms of training camp, but I think it just shows how bad you are willing to sacrifice. It's a lot to handle in a little bit of time but I'm ready for it and ready to take it head on."

Novosel has touched base with new George Washington coach Jonathan Tsipis who accepted the offer from the Atlantic 10 school following his long stint as associate head coach at Notre Dame.

"He was my coach (guiding the posts)."

The Guru paid a vist to Tsipis' new office digs in a row house across from the Smith Center making the visit the biggest thing to happen to the site in five years, when the Guru last paid a visit when Joe McKeown was the coach.

"It's not South Bend," Tsipis smiled in terms of not needing a car for now with the Metro subway system and bus system making travel is Washington cheap and easy.

Meanwhile, back inside the Verizon Center in talking to his former Irish star, as for any surprises or early impressions, Novosel said, "I think I was prepared for professionalism, like every day dress up and go to work, but at the same time you go back and lounge around your hotel like everybody else. It's just another day. And there's no more homework (at school), that's done.

"The biggest difference is the pace of the game. You have to move around quickly. Everyone's not just standing around. It's quicker than in college."

Novosel said while there's more of chance of gaining confidence because of the number of players she already went up against when playing collegiate and AAU ball, she also pointed out, "In a way it's a little more intimidating because you watched them grow. But at the same time it's nice to come in here and know you can play with these people even if they are bigger and stronger. You have to know you have a right to be here and believe you can do it."

She said she has enjoyed the company of her sister draft pick LaSondra Barrett. "I think we'll be good friends the rest of our careers."

Thomas is happy to have a year under her belt after an outstanding career at Duke.

"It's nice not to be a rookie anymore," she said. "Walking onto the floor, it looks a lot more competitive this year and I think that veteran experience has brought that. As for last year, some things went well and some things didn't. And when they didn't we let them get worse and we didn't close out games."

So to coin an old campaign song from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era when he became president during the great depression, the Mystics could improve and the fan base will be signing "Happy Days are Here Again."

But the flip side is that if the season becomes another disaster in terms of the playoffs, by next spring if the draft order has fallen the right way in the Mystics' direction, "Happy Days" may be called for anyway.

Though only an exhibition Thursday, Washington will be in Chicago to face the re-vamped Sky, so the Mystics will get a chance to see one of the teams they will have to battle in the Eastern Conference.

Evans Makes Her (Preseason) Debut

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Most of what went on here in the Connecticut Sun's win over arch conference rival New York on Monday has already been covered by the regular beat writers, but the Guru did chat with former James Madison star Dawn Evans, who has battled a kidney ailment but was invited to camp a year after her graduation as the reigning Colonial Athletic Association career scorer -- Delle Donne will probably erase that early next season.

After getting into the game Monday, Evans said. "It's definitely exciting at this level -- just to say I played with a group of girls that are so talented -- it's exciting to get out here and represent JMU and what we do.

"Everybody's a little longer and quicker but in practice I can get my confidence up. I felt a little out of whack being my first professional game but otherwise I felt pretty good. This is an opportunity to grow as a player and be around so many good players."

The Sun roster is down to 13 and must get down to 11 following two cuts on Wednesday.

Talking to Sun coach Mike Thibault about prospects of the race, which was extremely tight in the East and tight from No. 2 down through five in the West, he pointed out, "All it takes is one injury to a key player on any team and everything changes so whatever you think now about how things may go, many not happen," Thibault said.

"This league has to get up to 12 players on rosters."

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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