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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Guru'a WNBA Report: Washiington Looks to Build on Last Season's Playoff Return

By Mel Greenberg

Optimism and caution mixed with some poignancy over the Sunday night passing of basketball coaching great Dr. Jack Ramsay were the converging themes of the WNBA Washington Mystics Monday as the organization held its annual preseason confab at the Verizon Center.

In a few weeks season number two under veteran Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, will get tip off at home against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx following his decade-long stint coaching the Connecticut Sun before management up north decided to change direction prior to the last go-round.

The Mystics pounced on Thibault's unforeseen availability and the result was his leading Washington out of the wilderness into the playoffs for a first-round appearance after going 17-17 during the regular season.

"Now we have to get better because everybody in the league is better -- there's not a lot of separation from top to bottom between the best team and the worst team," Thibault said. "We're one of the youngest teams in the league.

"The next step in becoming an elite team is a lot harder."

It's also a group that has just veteran and former Duke star Monique Currie as the last Mystic in the house following a major overhaul of the Mystics roster after his arrival.

The last to go was former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., in the Philadelphia suburbs, who was a focal point of one of the draft day mega-deals earlier this month when she was swapped to the Seattle Storm for another former Maryland standout in Tianna Hawkins and Seattle's first round pick - guard Bria Hartley.

That move created an instant reunion of the two seniors off the unbeaten NCAA Connecticut champions because the Mystics had already taken sixth in the first round Huskies center Stefanie Dolson, star of a recent short dance-off with late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon on NBC's Tonight Show.

It's not the only reunion because Thibault was able to acquire Kara Lawson, whom he coached on the Sun and who had not been happy over his ouster.

Lawson, a former Tennessee standout who spends the winter as a studio host on ESPN's collegiate women's basketball coverage on the network's various platforms, also returns to her native city.

Going to a new WNBA team for the third time is less daunting in her career following being drafted and part of the former Sacramento Monarchs that won a league championship and then going with the Sun after the demise of the Monarchs is not daunting this time around.

"If you want to have currency in the lockerroom," Lawson said about arriving as one of the leaders, "you have to be a consistent practice player. You have to be productive on the court -- it's very hard to give players advice when you're sitting on the bench.

"You have to be able to produce. There's little tips you can enlighten the younger players with -- having played in this league I know the tendencies of certain players," Lawson continued.

"So there's a lot of first and second year players and they may not know what Seimone Augustus (of Minnesota) likes to do, what Diana Taurasi (former UConn great with the Phoenix Mercury) does -- having played against them I might not have necessarily guarded them over the years but I kind of know what spots they like to get to, I know how they like to play.

"That's more where your experience can help a team that doesn't have the same experience playing against those players."

As for the abundance of new faces in the same building that is also the home to the NBA playoff Washington Wizards, Lawson noted, "There's a lot of teams in this league that have continuity -- we're not one of them but that's okay.

"You want to be playing well at the end of the year so these three weeks are so important in figuring out (what each player adds) and I need to help get those players in those positions at the offensive and defensive ends."

Lawson has a second reunion because she has returned to her native city in the nation's capital.

"I didn't think I would ever come here to play so the first reaction was to cry because I was excited because a lot of times when you get traded to a new team you have a lot of uncertainty.

"I didn't have any of those fears because I know my way around everywhere. I know all the good spots to eat and those that are not good," she jested.

"I'm fans of the (other major league) teams here. And having played three years in Connecticut, I know all the plays (of Thibault) even if they might be calling them something else. I also know the expectation from him every day."

Currie talked a bit about now being the longest tenured roster player and the departure of Langhorne, her former collegiate rival in the Atlantic Coast Conference who became a longtime teammate and friend.

"It's been interesting," she said. "I'm excited, though, and seeing how things turn out.

"It's part of game," Currie said. "There'll be an adjustment. Will it be a big adjustment. I don't think so. Basketball is basketball but it's important to learn each other as quickly as possible.

"I was very surprised (Langhorne's trade). It was dissapointing to me. I played with Crystal six years. She's a good friend of mine but I understand it is a business and the business of basketball," Currie said.

"I think Dolson will be a big presence here. I don't know a lot about Bria but they come from a good program, they have a winning mentality and work ethic you need at this level to be successful."

For Dolson and Hartley, the events of draft day had each of them hit the trifecta. Not only do they stay together but they get to play in the Eastern Conference near their New York homes and also get to play for a coach whose team they watched in the summer in Connecticut.

"It's something that me and Bria aren't taking for granted," Dolson said. "We get to play together. We get to play for coach Thibault who we watched and it definitely adds to a comfort a level."

Thibault noted the success of UConn has a downside for Dolson and Hartley.

"They haven't played in many close games," he said. "It seems like every night games go down to the wire. That's going to be their biggest adjustment.

"I remember when I coached Tina Charles in Connecticut -- her biggest adjustment was in a two or three-point game night after night because they (UComm) were always blowing everybody out."

One of the additions last year who brought talent and personality to the Mystics was former North Carolina star Ivory Latta, who had been with Tulsa.

"I'm not worried about chemistry," Thibault said. "There are going to be a lot of people to quote in the locker room -- a lot of personalities."

Latta echoed his remarks.

"Great additions," Latta said. "With a team like this -- somewhat young, everybody needs the energies and smiles and we need to bring it every day at practice.

"When you add great additions, great things happen. We're going to feed off the Wizards' energy and carry it into the WNBA season."

Latta coached at her alma mater this season on a staff that had former Saint Joseph's star Katie Kuester as a video coordinator.

"We loved her," Latta aaid. "She's our girl."

Remembering Dr. Jack

Speaking of Saint Joseph's, it was on Hawk Hill that Jack Ramsay became a national figure and went on to more success in the NBA before spending his later years as an analyst for ESPN.

His passing Sunday night at age 89 came after a long battle against cancer.

Thibault knew Ramsay off his own earlier life in the NBA.

"I knew Dr. Ramsay pretty well. When I was a young coach he was a great person for me to observe and watch -- I stole things in particular from him at the offensive end of the court.

"But as a young person he was also a great person to go and talk about things so he'll be missed in his game."

Assistant coach Marianne Stanley, a former Immaculata star, grew up watching Ramsay's Saint Joseph's teams.

"I've been a bit upset over the news," Stanley said. "He was great not just as a coach but also as a person and he was involved in all types of basketball, including the women.

"I know growing up in Philadelphia, I always wanted to be Billy Oaks," Stanley aaid of a star guard who played for Ramsay.

Stanley is also looking forward to Washington's last preseason game, which will be May 13 against defending regular season Eastern champion Chicago at the University of Delaware.

The game will serve as a homecoming for former Blue Hens sensation Elena Delle Donne, who was rookie of the year last season in leading the Sky to their first playoff appearance.

As of last week only 400 seats remain in the 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Center.

"Thanka for reminding me because I have to buy a block of seats," Stanley said.

Many of her Immaculata teammates, including Theresa Grentz, will attend. The group was recently announced as a team inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in August.

"It's going to be a lot of fun (at Delaware) and I think it's good exposure for people in the Philly area to see a league game."

Washington, whose largest crowds of the season here were when Chicago and Delle Donne visited, plans to bring its own fan bus to the game.

Next up for the Guru is Connecticut Sun media day on Tuesday afternoon.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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