Weekly Coach Spence Interview :: 11/10/10 You open up on Friday and head out on the road for games at North Dakota State and North Dakota. How have the practices been going so far in preparation for the season opener?
Darin Spence: We've had roughly 24 practices in the time since we started and we've done some good things. It's a good group, they've been working hard, they've found ways to challenge themselves and they have a different level of expectations for themselves and the season. You've got a fairly experienced group coming back this season what has the group dynamic been like so far?
DS: We've been talking a lot about trying to develop and figure out what our identity as a group will be and what's going to be our edge that we play with all the time? Each year it can be something different. As a head coach I would like it to always be that we're the toughest defensive team out there. Obviously we're not in a position where we can hand-pick kids in recruiting and sign them so we've done a good job of getting kids that we feel fit into what we do. They work hard and they improve. So one year it might be that you're able to go outscore somebody and the next year you might have to play half-court or full-court. Just finding that identity has been a work in progress. What's going to be our mainstay, what can we hang our hat on?

Slowly but surely it's coming back around to us being a good defensive team like we were three years go. With that senior group that allowed us to work offensively and not put as much pressure on the offense, though that team did score well that year. But this team defensively we're coming around, we're getting better, rotating to the ball, getting penetration stopped, we're becoming a better rebounding team. Does that mean we're slowly moving into that as our team identity? I guess we'll see this weekend when we play.

We've done a good job in our two scrimmages in those two areas and I think championship level teams do a good job defensively and rebounding. That could be playing a man, a zone, pressing, half-court, whatever you decide to do that fits your team, you just have to do it well and be efficient. This team is doing that so far. On the other hand, this is a team that offensively is putting up some points. In our scrimmages we've found ways to score, offensively we're back to running what we ran three years ago and we're actually well ahead of where that team was. This team has a pretty good basketball IQ so maybe that's our identity. Maybe we'll be a little smarter this year and limit turnovers and know when to play fast and know when to play slow.

Right off the top, right off the tipoff of the very first game we need to defend well and then kind of let everything else fall into place. One of the players who is making a much anticipated debut for your team is junior college transfer center Ariella McGhee. How has she adjusted so far to at least the scrimmage and practice level of Division I play?
DS: She's working hard. She's trying to get it all figured out and having coached junior college myself on the men's and women's side for so many years I know what the adjustment is like. I know how hard it is for them to come in. The junior college coaches themselves, a lot of them do a good job and prepare them, but it's still not the same. It's a big step. It's a bigger step than they all think. Just the daily intensity, every possession, the competitiveness of it so she's been working at it. Our first scrimmage against Texas Tech I think for about the first 10 minutes she was overwhelmed by the size and the strength of their kids but as the day went on she adjusted and she got better and found her niche and where she fit in. Then in our second scrimmage against Eastern New Mexico she was pretty good. So she gives us somebody around the basket who can score either with her back to the basket or facing the basket. She's athletic, she's a long defender and she can rebound well. As each day comes and goes she's improving and trying to fight off the frustration level that all the new kids experience at one point but she's doing well. She's improved already in every aspect of her game. Those days that she has her energy level high she's pretty darn good and I think she's got a chance to really help us this year. You open with North Dakota State, they have a First Team All-Conference player and were picked to finish 5th in the Summit League.
DS: Obviously it's a road game, it's a tough road game. We beat them here last year so of course they're going to be sitting there waiting on us thinking they have something to prove but in the big scheme of scheduling home-and-homes, you beat them at your place they beat you and theirs. They're a solid team. They're a team that understands what they're trying to do offensively and that's get the ball inside to their big post kid, she's 6'5". In her first two exhibition games she scored 23 and 19. She scores well around the basket. We're going to have to defend her with our five post players as we rotate them through, not give her anything easy, not bail her out and put her on the free throw line. We want to make her have to play defense and get her in foul trouble and limit her minutes.

We always talk about taking the top two players on every team and cutting their minutes by 10. So if they're averaging 28 minute a game we want them playing 18. We want to hold them to four points less than their average. We want to go in there and attack.

They're a team that's not going to beat themselves unless we can really dictate the tempo and use our speed and athleticism and force the issue otherwise they'll be able to sit back and pass and cut and move and they do shoot the ball pert well. It'll be a challenge for us to go in there and really try to get some tempo going and getting up and down. But at the same time not throwing the ball in the bleachers and not taking bad shots and just trying to carry over from what we've done in practice. Worry about what we can control and whatever they throw at us, just adjust to it. They're a good solid team. I expect them to be physical and come out and play and I expect us to do the same. I think it's a game that if we go play, it's a game that we can win. In the matchup with their 6'5" post player, is it a situation where having somebody like Tabytha and somebody like Erica that can hit mid-range and also three point shots is helpful in that those two can drag her out of the paint?
DS: No question. We can move her out and clear out the lane and we've got such good guards that it gives them more space. Whereas we want our forwards to really give us some points in the paint, we're not going to forget about how we can bring that player out and let our guards get behind them. We talk about playing behind pressure and that's one way to do it is pull her away. If she doesn't come out and guard those two then yeah, they can score, there's no question about that. We've got a couple ways we can attack her. The biggest thing is we need to go right at her and get her into some foul problems. You turn right around on Saturday and play North Dakota. They have a First Team and a Second Team All-Conference pick and were picked to repeat as league champions.
DS: They're a solid team. They beat us here last year, that was a weird game. We got up on them and then we just stopped playing which was just kind of the Jekyll and Hyde last year that our team was. I think this year our team has a little more maturity, we understand that you have to approach every team the same way. North Dakota won the Great West Conference last year and they're good. Back when they were Division II I believe they won a few national titles so that program, they're in a position where for years they've been used to winning games. Whether you're a Division II or Division I or JUCO, those lessons get handed down and it means something to wear that uniform. Now that they've transitioned to Division I they're the same way. They started last year 0-4 but they played really good teams and they beat us here for their first win. Our kids got caught up in their record instead of respecting the team coming in to play. Now we flip it around and we have something to give back to them. We want to go back and beat them on their floor.

There's a difference in our speed and athleticism versus their methodical passing and cutting and screening. They're good skilled players, they have some scorers and they have some good skies. But again, they have some tradition playing at home too. It's a tough place to go. We're at a disadvantage too because we're playing back-to-back nights and they're not playing Friday night. We're playing Friday/Saturday and I wanted to do that because I wanted to test us like we're playing in a tournament format. They're two true road games but it's November and we're building toward January and like I've said for eight years now we're going to learn through our non-conference games. We've got our hands full with North Dakota there's no question about that but we'll go swing away and see if we can't have some fun.

As coaches we want to get a split on the Friday game and Saturday game at worst. If we can get sweep and get both then it's a pretty good trip for us. Aside from the wins and losses what are some things that you want to see this weekend out of your team's play?
DS: I want to see how we'll compete at our level. Like we talked about if our identity is going to be that tough defensive effort whether we're pressing or playing half-court. I want to see how we'll bond together when we get down by six or seven points if that ever happens, I'm sure it probably could. I want to see how we pull together on the floor and on the bench by being in a road atmosphere that's probably not going to be very friendly. I want to see how we handle the road trip and all those little things that add up and give yourself a chance to win the basketball game. More than the winning and losing, those are the little thing we need to see and that's how you gauge your team's growth and your maturity level and how that's going to help you as the season moves forward.