bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the game at Michigan, another close game that you gave yourselves a chance to win down the stretch.
Darin Spence: Yeah we did. I was really pleased with how we competed. It's a great atmosphere up there. You travel around to different places and you really get a good sense of why the programs at that level are good. They have a lot of things in place. It was a fun atmosphere and I was really pleased with how our players approached it even on the trip getting there. It was really cold, something we're not used to. It was like seven degrees and there was snow and it was slippery but we kept our focus and we were energetic in our gameday shootaround. When the game started we got off to a good start and not just because we made baskets but we defended and we rebounded much much better on the defensive end and that always gives you a chance to find out what you need to do offensively. I was pleased with how we competed and how we hung in there and we gave ourselves a chance, that's for sure.
bc.net: Your team has really been able to handle the tough road environments really well this year. What's been the key to that with having a younger team?
DS: You never know how a group of kids are going to handle an environment, even home games, let alone going to a big name school and we hadn't played in a few days and were coming off of finals. But you never know exactly if they're all going to be on the same page, what their energy level is going to be like, things that coaches have very little control over. So you've got to instill some discipline in your players so that when they do get into that situation they can all come together for that common goal. For us it's always just playing as hard as we can play, competing and giving ourselves a chances, especially on the road.
As the game went on we were up and then we got down on the scoreboard but we didn't let it affect us too much. The issue was, for where we are right now as a team, we've got to be able to execute on both sides of the ball for longer stretches. We didn't close the first half well at all, gave them a little momentum and let them take the lead back. That was just due to us being careless with our passing. We'd turn the ball over and they'd turn that into points. I always talk about how teams can score off your offense and that's just because of lazy, silly passes that shouldn't be thrown. We did that in that first half and we did it again to start the second half, we didn't start real well. Our big thing right now is to be able to get our team to execute down the stretch whether you're up or down on the scoreboard and being as efficient and consistent as possible. It's been a learning period for Kaitlyn Soto and Jasmine Lowe to reassert herself as a leader on the floor and take care of the ball. And for the most part they've done okay, we've just had a few too many mistakes in that area and that's something that will get better as we go on.
bc.net: You're sitting at 6-4 through the first 10 non-conference games and a couple of those losses have been due to things that you can control like the turnovers against Michigan. What is your feeling about where your team is knowing that those types of things are correctable?
DS: You always look at it as what do you have control over. What is it that you can fix from within your own team which has nothing to do with your opponent. It could be Michigan, Kansas, New Mexico, UTEP, Idaho, Fresno, it really doesn't matter the opponent. I see a lot of things that we're doing on the negative side as just us. That's in the games that we've won and the games that we've lost. We have a lot of control over our defensive positioning, our rotating to stop drives, our defensive rebounding, that's all on us and we have full control over that. Just like on the offensive end, are we executing our offense, are we being lazy on our passing and cutting and playing without the ball in our hands, are we standing around and watching? Poor field goal percentage a lot of the time is poor shot selection and hurried shots and rushed shots and we have full control over that.
I'm a firm believer that the final score of the game may not be the true indicator of how the game went. A lot of times you might end up getting beat by 10 or 12 but it was a lot closer than that, you might have just played the foul game at the end and put them on the free throw line, or like the other night we had some late turnovers that they went down and scored or we missed layups and our floor balance wasn't good so they just chucked it down there and made a layup, it happened to us like three times at the end of that game.
But we have full control over what we do and if we just keep that in mind and we just keep working hard and as teammates take care of each other and make each other better, 6-4, 4-6, I don't get so wrapped up in a record, especially in first semester. If you've played a tough schedule like what we're playing, it's got to make you better. Your team is either going to cave in and fold or they're going to fight and scratch and give themselves a chance. I think that's what we're doing. We haven't won all our games but we're finding ways to be in the game and we're making some progress in that area.
bc.net: Your team has been playing without Madison who is a very big part of the team and you've been able to be competitive and have chances to win games, how much has the team rallied around her and rallied around themselves?
DS: We have some depth on our team and we knew that going into the season and we believe at full strength that this team can play for a WAC Championship and have a run and go to postseason play. We believe that and that's a goal of ours but you've got to be at full strength. I know injuries are a part of the game but they can also set you off on a totally different path and have to reinvent yourself as you go through, kind of like what we had to do last year.
Now, our other guards with Madison out, and our forwards, have picked up the pace, they've picked up the slack and found ways to improve their own games. Now the problem is that you can overcome short term but if you don't have your floor leader with all that experience that she has and you don't have that out on the floor and she's the one that everybody's looked to in her fourth year to settle her team down and get her team in the right spot, to hit big shots, to handle the ball. She's that person. She's that calming effect on the floor. When it extends over a period of time and the number of games that it has, those players who in the short term can pick up their game, they kind of start going backwards because they're not comfortable going above and beyond what their skill limits are. We saw that in the New Mexico game, we saw that in the Northridge game that we won, we saw that in the Thanksgiving Classic even though we won both games. You can see it, the turnovers start happening because those kids aren't used to having the ball at those times of the games. Now it helps us get better because they're getting that experience but you're going to cough up a couple games because you don't have that true floor leader out there. We need her back.
This team has been really good. In their huddles and in their breaks when they'd do their cheers they'd always say "Get well Madi," even though she wasn't even in the building or at practice or at the games. They really care about her and they're glad to have her back.
bc.net: You mentioned that she was able to make it through a full practice, how is her health looking?
DS: It's interesting to go backwards and just realize how severe this concussion was. It was bad. If you were there and watched her stagger of the floor, it was pretty bad. Kara Whitely, our trainer, has done a great job with her daily but her progress has been slow but steady. They will not release her to play a game until she can make it through a full practice and make it consecutive days. She's only been able to make it through 20 minutes, 30 minutes of pre-practice stuff. But today she looked pretty good. We didn't do a lot of attacking hard stuff, we did do some five-on-five, basketball stuff but each day the pace will pick up. She looked good today, of course she got winded. She's missed three weeks of conditioning, of running, basketball timing, strength work, she's been shut down completely. She looked good today. It was just different having her back out on the floor. It just seemed like the team all of the sudden settled in again. That doesn't mean she's going to play but she's on the road to recovery. We're going to keep an eye on her. Kara didn't let her do the weight room workout that the team did after practice. I'll see her again this evening when the team comes back in to watch some game tape. We'll see, will she be able to go tomorrow? I hope so and hopefully we'll be able to start putting some days together.
bc.net: Will she travel with you to Tucson?
DS: Yeah, she traveled to Michigan with us. She only made it through the first half of the UNM game and I think she sat through the Northridge game but she was a little bit more involved and active sitting on the bench in the Michigan game cheering for her team and being in the game plan. The band didn't bother her, the noise and light. She'll go, no question. Even if she can't play it's good that we can have her there so she can talk to the other guards at different times about what to do and what not to do.
bc.net: On Sunday afternoon you face Arizona who has some good wins including a 24-point win at The Pit against New Mexico. They're led by a couple 15-point scorers and a 14-point scorer.
DS: They're good. They are by far the best team we will have seen to this point. They're long, they're experienced, they're athletic, they're fast. They're a team that you would look and and say, yes, they're a BCS basketball team. Their RPI is pretty high, we're on their floor. We as a team talked before practice, this is the best team that we will have seen. Better than Houston, better than Michigan. They're good. They score the ball really well, they're aggressive. Yeah, we've got our work cut out for us but our approach going in to that game just like any other game is to compete, cut down our turnovers, be aggressive and give ourselves a chance.
bc.net: Arizona is averaging 44 rebounds per game and has a nearly +7.0 advantage on the boards. Your team has improved game-by-game on the boards. Will this be a good chance for your team to gauge where they are in that aspect?
DS: Yeah. My teams over the years, even when I was a head men's junior college coach, my team's rebounding has always gotten better as the season goes along. A lot of that is because our defensive positioning is different, our rotations are different and so you've got to know where you are on the floor and be aware and then when you're there you have vision on where the shot is being taken from and now you know where to be to go rebound. So our defensive rebounding is something that has gotten better as we've gone through the season and this team is no different.
Arizona is so long and athletic that you've got to be able to hit them early. You've got to make some body contact and get into them and knock them off their path and not just try to outrun them and outjump them because in a lot of positions that's just not going to happen for us. That's a big strength of theirs and we have to do what we can do to negate that. The way you really do to do that is you get your guards to come down and rebound defensively better and not just leave it up to your post players. The guards have got to be a lot more active rebounding. That's the easiest way to start a fast break. Guards go down there and get a defensive rebound and push it out on the fast break. It's going to have to be a very aware and focused team effort on the defensive rebounding.
bc.net: What kind of effort can Tabytha Wampler give against Arizona, this is another opportunity for her to showcase all the hard work she's put in over the offseason and the tremendous season she's having so far.
DS: It's a great opportunity for her. She's as good a player as what they have at those positions. If she can stay out of foul trouble and give us a good 30 minutes, she will be able to be productive whether it's getting defensive stops, getting rebounds, making baskets, getting assists. She'll be able to compete at a high level for us. She's got to be aware going in so she doesn't get any easy ticky-tack fouls. She's just got to do a better job of keeping herself out of harm's way so there aren't any calls being made so she can stay on the floor. I fully expect her to be one of the better players on the floor.
Teamwise defensively, they run a lot of screen and roll stuff at the top of the floor and their little guard penetrates it really well. From a tactical point we have to be able to do a good job on their high ball screens.
bc.net: Is there any benefit from having just come off a game with a high-major team and going straight into another game against a high-major as opposed to having a low mid-major or buy team in between?
DS: Yeah, I think for our group of kids, they like playing those types of games. For teams like us at our level, it is so different and it shows you why those bigger leagues are so difficult to play in every single night. It's just like the debate on the BCS football stuff with TCU and Boise State. Can you get up and play that schedule every week, twice a week. Can you play that level of competition every single game night? That's a great challenge and a great opportunity for us to see if we can do it. I'm pretty sure we will but it will take a lot of mental toughness. That's one area that our team has to improve in. It takes a lot of toughness as well. It's a great opportunity and these are games that if you can't get up for these games then you shouldn't be playing.