A spotless locker room.
It is just one change sophomore forward Cassie Rochel identified under new coach Bobbie Kelsey, but the lack of sweat-soaked practice jerseys on the locker room floor is indicative of the new attitude surrounding the Wisconsin women’s basketball program.
Kelsey, hired last April after spending three years as an assistant at Stanford, is more than just a new face and another attempt by Athletic Director Barry Alvarez at trying to put a team on the Kohl Center floor that consistently wins and earns NCAA Tournament bids. As players made clear at their media day Monday, Kelsey is bringing a sense of excitement and eagerness to a program that has never developed the consistency of the team it shares the Kohl Center floor with — Bo Ryan’s men’s team.
While Kelsey herself evokes excitement, it is clear that the Stanford alum arrives with a sense of urgency and demands the players work harder than they ever have before. For a team that has never won a Big Ten title and often considers a top-three finish in the conference a success, the Badgers are not in the same league as the squad Kelsey left in Palo Alto.
However, Kelsey seems to coach UW as if it is indeed a high-caliber team, like it is a squad that should regularly be bringing the Big Ten crown to Madison.
“It’s a whole new vibe,” sophomore guard Morgan Paige said. “[The coaches] bring an intensity where they expect you to do things, and they’re not going to tell you more than once, they’re not going to pound you for it; they expect you to do it right, and they hold you accountable for it.”
It is that change in attitude and expectations that could have the Badgers finishing well beyond most people’s not-so-lofty expectations for them. Players certainly enjoyed suiting up for former head coach Lisa Stone, but Kelsey’s coaching seems to have brought a greater aura of confidence to their locker room.
In interviews, the Badgers could hardly contain their excitement to kick off the season, pointing out along the way that they cannot wait to surprise plenty of critics this year. While the adjustment to the new coaching staff — especially Kelsey’s fast-paced system, a major change from Stone’s defense-first style of play — will certainly require an adjustment period for players, there is much to look forward to for Wisconsin.
With players rating the conditioning an 11 on a scale of one to 10, the transition has not come without its struggles, but the Badgers may appreciate Kelsey’s tough drills in the coming weeks.
“People need to worry about us; it’s not us just worrying about them,” Kelsey said. “Our kids are ready to go. They’re excited.”
Complementing the smiles and enthusiasm that grace players’ faces as they discuss the changes under their new coach is the fact that Kelsey’s more aggressive offense could lead the Badgers to a strong start in the preseason. After suffering a brutal seven game losing streak last season against a challenging non-conference lineup, Wisconsin’s new look could have the team pulling off a couple major upsets before the Big Ten season even gets underway.
Early in the year, and perhaps for much of the non-conference lineup, opponents truly will not know what to expect from the Badgers, a temporary advantage, but one that could nevertheless allow Wisconsin to pick up some unexpected victories. In addition, UW’s top three scorers from last year — Alyssa Karel, Lin Zastrow and Tara Steinbauer — were all seniors, leaving plenty of scoring to be had in 2011.
According to her players, Kelsey’s system emphasizes everyone stepping up to score and anyone on the court having the green light to shoot if she is open.
“Any time you lose that much scoring, it’s always an opportunity then for those whoever didn’t get a chance,” Kelsey said. “We’re going to need everybody contributing on the offensive end, not just three or four folks; it’s got to be everybody. If you’re on the court, you’ve got to be a threat.”
Whether it’s a matter of the new system fitting well with the Badgers’ situation or the coaching staff adopting to the lack of proven scorers, Wisconsin will rely on several of last year’s role players to step up in a big way this year. With zero returning players having averaged double-digits last year, offering everyone a chance seems like the right approach to find the Badgers’ true scoring threats.
Regardless, the fact that players approach this lack of veteran scorers as an opportunity rather than a challenge demonstrates Kelsey’s influence on this squad. The new woman in charge mentioned several times that her players have “bought in” to the new system, and that appears to be the case. This is not an instance of the coach putting words in the mouths of players — the new confidence and anticipation are visible among every player in a Wisconsin uniform.
When asked about what she was most looking forward to this season, Paige, who many expect to help fill the serious scoring void, was quick to discuss Kelsey’s new offense.
“The up-pace tempo, it’s really going to be fun,” Paige said. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams; they’re not going to be ready for the difference.”
As the players finished their interviews with the media, they started to exit the Kohl Center media room. But they quickly turned around and retook their seats as their teammates reminded them of the new rule: They always leave as a team. Another change and another sign of the ever-apparent new mentality that will define the Kelsey era.