When players of the Wisconsin women’s basketball team prepared to meet their new head coach, Bobbie Kelsey, for the first time last April, no one knew what to expect from her or the season.
Kelsey convened a meeting in the team’s locker room a day before the appointment was made public and sat the team down in a circle. Kelsey let the Badgers know where she stood and then allowed the team to ask her some questions of their own.
“I just expected them to really be open to new ideas and new challenges that we will bring as a new staff and new coach,” Kelsey said. “I wanted them to give us a chance to help them get better.”
For senior captain Anya Covington and sophomore Morgan Paige, one of Kelsey’s lines that day really stuck out.
“I mean the first thing she said was that ‘You’re my players; I didn’t recruit you, but you’re my players,’” Covington said. “That means a lot because some coaches come into a situation and they wait four years until they get their players in, so that’s what you want to hear.”
“It was really reassuring to know that she did care about each and every single one of us,” Paige said. “Obviously she hasn’t had time to bring her recruits in, but she let us know that we were her players as well, so that was really cool.”
Kelsey — hired by Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez — replaced former head coach Lisa Stone, who in eight years at the helm for the Badgers amassed just a 128-119 record with only one NCAA tournament appearance.
In just a year working with Stone’s former players, Kelsey did not bring the winning results she has been accustomed to her entire career. With just a 9-19 record overall and a 5-11 record in conference play heading into the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers endured a season of growing pains in the transition of a new aggressive philosophy and style brought to the program by Kelsey.
For Kelsey, a coach who embodies competitiveness in its strongest form and boasts a career of success as an assistant coach and player, it was a struggle to accept the players were unlike the ones she left and recruited at Stanford.
“It was a challenge with these players because you always think, ‘Why aren’t you aggressive?’” Kelsey said. “But again, everyone’s different. As a group, they are great players and great people, but they’re not aggressive as a group. I had to stop asking why and just accept it and get out of them what I could. That’s not to say they’re bad people and don’t want to be aggressive, but your personality is who you are. It’s either there or it’s not.”
However, Kelsey may have developed that aggressiveness in some of her players. After the Badgers lost their top three scorers from a season ago to graduation, the returning roster for Wisconsin has seen some dramatic scoring improvements.
Taylor Wurtz averaged just 8.3 points per game a year ago and now averages over 16, helping pace the junior to a third team all-Big Ten selection. Covington and Paige improved considerably under Kelsey as well, as both starters improved their scoring averages by almost six and seven points each from the previous year.
Kelsey also had to address the challenge of inheriting a team without a true point guard. In Kelsey’s system, a natural point guard is essential. Kelsey was able to address the problem and give her offense life in the form of senior guard Jade Davis.
Davis, a guard who was used primarily as a shooting guard in her Badger career, was suddenly thrust into the role of floor general this year. Although at times the senior struggled, she exemplified leadership and tenacity in adapting to a position she had previously never played.
Even though Davis was not a prototypical point guard in a Kelsey system, the head coach only has praise for her senior.
“Jade has done a fantastic job,” Kelsey said. “Without her — not to knock anyone else on the team — but she was the only one who could get us into things consistently. Without her, it would have been much worse. I’ve told her that throughout the year, but I just want to reiterate how much she’s grown.”
It was a sentiment that was reflected by Paige.
“We let [Davis] know that we had all our faith in her and that she could do it,” Paige said. “At the end of the day, we live and die with her at the point. After she embraced that role, she really blossomed at the point, and she’s been a really vocal leader as well, getting us into sets. She’s really shown her maturity.”
While the Badgers will graduate Covington, Davis and forward Ashley Thomas at the end of the season, there will most likely be no storybook ending for the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament. Covington offered a bigger perspective for life and the program’s future.
“That’s the beauty of life and the beauty of basketball,” Covington said. “You have to have growing pains to reach where you’re trying to go. There is no good story that didn’t have any tragedy or any pain or anything else. I mean, what’s the point of telling a story that’s all fluff? It’s been a harder year than some could expect, but it’s also been a rewarding year. We worked hard regardless of the record.”