New beginnings and growing pains marked a sub-par season in 2011-12 for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team, a season in which it finished 9-20 overall and 5-11 in Big Ten play.
It was Bobbie Kelsey’s first season as head coach of the Badgers, as she took over the helm following the firing of Lisa Stone. Kelsey had spent the previous 15 years as an assistant coach at six other programs – the most recent and notable of being Stanford – before arriving in Madison last year.
Playing for the Cardinal from 1992 to ’96 gives Kelsey experience as a player at the Division I level, a perspective many other coaches at the highest level of college play lack.
Having both coached and played at one of the more successful women’s basketball programs in the nation, Kelsey has insight into what makes a premiere program, and she hopes to continue to use that insight in her second year at Wisconsin.
Under Kelsey last year, the players had to not only adjust to a new coach, but a new style of play, making last year somewhat of a learning season filled with its fair share of frustration and mistakes.
But with one year under Kelsey’s belt and one year for the players to adjust to her triangle offense, prospects and excitement are rising for the upcoming season.
Kelsey has tweaked her system from last year with new players who fit her style better, and junior captain and guard Morgan Paige acknowledged the change but kept a slight air of mystery about it.
“It’s the same type of ball that she wants, but it’s a new style,” Paige said. “I don’t think anybody is ready for what we’re going to try to and do; it’ll kind of be a surprise for everybody.”
What Paige was able to reveal is Wisconsin will be fast-paced and try to score early and often. The Badgers won’t be forcing shots, but they will look to take advantage of open looks early in the shot clock. Essentially, Wisconsin will push the ball and continue to emphasize the focus on transition scoring.
“We’re going to try and score fast, get up and down [and] really outrun teams. That’s the goal,” Paige said. “We may not be the biggest, we might not be the strongest, but we will be in the best condition possible to maintain throughout the 40 minutes.”
Allowing Kelsey to alter her style from last season is the addition of five new freshmen and two transfers, four of the seven newcomers being guards. Upon first glance of not only the new players but the entire roster, it is evident the focus of it is the guards, with 10 guards and no true center listed. It will take a few years for Kelsey to recruit the base of players that she wants for her style, but after only one year it is clear who she is targeting.
Although the new players who Kelsey recruited fit her ideology and style, there is still a period of adjustment for the incoming freshman and transfers. There was that same adjustment last year when all the players had to get used to Kelsey’s style, and there will always be that oft-difficult period of introducing players into a different system. Despite the initial struggle, this year’s new players are slowly coming to understand what Kelsey is asking of them.
“The new kids are getting adjusted. I would say that they are like deer in headlights,” Kelsey said. “A lot of things are going through their little minds, and they are not sure what to do, but they are figuring it out.”
Those players will have to figure out the system quickly because Wisconsin must replace three starters from a year ago. The Badgers return 60 percent of their scoring, including last year’s leading scorer in shooting guard Taylor Wurtz. But there are still many holes to fill having lost three experienced starters to graduation.
The biggest question surrounding this year’s Badgers is probably that lack of experience, with only Wurtz and Paige serving as regular starters in past season. Those two will have to play strong leadership roles, along with fellow captain Tiera Stephen, to help buffer the gap of in-game familiarity with these players.
“I think we’re young in the sense of experience. Obviously, we have seven new people and five new freshmen, so none of them have played at this type of level, at Big Ten play,” Wurtz said. “I think we bring back a lot of strong leaders as well.”
Being that the Badgers are only in the second year with Kelsey as head coach, there will continue to be some growing pains and adjustment for all of the players. That said, this Wisconsin squad has much more experience under Kelsey’s guidance than last year, so the mistakes and adjustments should lessen.
With a new crop of talent, more experience and an even newer system, the Badgers have many signs pointing toward improvement over the first year of the Kelsey era.
“The biggest thing I expect is to make an improvement from last year,” Wurtz said. “Obviously, we want to win that Big Ten title and make the NCAA tournament, but I just think it’s taking one game at a time, and each game coming into it with the attitude that we can compete with anybody.”
The Badgers start their season Sunday at 6 p.m. against UW-Milwaukee at the Kohl Center.