No search: Women’s hoops has its coach

By Sean Ahmed

Six more wins than last year with one game to go. Eight more points scored per game. Over six more rebounds per game, decreasing the average margin from -4.5 to -0.6 despite losing the team’s top two rebounders. Wins over then-fifth-ranked Wash U and seventh-ranked NYU. A shot at a share of the UAA title going into the final weekend of play for the first time since 1988-89.

That’s a pretty impressive list of achievements for women’s basketball. I’m left a bit bewildered by the athletic department’s continuing with its plans for a nationwide search for the coaching position instead of letting the team build on what it has already accomplished.

Let’s not forget this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Maroons graduated last year’s top two rebounders, who also were the third- and fifth-leading scorers. After Jennifer Kroll, head coach of four years, resigned on the first day of practice, the team’s assistant of four weeks, Aaron Roussell, was named interim head coach just three years out of undergrad. He, no doubt, came ready to work.

“We will work too hard to not have high expectations,” Roussell said in an October 4 interview.

He didn’t just try to get by, either. Having spent late nights watching film—I would regularly see him walking around Ratner at 10 p.m.—Roussell decided to bomb the bridge and rebuild it, completely throwing out Kroll’s steady, mechanical system for a more dynamic and wide-open one.

The whole project could have been a disaster. A rookie head coach with a talented but short team in what could very well be the nation’s toughest conference doesn’t sound like a recipe for immediate success.

Roussell made a very calculated decision, however, in changing the offense: He built it around the team’s talents, namely its athleticism. He preached toughness as the key to overcoming size deficiencies, and put a lot of faith in his players to make quick on-court decisions. Clearly, the change paid off.

The athletic department has said that they are looking for a wide variety of qualities in potential candidates, including past success, recruiting ability, teaching ability for departmental courses, and experience. In only one season, he’s shown he has all of those aside from perhaps the last—largely secondary—category.

Past success: Roussell’s on-court track record really only includes this season, and it’s obviously worked for the team as a whole. As impressive, however, is how he has gotten the most out of individual players.

Third-year forward Susie Gutowski has developed into one of the most dominating players in the league, boosting not only her points (from 10.5 per game to 14.5) and rebounds (4.5 to 8.1) but also her assists (1.1 to 2.7), all while being double-teamed for the first time here. Third-year point guard Janae Winner (7.2 ppg, 3.7 apg) and second-year shooting guard Korry Schwanz (13.0 ppg) have also responded after Roussell switched their positions to better match their passing and shooting tendencies, respectively.

Though Roussell may have just been lucky that his preferred style of play matched with the team, his players have repeatedly said that they don’t believe he would have forced it on them if it hadn’t worked. That assertion is likely true, being that he has increased the focus on perimeter shooting, where Chicago has been one of the UAA’s best despite a recent slump.

Most of all, however, the team has a confidence and energy that they lacked the last two years. Even though the first six or seven turnover-filled games at times frustrated them, the Maroons’ overtime, comeback victory against Wash U and subsequent comeback against Emory really showed that this team believed in itself. Those wins are testaments to how well the players and coaches have worked together.

Any sports team will have its ups and downs due to luck or off-days, but the key indicator to a team playing at its best is minimizing the bad games as much as possible. They haven’t eliminated them, though it’s encouraging when the most disappointing loss is to UAA leader Brandeis. Coming off a season in which the team’s longest winning streak was two games, this year’s school record-tying nine-game streak shows a remarkable amount of consistency.

Recruting ability: We can’t evaluate his performance in this area until we actually see next year’s class, but the word on him is good. When Kroll left the program, she told me that Roussell, who previously recruited at Div. II Minnesota-Mankato, was already “a very accomplished recruiter as well as a steady presence.” He’s shown he wants to be here and build this program, repeatedly saying that he considers this one of the country’s best jobs.

Recruiting requires good presentation and personal relations in order to sell a program to prospects. I can speak from my own experience that he has the qualities required as much as anybody else. It may not sound like a big deal, but just the fact that he updates his “Coaches’ Corner” column every week shows that he can competently put in the side work required. That matters to alumni, recruits, and journalists.

Besides, how confident can prospective students be in a program without a set coach?

Teaching ability: No question here. If he can re-teach the game of basketball to a group of players who already had their own ways of playing, he can handle physical education classes. He wants to do it too. When I asked him about that responsibility, he even said that he wishes the department would let him do it now.

Experience: This could be the most contentious point. I’m sure there are more experienced coaches out there, but he’s already shown his ability to make up for it with dedication and a knowledge of the game. He has commanded respect out of his players as much as anything, as the team’s veterans say they’re happier this season than they ever have been before.

Besides, experience is often overvalued. Of course there are great coaches out there with impressive accomplishments, but often they may be less willing to adjust to new programs and players. Roussell’s shown a work ethic and basketball knowledge that I think few coaches anywhere could match. Let’s not forget he also has more experience with this team than any available coach. He’s definitely made mistakes—he’ll be the first to admit them—but there haven’t been any startlingly bad ones.

Now as a committee of coaches, department directors, and players evaluate potential candidates, I can’t help but feel it’s all a waste of everybody’s time. Sure, Roussell is probably a heavy favorite from the outset—he also says he fully supports the search—but why even risk messing with a good thing? The best part of this whole situation is that all of the team’s starters will be back next year and only one player leaves overall. Although this team has been gunning for the tournament this year, it still is very much the first year of a two-year project.

The athletic department should drop the interim off of Roussell’s title and give him a full vote of confidence. I do understand the general purpose of a national search—any employer should seek out the best available option—but I fail to see the value of doing it in this situation.

Shut the door already. We’ve got what we need right underneath our noses.