Oct. 12, 2009
The Michigan State women's basketball program held its annual preseason media day on Monday afternoon at the Breslin Center. Media from around the state gathered as Head Coach Suzy Merchant and the student-athletes discussed the upcoming season.
Spartan Sports Podcasts
Head Coach Suzy Merchant Press Conference
Lauren Aitch | Allyssa DeHaan | Aisha Jefferson
Lykendra Johnson | Mandy Piechowski | Courtney Schiffauer
Brittney Thomas | Cetera Washington | Taja Wilson
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: Obviously we are excited about this season. Certainly with what we have returning, and you couple that with the way we finished, pretty strong given our situation without a point guard. I really feel like we had a great spring, great summer, very focused, still trying to get a little bit healthy, to be honest with you, but feel very good about that.
I think we've put together every coach stands up here and talks about their schedule, but I think you can look at this one and really take a look at it and see that we've really put together a schedule that's going to be extremely challenging. I think 10 of the teams were in the NCAA Tournament last year that we are playing, so we're going to have quite a feat in front of us. Luckily the majority of those games are at home, which is a little different than what we are used to, being on the road traveling, so we have a little more home action going on.
Q. Any injuries?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: We are nursing a few injuries. Taja Wilson blew her knee out last year and is coming back from that and then had some back surgery, actually, at the beginning of the fall. She's not full on, having sat out all last year. She's coming back from knee and back.
Brittney Thomas is back, but certainly it takes a little time to get the cobwebs off. Her knee seems to be holding up pretty strongly and she's been doing everything in the preseason.
Aisha Jefferson had some postseason surgery on her knee, as well. Her situation is going it be a little bit about limiting reps and being careful on a day to day practice situation, so that we can get her on game night and keep her as healthy as possible.
The last one, Allyssa DeHaan, she came off a summer that she had plantar fasciitis that has really bothered her, and we're battling through a little bit of that, still but I think we are making some good strides there.
Q. Who made the biggest jump in your eyes from the end of last year to going to preseason here?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: I'd like to pinpoint one person but that's really hard. These kids were very, very committed this off season. The one thing I can tell you, we challenged them in two areas this off season, the entire team. One was our fitness level and conditioning, that we really wanted to elevate that. It wasn't awful, but I think we can be a lot better. If we are going to play at a faster pace we are going to be deeper and more athletic, then let's make sure that we stay in a conditioning level that we feel comfortable with. So we changed our off season conditioning and that really showed.
And then the second thing we have committed to is more individual skill work, not only from coaches, but as players. It doesn't happen by accident and you need to get in there. We gave them specific workouts that they could work from. I think Lykendra Johnson has really improved her outside shooting, as well as Cetera (Washington). I can tell you, Porschè Poole has lost 10, 15 pounds and is a different player right now.
We have had some key kids that had some injuries, Lauren Aitch is spectacular right now with her fitness level and her commitment to getting everybody in the gym with her. I just feel like top to bottom there isn't one kid we had to pull teeth and are disappointed with. Everybody made their mile time, everybody did their three mile time and everybody did better in the V02 max, including our incoming freshmen. We feel very good about where we are at as a team versus some individual kids.
Q. Aisha (Jefferson), is it related to her first surgery?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: It's her knee.
Q. Is it a complication?
COACH Suzy Merchant: No, just it's just wear and tear. Last year she was really struggling down the stretch there to manage that with the fluid build-up. They tried to do some things, our team physician, Mike Shingles, did a great job with them, and he did some things to relief that bone on bone contact. Really, it's going to be for her, maybe about managing reps a little bit and not letting her go full bore. She's a kid that wants to do it all, all the time, every possession, and that's really not a situation we can put her in this year.
Q. A month ago, Allyssa (DeHaan) was in real pain; you just touched on it, but how concerned are you, and where does she have to get to? As you start practice this week, where is she?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: She practiced with us last week and so she's been doing a lot of cardio things. She's just changed the way in which she approaches things. She wasn't doing a lot of up and down pounding but a little more of the bike stuff, a little more elliptical. They did a procedure on her, I want to say the second week in September, where they went in and were real aggressive with her foot there, actually, both her feet. And they said it was supposed to give her some relief, and I think she's starting to feel a little of that now.
Q. If you can just talk a little about point guard position, a position last year you struggled with, and the improvements you'll see in that position?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: First of all we have some depth in that position. We obviously have Brittney (Thomas) back and she's coming back from a pretty serious knee injury. She's one tough kid. Three months out, I really felt like they probably could have cleared her to get on the court again. I think that's what her nature is. She's going to be just fine.
We recruited a kid out of Flint Hamady High School, and she's just blown everybody away with her athleticism and skill set. The challenge with Jasmine Thomas will be as a freshman, the vocal side of it. I've already challenged her that if you're playing guard, you can't be quiet. I think she's trying to feel everything out. That's a tough position, it's like being the quarterback.
She's going to have someone to learn from and with Brittney, but having that competitiveness at those positions is a good thing. For two years, I don't know if really anyone really challenged Brittney for that position, and now I feel like she's in a position where the two of them are really a good one two punch, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Q. Only one senior on last year's team, and this year you have several seniors that are going to make a difference. What's that going to mean to the team to have that type of senior leadership?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: Well, it feels good. I can tell you, the first year when I think we were the 17th youngest team in the country when I took over, so we had a lot of freshmen and sophomores. Honestly everyone was a freshman because you have a new coach and a new system.
I think the buy in is there. I think everybody is committed to the defensive end of the floor, certainly, in a different style in which we play, but it does feel good to have four senior leaders. All four of them are captains, Allyssa (DeHaan), Aisha (Jefferson), Mandy (Piechowski) and Lauren Aitch. As a coach, I'm not a big person on just naming captains to name them, just because they are seniors. I think you name captains because they mean something to your team, and those kids have a different dynamic personality-wise, that can affect the team in a positive way. And all four of those seniors are very, very different personalities, and I think that's a real positive thing and I think it's going to show on the floor this year.
Q. Can you talk a little about the expectations of this team, a team that many people are picking Top 10 perhaps; talk about that and also talk about what you've done from where you were last game last year and bottling that feeling against Iowa State and what happened there.
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: Yeah, good question. You know, obviously there's expectations here. That's expectations that you want on your shoulders. There's no question about that. I don't think it's anything that we are going to shy away from, but it's something that you have to have conversation about.
I think the outside element does affect kids at times, and we just have to make sure that it doesn't affect our work ethic, it doesn't affect our toughness, it doesn't affect our ability to go into tough, challenging situations on the road and win games and take care of business at home against some very, very tough opponents.
To answer your question, that's something we are going to have to discuss. I think the question prior about our senior leadership, they have been there; they understand it. I think they are going to play a major, major role in our ability to make sure we keep our focus and don't lose sight of what's most important.
You know, obviously you mentioned the Iowa State game, I think that's something that sits pretty hard and heavy on all of our hearts, that's for sure. That's a game we got control of and we got a little sloppy at the end. A banked-in three and another bad decision, and next thing you know, we are in a fight for our lives and it didn't come out in our favor. It's something that's fueled our fire, though. I have to say, as tough as that was to swallow, I think when you look at it, if you can turn a negative into a positive, I think the team has hopefully done that. They have a taste of something and they want to get back there, and I think their commitment this off season definitely showed.
Q. In regards to Allyssa (DeHaan), maybe even as close as last year, I don't know if you can say she would have been captain material, but she was never put in that position to show that kind of leadership. Can you just talk about what she showed you between last year and up to when you named the captains to name her one of the four captains?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: Well, the one thing about Allyssa (DeHaan) think that I maybe kind of goes unnoticed is that, she isn't a kid that makes excuses. And if you come to our practice in the last couple of years, there wasn't a lot of depth at that position, and she got a lot of reps day in and day out, and she never wanted to step out of the drill, never wanted to get off the floor.
So I think she's really earned the fact I mean, it's unfortunate that she's been a little injured at this point, because she's never shied away from the strength and conditioning components. She's never shied away from her day to day commitment to being on the floor.
So when I look at it, I think what she brings is that kind of quiet lead by example kind of kid, and she played in a lot of pain, certainly, and people know she's going to do that, same thing with Aisha (Jefferson). I think sometimes you need people as captains that maybe don't have a lot to say, that just kind of do things by action, and I think she's one of those kids.
Q. Kelsey Smith, what kind of player is she and what do you expect?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: She's kind of a mix between Lauren Aitch and Allyssa DeHaan in a good way. Lauren is a really strong banger, loves the contact where Allyssa is a little more finesse. I could tell you Kelsey is right in between the two of them. She likes the banging side, but also she's long enough and lean enough that she can play a little finesse game. She has a tremendous basketball IQ, very smart, intelligent kid, off the court that carries over on the court. She picks things up very quickly. I mean, she came in here in incredible shape.
Neither one of our freshmen I think are in situations where their eyes are wide open like just what happened to me. They actually came in here competing and doing some amazing things out of the gate. To answer your question, I think she's a mix between the two of them, but she also has a tremendous basketball IQ, which will help her catch on pretty quickly.
Q. Might she be in the main playing group immediately?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: We do have some depth at the post position. And the other thing, too, is we made a decision as a coaching staff, and obviously sat down with Kalisha Keane, a little bit. From her freshman to sophomore year, her numbers weren't the same. She played a 4 position as a freshman. We had a lot of depth, so we moved her to the off guard position or the 3 position, and it just didn't translate into a situation where she was effective, not only for herself, but for our team.
So we have actually made the commitment to move her back at the 4. If you come to our two hours a week of practice, and it's back to seeing (Kalisha) again, and it's just something we had to do for our team. She scored a lot of points, got a lot of rebounds. She's quick. She's smart. She played point guard for us last year; any time you have someone that can play point guard and 4 in your offense, I think you have something pretty special. We are excited about that a little bit which changed the depth chart of our post play and increased that a little bit.
Q. Can you talk about your Team USA coaching experience and what you may have been able to bring back from that to have an impact on this team?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: That was a great experience I think for a lot of ways. I think one thing it teaches you is gratitude. I think the Michigan State women's basketball program is certainly in a situation with our locker room and the facilities and the fan base, I mean, we are very blessed in one thing. I think when you go across seas and play for your country, you really feel the gratitude you have to represent that.
I told the story today at a rotary meeting. I was coming back from recruiting, I had landed from the USA Basketball experience, had two days and then went out on the road recruiting and I was coming back home from Augusta, Georgia for the Nike Nationals, and I go to get on the plane and there's a gentleman sitting there. And I was in the window seat and he was in the aisle seat, so I kind of stepped over him and sat down.
We just started talking a little bit. He proceeded to tell me, he said, "You know, I would have got up and let you in but I can't." He said, "I'm a two time Iraq war vet and a roadside bomb went off, and I'm in a wheelchair now."
He told me about his personal life and some of the tragedies there. He says, "But you know what, I'm going to Colorado Springs, and I'm training for the 2012 Paralympic Games." And I just thought, to me in, that moment, to answer your question, is that I felt not only gratitude but that's a story you can certainly take back to your team in the situation that we are in and the tough times that we are in about perseverance and having a great attitude. It's kind of unexpected, but it's certainly something that I appreciated happening.
And obviously the camaraderie, not only were we there with women's basketball, but there was 145 countries there, the men's team was there with us, so you've got an opportunity to hang around Bo Ryan and some of those guys. So it was just a good team, and we had a great coach in Charli Turner Thorne and Julie Rousseau, who is out at Pepperdine. So we had a great staff and I think I learned a lot.
Q. In regards to Kalisha, obviously she was put in some situations far as filling in on some spots and she kind of dealt with it. Now that you've gotten her back at , what will be her natural spot, depending on how you look at her, what do you think that's going to do for her, and what do you think her international experience did for her during the off season?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: That was kind of fun. I got a chance to see her play over there. We had conflicting schedules, and they were in a different pool and there was probably 12 different places you could play, so I was able only to get to one game. We kind of exchanged after practice one time. I certainly think the competition over there and the style of play is a little different. I think the one thing that Kalisha can bring at the 4 spot is a heck of a passer and ability as a play maker at that spot, and the ability to extend the defense a little bit more.
We haven't really had that and we had some kids that could kind of shoot it, but we really need people to open up that paint for us. Certainly with Allyssa (DeHaan) and Kelsey (Smith) and Lauren (Aitch). Lauren is going to get a chance to play some 4, too. She's a great high post shooter. We have adjusted our offense a little bit to really put an emphasis on that side of the ball a little bit more, and I think that 4 position with Kalisha moving there has really changed and sparked our offense, that's for sure.
Q. That dovetails into what I was going to ask about with the outside shooting. You mentioned both Lykendra (Johnson) and Cetera (Washington) working on the off season. Can you touch on who else looks like they can deliver a little more from either, you know, 20 foot out?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: I think Porschè (Poole), (Courtney Schiffauer), those kids, they were up here all the time, the entire summer and they were extremely committed. I think the one thing that Jasmine Thomas brings to us is a scoring mentality point guard.
Brittney (Thomas) is a great defender and she's great at running the offense. But her and I had quite a few conversations, I think a lot of our success down the stretch had to do with the fact that Mia (Johnson) was an attacking she was a 2 guard playing the point guard, and you had to really worry about her: She could hit 3s, get to the rim, ditch it a little bit. I think she had 17 points against Duke, and she was someone that down the stretch for us at that position, we really committed to seeing more offense out of, and our point production went up on the offensive end and we still maintained our defensive toughness.
That's a conversation that we had with Brittney this off season is that we don't want to play five on four, in essence. She's such an unselfish player, but we can't do that anymore, and I think this competitiveness between her and Jasmine is going to be a good thing in our offense that will tweak our offense. To answer your question, I think everybody has really improved their outside shooting.
Q. What does your new assistant, Tempie Brown bring to your staff?
COACH SUZY MERCHANT: I've known Tempie obviously a long time. I'll go back to probably playing days. She worked for me at Eastern Michigan, and I believe where she's been in her professional world in terms of recruiting this region, this area particularly Chicago, we have had a lot of success out of Illinois as of late and she spent time at Northwestern.
So obviously I think she's going to be a big success for us to keep that going over there and keep Michigan State involved. She was a tremendous player. She's got a very strong vision of education and how important that is and she is just a great role model for our young people. I see her coming in, and I think the fact that we work together a little bit in the past has really helped mesh things and it will really translate on to the floor pretty quickly.
FastScripts by ASAP Sports