Nov. 8, 2012
MADISON, Wis. - In transitioning from an assistant at an elite basketball program to a head coach at a program in need of a make-over, Wisconsin’s Bobbie Kelsey learned something about patience last season. “Oh, yeah, I don’t have much,’’ she said laughing. “You think you have it, but you really don’t.’’
While the pieces to the puzzle are still being collected - the Badgers are still very much a work in progress by her own admission - there’s a sense that some corners are being turned, not cut, with Kelsey, a former Stanford assistant and four-year letterwinner for Tara VanDerveer with the Cardinal.
“You’ve got to mold and shape people into what you know will work,’’ Kelsey said.
Maybe the best endorsement of her UW program came from a departing senior, Jade Davis. Pointing to a chair in her Kohl Center office, Kelsey recalled, “She sat right there and she said, ‘I wish I had one more year.’ That’s coming from a kid who had to play point guard that wasn’t a point guard.’’
Kelsey, though, tried to mold her into the type of player that she needed to be. “I pushed Jade probably harder than anybody else because without her, we can’t even bring the ball up the floor,’’ Kelsey said. “As hard as it was on her, she could see the improvement that she was making.’’
Although Davis ran out of time, Kelsey is not on a clock. She knows it will take time to turn the corner.
But she can cite things that are being established. “Probably the work ethic and what it takes to be good,’’ she said. “Everybody wants to be, but not everybody wants to do what it takes to be good.’’
Even after a nine-win season, which reflects the team’s rebuilding growing pains, Kelsey has introduced a different standard of expectation and level of energy. “The players like it because they’re being pushed,’’ she said, adding that they may have not felt like they were being pushed enough in the past.
As far as learning more about her personnel in the context of developing a team personality that matches her makeup, Kelsey smiled and said, “Some want to be pushed, but maybe not as much as I want to push them. It’s about figuring out all of those different nuances.’’
It’s about building a foundation, too. “You have some returners who know what you’re talking about when you say certain things,’’ said Kelsey. “They know what we expect and what we’re going to allow and what we’re not going to allow. They can help you coach the younger ones somewhat.’’
To this end, Kelsey feels good about her only two seniors, Taylor Wurtz and Tiera Stephen, even though she wasn’t sure at first that she was reaching Stephen, a 5-foot-7 guard from Dayton, Ohio. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye,’’ Kelsey admitted. “But we’re now on the same page as far as what we want to do.’’
Sometimes, she said, it just comes down to a player knowing that they are on the clock in terms of their career. Sometimes it just comes down to giving more effort and energy. That has never been an issue with Wurtz, a 6-foot guard from Brandon, Wis., and UW’s leading scorer and rebounder.
“But she’s had an issue with her back and we’re trying to get her healthy,’’ Kelsey said. “Last year, she kind of limped through the season. She had a lot of health issues going on, but she just fought through them because she’s a tough kid. You love that toughness, too.’’
That’s because Kelsey doesn’t know any other way to succeed. “I don’t know if you can win at basketball and not be tough,’’ she said. “How? I’ve never seen a soft team win. Our players are learning what it means to be tough. I always explain to them if you’re injured that’s different than being sore.’’
You have to work through the soreness.
“I never want to assume a kid is not injured,’’ she said. “But everyone is hurting and sore.’’
And that’s where Wurtz takes her toughness to the opposite extreme, Kelsey suggested.
She won’t tell anybody when she’s hurting.
“So I have to watch her really carefully,’’ she said.
Still, it’s that type of commitment that can have a positive impact on everybody around Wurtz.
Especially the younger players in Kelsey’s program.
“Some of them are more ready to play than others,’’ she said.
New Berlin’s Nicole Bauman is in that category.
“I’m counting on Nicole because she’s ready,’’ Kelsey said. “I’m not saying she’s perfect. But she understands basketball. She understands the game. She understands when to shoot and when not to. She plays really hard. Some others are learning how to play hard. She already has that understanding.’’
Kelsey is not going to rush to judgment on her freshmen. Nor is she going to rush them.
“They will help us, but it’s always a learning curve for them,’’ she said. “You don’t know when they’re going to hit the wall. So we’re counting on our upperclassmen, we’re counting on Taylor and Tiera to lead.’’
One of only two juniors on the active roster is Morgan Paige, a 5-9 guard from Marion, Iowa. At the recent Big Ten media day in Chicago, Kelsey said, “Morgan is just a water bug. She can make things happen. Morgan and Taylor are going to be the ones we look to really give us that offensive punch.’’
Kelsey is counting on one of her few “bigs’’ -- Cassie Rochel, a 6-4 junior from Lakeville, Minn. -- to take another step in her development. Shannon Malone, a 6-1 freshman from Flower Mound, Texas, is also going to have to contribute, ready or not, “because we’re thin in the post,” Kelsey said.
Also factoring into the rotation will be three sophomores: AnnMarie Brown from St. Peter, Minn., Lindsay Smith from DeWitt, Iowa, and Jacki Gulczynski from Carol Stream, Ill. “AnnMarie lost 18 pounds,’’ Kelsey said. “She’s serious. She wants to play.’’
Michala Johnson, a junior, also wants to play but she’ll have to sit this season after transferring from the University of Connecticut. “She’s tearing us up in practice,’’ Kelsey said. “You wish she could play now because she would make a huge difference. The kid can flat-out score and rebound and run.’’
The future appears promising, especially if Kelsey’s freshman class pans out favorably. Big Ten Network analyst Jimmy Jackson, whose son Traevon is a member of the UW men’s team, was at a recent practice and he was impressed with Dakota Whyte, a freshman guard from Ajax, Ontario.
“He didn’t know who she was, but he knows who can play and who can’t,’’ Kelsey said of Jackson, a former Ohio State All-American and veteran NBA player. “She can play. But he could also see that she wasn’t quite there yet. She has to learn American basketball. It’s different from Canada.’’
What about Kelsey basketball? What’s this team going to look like?
“We’re going to be really perimeter-oriented, really guard-oriented, as far as getting up and down the floor,’’ she said. “But we’re still trying to find our identity; we’re still trying to figure out who we are, and what we’re good at.’’
All of which takes time, if not patience.