Going for the gold
OU's Sherri Coale plans on leading Team USA to the top
Gold or bust.
That’s how lofty the expectations always are when the United States sends its basketball teams into international competitions.
Silver doesn’t cut it. Silver tarnishes. It leaves a mark. It causes concern. Silver isn’t good enough. Silver is a loss, a cause for soul-searching and second-guessing. Heads roll over silver.
Of course that’s not fair, but in the land of James Naismith, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski, for the country that invented the game, gold is the only reality. It’s the price the U.S. pays for a history of international successes, whether it’s the Dream Team, the Sue Bird teams, the marvelous 1960 or 1984 men’s Olympic teams or the 2011 World University Games team.
Gold is greed. And gold is the great expectation, the only expectation, U.S. basketball fans, men and women, have for the hoop teams in the World University Games.
Sherri Coale understands that. The United States’ coach expects gold as much as any red-white-and-blue booster. She didn’t travel for more than 24 hours to come to Kazan and finish second, or third, or, gasp, medal-less.
“In our mind, absolutely, we came here for one reason. That’s it,” Coale said, after the Americans completed pool play with a 105-75 win against Brazil. “But Russia is very good. They have a couple of Olympians on their team.
“They’ve played together forever. You can tell. Their system is almost in their DNA. But we have to figure out how to be better than that in a very short amount of time. We have talented kids. They’re smart kids. I think they’re tough kids. It’s a doable thing, but it’s not easy.”
Coale’s job is to turn a group of all-Americans into Team America. In just a couple of weeks, she is expected to put together these disparate talents and make her team look as if it’s been playing together as long as the San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s really hard,” Coale said. “I think the biggest challenge for me has been that I am a teacher and you don’t have a lot of time to teach. You just have to coach. And that’s been a bit of an adjustment for me.”
These 12 players from 11 different schools have been taught by their college coaches the defensive principles that are specific to their programs. It is Coale’s difficult job to make those different philosophies fit this program for this fortnight.
“If their defensive rules are different than what you’re trying to do, then you’re in trouble because you just can’t change a habit that quickly,” she said. “And I don’t know that we would even want to. The idea is to try to figure out a way, some sort of middle ground, where we can all be successful together.”
The positive side, the side of this job that entices coaches to give up their summer vacations, is the opportunity to lead a team of players as talented as the team Coale has.
She knew many of them before she met them at the tryout camp in Colorado Springs. She has one of her own, guard Aaryn Ellenberg-Wiley, who led the Americans with 19 points in the Brazil win. But Coale also aggressively recruited forward Cassie Harberts, losing her to Cal.
She recruited Connecticut forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and LSU forward Theresa Plaisance. This is her one chance to coach the kids who got away.
“Any difficulty that you might think going in about being in that position dissipates almost immediately,” Coale said. “They just become your team and you’re trying to win games. You don’t look at them and see Cal or Baylor or UConn. You just look at them and see Lewis can do this and Cassie can do that.
“It’s fun to have all that at your disposal. I look at it as a bonus. I wanted to coach them and I don’t get to all the time. So now I get this little three-week stint to do that."
This tournament really begins on Friday, when the quarterfinals start. After winning by an average of 55 points in its three pool play victories over Mali, Czech Republic and Brazil; after averaging 107 points in those wins, the laughers are over and the hard work begins.
“I think I have a good idea of who we were,” said Coale, whose other job is coaching at Oklahoma, where the expectations also run very high. “But it is difficult in the short amount of time we’ve been together,” she said. “It’s hard to get revelation from it.
“I do think we’ve improved in our ability to play together and find one another and share the ball. But defensively we’ve still got some problems we have to shore up.”
In one highlight reel fastbreak, point guard Odyssey Sims, who had 10 assists and only 2 turnovers against Brazil, pushed the ball quickly up the left sideline, whipped a dribble behind her back from her right hand to her and, without breaking stride, shot a lasered pass to Crystal Bradford for a layup.
“If I run, I know she’ll get it to me. Period,” Bradford said of Sims, who could become the first U.S. women’s player to win gold in two different World University Games. “She’s going to breakdown her defender and all I have to do is get in the right spot. My job is to find that spot.”
The only glitch in this lopsided win came in the fourth quarter, when the U.S. went to a 2-3 zone, Brazil started punishing the Americans, knocking down threes and slipping inside the zone. The Brazilians outscored the U.S., 24-23 in the final 10 minutes.
I astutely mentioned to Coale that her team needs more work on its zone defense.
“Oh my God, you think? You think?” Coale said with a smile. “We’ve probably spent two minutes practicing that. If guys don’t do that in their home programs, there’s no way you can teach that and get it all in, in 10 days of preparation. You just got to throw it out there.”
Offensively, Coale’s goal is to push the ball relentlessly. She would like her team to get a shot off in the first six seconds of the 24-second shot clock. She wants her wings to run every time up the floor, even when the fastbreak doesn’t look obvious. In the halfcourt offense she wants her team to share the ball.
“The one revelation that came from today’s game is how much better our shooting percentage is when we have more than one or two passes,” she said. “That’s something that’s going to be really, really important.”
The really, really important games are coming. Coale has one more practice day to get ready. And all she has to do is find a way to win a gold medal.
And only gold.