When Jody Adams-Birch had assembled her strongest teams at Wichita State, the quality of basketball allowed a certain freedom, like you might see on the Autobahn.
Things happened fast, and the sight of everyone keeping up with each other and still being able to play together was downright beautiful.
The 2015-16 season had a much different destination for the Shockers, who went 8-22 overall and had to solve the mysteries of playing with five new starters and seven total newcomers to the D-I grind. So when it comes to recovering from that experience and charting a new route, Adams-Birch likes to invoke another travel metaphor.
“Last year, we tried to do too much individually. We’ve talked a lot about staying in our lane this year,” said Adams-Birch, whose team will be attending the Cancun Challenge this year after making the trek in 2012. “Embrace your role, fall in love with that role, star in that role for this team, and you’re going to enjoy the process. You will operate in your ‘great’ not your ‘good’ … when you go out of your greatness, that’s what brings frustration.
“We had to learn through some tough losses, being tight situations where we didn’t know how to win. This is a more seasoned team, and we’ve added some pieces. We are still teaching, maybe not as much. We were teaching last year things like what competitors feel, the basics. (Certain) techniques, our players hadn’t had the muscle memory drilled in. We’ll continue to work and find the lineups that work together.”
That’s a realization that comes with experience, which Wichita State rode to higher-ground finishes in the Missouri Valley Conference – three straight regular season titles to go with three consecutive MWC Tournament crowns. Upheaval in the program and the roster forced a hard reset after WSU won 29 games in 2014-15, and it took Adams-Birch going through her deepest file cabinets to deal with the change.
“We’d been old for a pretty good while. I realized I had to bring out the practice plans from when I started (at WSU),” she said. “Keep it simple, teach them to play hard, and be OK if they make aggressive mistakes. Many of these young ladies, and a couple transfers, hadn’t played but had watched veteran teams do things very well. I think they believed that this is not that difficult. Then when they were thrown into the fire and it was them, then they began to respect what the players had done for two or three or four years. It really resonates; it will be interesting to see how they grow through that.
“Sometimes they have to learn by failure, and that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve continued to learn. Teach ‘em, love ‘em through it, help them get back on their feet and in a lane where they can be successful.”
The Shockers have been upfront about tackling some of their negative trends on the floor, especially with turnovers and shooting the 3-pointer. Wichita State suffered right at 19 turnovers a game last year and shot just 28 percent from long range, two big obstacles that are regularly emphasized by the coaching staff.
Talented players have a way of helping the cause, and the Shockers are sure to lean on Rangie Bessard, last year’s MVC Newcomer of the Year who played a year at Minnesota before transferring. Texas Tech transfer a fellow junior Diamond Lockhart led the team in assists, and she’s got a solid running mate at guard with senior TaQuandra Mike.
Bessard had 17 points and eight rebounds in the Shockers’ season opener, a victory against Creighton. They followed that up with a last-second 56-54 loss to UMKC, where Bessard scored 20 points and freshman Kayla Williams added 17 points.
Adams-Birch believes the Cancun event will be a positive for her program on a couple of levels. The format has the Shockers playing three consecutive days against strong competition (Purdue, Stanford and Northeastern), which mimics what WSU will have to face if they can make a run in the MVC Tournament in March.
Ultimately, it’s a chance to make memories together as a team, and step off the super highway of college basketball for a little bit, after the games are played.
“It’s a great time to sit with the kids and talk about how thankful and blessed we are. Everyone gets to share stories from home,” Adams-Birch added. “We’ll stay a day later, enjoy Sunday together and do something fun like swim with the dolphins. It’s fun to see everyone out of their element, and it’s especially fun for them to see their coaches out of their element. Those are the moments the student-athlete will really embrace, and when they graduate, they’ll talk about that being one of their favorite trips.”