One of the engines behind the popularity of college basketball is the tension of the postseason, where famous teams and gigantic programs sometimes stumble when least expected.
While it’s tempting to just blame the big guys for laying an egg in the spotlight, the truth behind an upset is the diligence and skills residing in the team that won. While journalists and fans scratch their heads about the result, the victors rarely seem that surprised and simply talk about the next game on the schedule.
Two women’s teams playing the in 2014 Cancun Challenge – Hartford and Princeton – fit the profile of squads that may come from smaller campuses but have a history of causing big headaches for the opposition. Out of the America East Conference, Hartford is piloted by former Connecticut star Jennifer Rizzotti, who was USA Basketball’s National Coach of the Year in 2011; Ivy League heavyweight Princeton is coached by Courtney Banghart, who has guided her program to the NCAA Tournament in four of the past five seasons.
That initial tourney appearance, in 2010, was the first ever for the Tigers. Entering her eighth season at Princeton (21-9 last year), Banghart has instilled a deeply competitive mindset at a school that needed a reset.
“The formula was pretty basic. We had inherited some (players) who loved Princeton and the community and represented us so well, but there was not the talent to win on the national stage,” Banghart said. “We were able to surround those kids with better talent, and we’ve had top 25 classes, good groups year after year.
“You have to recruit kids who love basketball; some kids come to a campus and go whichever way looks good, but I want players who have basketball in their soul. You have to think about the opportunity you are offering and how special it is. We’ve signed a player (away from) Stanford, from Vanderbilt, and we should – we are offering something unique. If all you look at is your limitations, you’ll settle. I get more credit than I deserve for recruiting – I can just articulate the opportunity here.”
Princeton returns four starters and also carries a nagging frustration about the final cluster of games from a season ago. Coming up short in the Ivy League tournament was an unusual experience, and a one-point loss in the postseason WNIT caused plenty of reflection.
“Primarily, we lost our focus on defense. That’s something we always highlighted in years previous,” said 5-10 senior point guard Blake Dietrick, who was a first-team all-Ivy League selection last season and thrived under the high expectations of her position as the primary ballhandler. “We thought of ourselves too much as a high-scoring team, so we talked about getting back to our basics, where the offense comes from good defense. We want that to be our style.”
“We’d lost three four-year starters from the year before, and in the last several games, we started four sophomores and one junior because of injuries,” Banghart said. “That experience bodes well for us this year and beyond, but last year, all that takes a toll when you’re in the seventh month of the season.
“We played offense well, but we didn’t win because we didn’t play defense. We didn’t defend anything. We just rebounded and played offense. We were a white-collar offensive team, and this year we’re getting back to being blue-collar.”
As one might expect from the high ground of Princeton, there are a couple of interesting backstories. Banghart played and was an assistant coach at Ivy League rival Dartmouth, and had to work through some tough emotional territory when the chance to coach the Tigers popped up.
“The coach that recruited me and gave me an opportunity to coach was still at Dartmouth. You have someone who is family, a mentor, and fellow coach, and one day later, you are competitors,” Banghart said. “But this opportunity, when it presented itself, was just so in me, being part of this kind of student-athlete experience.”
And Dietrick, aside from tackling point guard chores, also plays on the highly regarded Princeton lacrosse team. While aware of the demands on her time and body, Dietrick sees this as a time in her life that never will be replicated after graduation.
“I’ve always been a point guard, and there’s always been a point guard with me – last year was the first year I was the only one. But that’s my identity as a basketball player,” she said. “That role gave me the ability to flourish and play my style, where I get my teammates involved. I’m at the position I’m most comfortable.
“The (basketball and lacrosse) seasons overlap, which is unfortunate because I will miss some games. But I’m thrown to the wolves and expected to be in lacrosse shape, to know all the plays. It’s typically a top 20 program nationally, and I’m honored they give me a chance to come in late and still play.”
Hartford had its own challenges last year and stumbled to a 13-18 overall mark, something Rizzotti and her staff tried to anticipate but could never really solve. The season required a bunch of fresh faces on the roster to handle new tasks and do it at game speed – shots didn’t fall, and a lot of turnovers muddied up progress as well.
“That about sums it up – we’d lost four significant seniors the year before, then lost a key returner to an ACL in October. We were already dealing with a lot of turnover,” Rizzotti said. “We just never figured out our identity, and it was a tough year to go through. A lot of young players got a ton of experience, and as sophomores they are helping with our consistency. Our seniors are playing with urgency, and we should have a strong turnaround.”
“Last year, we were definitely rebuilding. We’d lost a huge senior class, so we had a lot of players in new roles and had to work out the kinks,” said senior guard Amber Bepko, who led the Hawks in scoring. “We had to get into the right mindset, because that was a tough, long year. We’d be fine one minute, and literally would just fall apart the next. We’d show glimpses, but after a timeout or something, we would just lose our minds.”
Hartford, with Rizzotti at the helm, has been to the NCAA Tournament on six occasions and won the first-round game (usually on very hostile turf) twice. Her history in the sport – a Hall of Fame inductee and AP player of the year in 1995 during UConn’s 35-0 championship run, eight seasons in the WNBA and scout for the USA National team – makes her an obvious candidate for job openings, but she’s grateful for the well-rounded world at Hartford.
“This is a great place, or I wouldn’t have stayed. To be happy in my profession and raising my kids in a great setting – I can check those off my list,” said Rizzotti, who was 25 years old when she took the Hawks’ head coach job. “I like the challenge of it (at Hartford), and we’ve had success. I think there’s another level we can get to, and right now, this is the best place for me professionally and personally.”
The Cancun Challenge is simply another setting to put her program to the test.
“We’re at a place as a mid-major where it’s become a challenge to get higher (profile) teams to play us at home. The next best thing is a neutral court situation,” Rizzotti added. “We don’t have a problem with playing majors on a trip like this, because these are games we can’t get on our home floor. We will have a little fun, but this is a great opportunity basketball-wise to play some great teams.”