Dec. 8, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Getting to the top is hard. Staying there is even harder.
Staying there while rebuilding may be hardest of all.
Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball Head Coach MaChelle Joseph knows about all three, having been there as a player and a coach. That experience gives her a frame of reference and perspective, which have been important, especially as her 2012-13 team sits at 3-5, having dropped three in a row and four of five.
They also give her credibility when confidently states that it’s anything but panic time on the Flats. She points to last year’s team which had three losses heading into conference play and was going through a stretch of three losses in four games at just about this time. That team reached the Sweet 16.
“We lost three games in preseason last year and we learned a lot about ourselves and we grew as a team,” she said. “That’s the same thing we’re going to do this year. It’s just one of those things where it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond to it.”
She knows there is a difference, however.
“As last year we were responding with seniors this year we’re responding with freshmen,” she said. “But these freshmen are very talented and these upperclassmen, Dawnn Maye, Ty Marshall, Jasmine Blain, Danny Hamilton-Carter, they’re talented players, they’re going to learn they’re going to adjust.
“We don’t have a bad loss,” she continued. “We haven’t lost to anybody outside the top-25, three of our losses are to top-10 teams in the country. It’s not a situation where we have anything to hang our heads about. If we were losing to teams we shouldn’t lose to, then there would be something to hang our heads about. Right now our strength of schedule is ranked sixth in the country, we’re playing the best teams in the country. Right now, November really doesn’t count. We’re counting January, February and March.”
Joseph, whose program is riding a streak of six straight 20-win seasons and six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, was speaking prior to Thursday night’s 85-52 loss at Duke. While the Jackets fell to the Blue Devils for the 35th straight time and 14th under Joseph, any sting from the loss, aside, obviously, from it being a loss, was countered by the experience that her young team has gained. It’s experience the team can draw from as the year goes on.
“The fact that we’ll have played Duke in December and have that kind of out of the way and that experience out of the way, I think, will prepare our players for the rest of the teams and for the rest of the season,” Joseph said. “It’s not going to get any tougher than Duke at Cameron. So I think the fact that we’ll have that experience this early in the season will prepare our kids and give them a glimpse of what it’s going to be like night-in and night-out on the road in the ACC.”
It’s no secret that this freshman-dominated team — six freshman vs. three seniors — is getting a baptism by fire. The brutal schedule was intentional and reminds Joseph of her early playing days at Purdue under Coach Lin Dunn.
“My very first tournament when I was a freshman, the second game was against the No. 3 team in the country, Texas,” Joseph recalled. “So it was a situation where I was thrown into the fire. I was asked to do a lot of things to help my team win and be successful. Fortunately, we were able to do that.
“But I had some great upperclassmen, some experienced players around me. I wasn’t one of six freshmen. I was one of three,” she added, with a laugh. “So it’s a little bit of a different situation. But there’s no doubt, I was asked to do a lot. I just loved that baptism, I learned what I could and couldn’t do and learned to play to my strengths.”
Joseph’s Jackets are learning their roles and those that have learned are playing to their strengths. Freshman guard/forward Aaliyah Whiteside is starting and has fit in well, as has guard Brittany Jackson, who has already won ACC Rookie of the Week. Guard/forward Breana McDonald has shown flashes and as she picks up the system will see more court time. Joseph also has high hopes for forward Roddreka Rogers and center Nariah Taylor, who has paid her dues in the post against some superb competition.
Joseph is proud of the way the newcomers haven’t flinched against some of the nation’s best.
“It’s obviously very exciting to know that we’re developing these players. They’re very talented,” she said. “The fact that they stepped up and made a run at Georgia, being what basically was two freshmen scoring and the fact that those were seniors. Georgia was playing seniors and we were playing freshmen. I think that’s a great sign for the future.”
They’ve showed similar character, battling back from a double-digit deficit to tie Tennessee before falling, taking Syracuse to overtime, and battling to the end against Purdue on the road, before getting a lesson in ACC play at Duke. That’s some quality opposition and certainly amounts to more of a stepping stone than filling the schedule with guarantee games.
“We could have scheduled teams that we’re going to beat by 30 or 40 points but that’s not going to make you better,” Joseph said. “We needed these freshmen to get better quick and be experienced and have been in some battles before we went into ACC play. Right now we’re being exposed. That’s kind of what we put the schedule together for.
“Obviously, we’d have preferred to win some of these,” she added. “We aren’t quite ready yet. We’re just going to keep working and keep getting better until we ARE ready and hopefully that will all come together in January and February.”
Joseph knows they’re coming. She should know. She has seen it all before.