Oct. 13, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Not quite a full week into practice, MaChelle Joseph has seen nothing to change her opinion that Georgia Tech’s seven newcomers make up, “the most talented freshman class, on paper, that we’ve ever brought in here.”
That does not mean the women’s basketball team is ready to roll as the head coach prefers.
There is a fundamental problem with so many new faces: that means a lot of familiar ones left. Five seniors graduated last spring, and they took a boatload of experience with them. Also, T.J. Gortnar left the program.
So comes transition and an tweak to playing style. The Yellow Jackets will seek to push tempo a little more than usual.
“Right now we can score, we just can’t defend. That’s never been our problem here,” said Joseph, whose Jackets made the first Sweet 16 appearance in Tech history last spring. “I’ve had to adjust to that. You can’t put too much pressure on them [to learn all the defensive nuances] because they are young.”
Make no mistake; the Jackets will still aspire to defend in your face.
Already, the freshmen — guards Brittany Jackson (5-10), Kymberly Ellison (5-7), wings Aaliyah Whiteside (6-0), Rodrekka Rogers (6-0), Breana McDonald (6-0) and centers Je Zhe Newton (6-3) and Nariah Taylor (6-5) – are being indoctrinated.
“It’s extremely difficult because we play an extremely complex defensive system and when kids come to you as freshmen, they don’t play defense. Period,” Joseph said. “To teach them to press and trap and play as hard as we do for 40 minutes is a huge challenge.
“If they stay and they commit the way the seniors who just walked out of here did, we’ll be playing for a championship in four years. No doubt about it. They’re very talented, they’re athletic, big, strong, they’re very quick, they get up and down the floor . . . they just don’t have any experience.”
Joseph and the Jackets have experience in tweaking their style.
Just last spring, guard Sydney Wallace sort of forced Joseph’s hand.
The 5-8 sophomore guard didn’t become a defensive stalwart overnight, but her offensive prowess very suddenly became impossible to ignore to the point where the Jackets picked up their offensive tempo to meet hers.
Entering the NCAA tournament, Wallace had made 26 3-point shots in 31 games. In the three NCAA games, she made 19.
As the Jackets were blowing out Sacred Heart in the first round, she got extra playing time and kept firing away. Wallace made 6-of-8 treys while scoring 28 points that day, made 5-of-14 with 23 points in a second-round win over Georgetown, and then went nutsy against Baylor while scoring 32 on 8-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc.
“One of the things that we tried to do at the end of last season that I thought made us a better team was play faster on offensive end. We took a lot of quick shots,” Joseph said. “You saw that in the postseason with Sydney Wallace. We kind of started adjusting to Sydney’s style.
“As a freshman, she struggled defensively and that’s why she was limited in playing time until the end of the year.”
Junior Ty Marshall doesn’t mind the idea of taking faster shots. Her dribble-drive game is suited for that.
“This team is not very defense-minded yet,” she said. “If we can’t stop somebody on defense that well, we’ll be able to run the ball on offense so we can set our defense. If we’ve got to run transition defense, it won’t be very effective.
“I feel like as the season goes on, the defense will pick up and [freshmen will] see how we play defense and how tough we are.”
When Tennessee visits McCamish Pavilion Nov. 11 for what Joseph hopes will be the first sellout in Tech women’s basketball history, the Jackets aren’t likely to be locked in yet on defense. The coach believes, however, that by February the Jackets will be up to their defensive snuff and a pain for opponents at both ends of the floor.
“What we’re trying to do now is find that happy medium, but we’re not going to compromise what we do on the defensive end because their athleticism really fits what we do on that end,” Joseph said of the freshmen.
“Once they learn what we’re doing, that defense is going to translate into offense because we’re going to turn people over because of our speed and quickness.”