Practice is still five days away. But the atmosphere in Crisler Arena on Saturday morning did not befit a scrimmage held mainly for the enjoyment of friends, family and fans.
The Michigan women’s basketball team is very young, featuring five freshmen and five sophomores. And the team showed off its young legs on defense. Throughout the scrimmage the Wolverines applied defensive pressure for all 94 feet.
“I’m a coach that wants to play a lot of full-court defense once we get the players to do so, which we are pretty close to now,” coach Cheryl Burnett said. “We have a lot of different defenses.”
Burnett has told the players that the best defensive group of players and the players that work the hardest will start the first exhibition game against Athletes in Action on Nov. 1.
The team has had more opportunities to prove itself on defense and also to just practice as a full team this year. Last year, rules held that the team had eight hours a week during the preseason for any basketball-related activity, conditioning included. But the coaches could only do skill work with four players or less. This year, due to a rule change, the coaches can have the entire team on the basketball court for four hours per week during the preseason.
On Saturday, Burnett used two of those hours to hold a scrimmage and create more of a game-like situation.
“A big difference between this year and last year is that the players are a lot more familiar with our offense,” Burnett said. “With scrimmages like this, we can work on the big picture, and then in practice we can break down and work more on individual skills.”
The scrimmage was organized into four different 20-minute sessions. For the first session, Burnett grouped together the players that performed the best in the team’s conditioning training. In the next part, she chose a team comprised of her best defenders.
The second group instantly elevated the intensity of the scrimmage. The game quickly developed a fast-paced style, with multiple steals turned into lay-ups. The defensive team was led by junior Kelly Helvey, who converted several of her steals into and-one’s on the other end.
For the third and fourth portions of the scrimmage, Burnett separated the four male students who practice with the team. She wanted to have all the girls play together and work against physical players who are bigger and stronger.
The women initially struggled to match the size and physicality of the men and fell behind 20-6. But the Wolverines quickly settled down and cut the deficit to five points before the end of the quarter.
The women led the men for the first half of the final quarter, relying on pressure defense and timely three-pointers from freshman Jessica Minnfield. But as the quarter progressed, the men began to use their advantages in size and strength to take the lead. Fatigue played a part, as the women began to settle for jumpers instead of attacking the basket.
But largely, Burnett was pleased with what she saw.
“We know we are going to pressure the ball and deny passes because those are the easiest things to learn,” Burnett said. The two hardest things to learn are help-side defense and blocking out. I was very impressed with how our players were able to execute because we haven’t had too much time with our workouts, and this is a bunch of young kids.”
The young kids have young legs though, and those young legs should contribute to a hard-charging, defensive-minded team this year.
“We want to be in the best shape of any team in the country,” Burnett said. “We are a defensively driven team, and our entire program is built upon that philosophy.”