“Do we have to go back there?”

Daniel Bremmer

 

This was just the first of many hesitations from Michigan women’s basketball coach Cheryl Burnett when asked about the bumpy past few years of the women’s basketball program at Michigan.

Burnett didn’t want to speak about any of the difficulties that the program has endured over the past few years — former coach Sue Guevara’s sudden resignation or having six players leave the program following her own first season as a coach — not merely because she was dodging the questions.

Burnett didn’t want to dwell on the program’s past because she is excited for her team’s future, and she doesn’t waste time worrying about where it’s already been.

Now, after spending more than three years in the Big Ten basement and one year rebuilding from the foundation, the women’s hoops team is headed in the right direction under Burnett. And even though the team might struggle this season — which kicks off on Friday against Alabama — things look good for the long term future of the program.

It’s been a wild ride for the team over the past 19 months. On March 24, 2003, the women’s basketball program at Michigan was in shambles. Former coach Sue Guevara had just resigned after an awful 13-16 season (3-13 Big Ten) in 2002-03. The year before, Guevara guided the team to a winning overall record, but just a 6-10 conference record. During both these seasons, the chemistry between most of the players and the coach were nonexistent. Off the court, Guevara didn’t give herself much of a chance of winning by recruiting players who, with only a few exceptions, weren’t good enough to compete in the Big Ten.

Enter Burnett.

Burnett took a hands-on approach with nearly every aspect possible of her team and her program. She involved herself in the team’s marketing and reached out to the local women’s basketball community. As a result, she was able to set a single-season attendance record despite failing to reach the .500 mark on the court.

Burnett became a vocal, enthusiastic cheerleader on the sidelines during games — hyping up the crowd at every chance she could get. It worked. The excitement at women’s basketball games last year was as high as it’s been in the last four years.

Most importantly, Burnett took steps towards correcting the biggest problem that Guevara left her with: She hit the recruiting trails hard, bringing in the type of talent that Michigan needs to win games and the type of players who embody the role of the Michigan student-athlete.

Take a look at the profiles of seven (that’s right, seven) new faces of the women’s basketball team. For every basketball accomplishment listed — and there are plenty — there’s an academic accomplishment, as well. Many coaches preach about the importance of academics, but the two valedictorians Burnett recruited speak even louder.

While things are headed in the right direction for this program — with new talent on the court and a renewed local interest — this season will still be filled with challenges.

For starters, the team has just three nonfreshmen — seniors Tabitha Pool and BreAnne McPhilamy, and sophomore Kelly Helvey. In the physical Big Ten conference, it’s likely it will take these freshmen some time to adjust to the rough style of play. With a minimum of two freshmen on the floor at all times, it’s going to be hard for the team to avoid mistakes, both physical and mental.

It’s also going to be tough without a true center. McPhilamy is the tallest on the team at 6-foot-1. But she’s going to pale in comparison to some of the 6-foot-4-and-taller girls that play in the Big Ten.

The point is, it takes time to fix a battered program. Just ask Tommy Amaker, who was in a similar situation when he took the helm of a black-and-blue men’s basketball team back in 2001. While Burnett hasn’t restored the program to glory just yet, she’s certainly put it back on the right track.

With a few more seasons under her belt, the “past” that Burnett will look back on could be one of winning and success — not one marred by turmoil.

 

Daniel Bremmer can be reached at bremmerd@umich.edu.

 

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