Immediately after Friday’s
women’s basketball practice had ended at Crisler Arena,
Cheryl Burnett and Tabitha Pool walked to the far side of the court
and talked for about 10 minutes.

Janna Hutz

For the first time in their young relationship, class was in
session for Michigan’s first-year coach and her most talented
player.

Because of your ability, you have to set your standards high,
Tab. You need to make yourself accountable to a very high
level.

Pool nodded her head.

You’re such a phenomenal basketball player; don’t
try to think so much, just play. Let me give you an analogy: If as
a person, you have a situation and you’re getting advice from
four friends, you intake all of the wisdom, and you use what you
need to use. Do the same thing with basketball — you
don’t need to spend time worrying about every little
detail.

Pool nodded with the frequency of a bobble-head doll.

They were nods of understanding, the most crucial element
that can exist between coach and player. Under former coach Sue
Guevara, Pool said she didn’t get that kind of personal
attention.

“I needed it,” said Pool, a junior. “It really
let me know what (Burnett) expects of me and what she wants me to
do … to be more of a leader, even though I’m not a
captain.

“For me to actually see what she was talking about when
she’s talking to me — actually see what she’s
getting at (was important).”

Pool is not alone in her need to build confidence in herself, as
well as trust in her coaches. Burnett and her staff inherited a
group of girls that collectively had the confidence of the boy with
glasses and braces at a middle school dance. This first chapter in
Burnett’s Michigan career is about rebuilding the psyche of
the team and this program.

And it starts with Pool, equipped with a baby face and a jumper
that’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

“It took just one individual workout to see what kind of
player Tabitha is, what her potential is,” associate head
coach Karen Rapier said. “The game comes easy to her. She can
drive, she can shoot and she can rebound. It’s just
developing an understanding.”

Reality ensues

Pool scored more points than any other player in
Michigan’s last two games, against Penn State and Michigan
State, putting up a combined 29. Unfortunately for Burnett,
Pool’s effort didn’t do much good; the rest of the team
totaled just 60 in those games.

Burnett admitted she was outcoached following a 12-point loss to
Penn State Thursday. After a 67-33 drubbing in East Lansing Sunday,
she actually uttered the phrase, “I don’t know if
I’m a good coach.”

It’s been that kind of a week for this program — the
kind of week that could make Burnett’s dirty blonde,
Dollyesque ’do emit a few more gray hairs. The Wolverines are
9-9 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, but let’s not expect this
group to go above .500 for a while with the next two games on the
road in Madison and Iowa City.

The loss at Michigan State was so bad — so bad —
that even Burnett couldn’t find a positive spin to put on it.
The Spartans are deep and experienced on the floor, but their depth
extends to their raucous crowd. Almost 8,000 fans cheered on the
Spartans — that’s about three times what Michigan would
expect to draw for a home game.

Welcome to Michigan, Cheryl.

Like any good friend, the Spartans exposed all of
Michigan’s weaknesses. Double- and triple-team center
Jennifer Smith, who averages 21 points a game, and you can beat
Michigan. Smith struggled the entire game to find open teammates
when the Spartans converged on her, so Pool and senior Stephanie
Gandy didn’t get enough open looks.

Michigan shot 32 percent from the field in the first half. If
that made you cringe, brace yourself. The Wolverines shot 14
percent (4-of-29) in the second half and shot 20 3-pointers, making
just one.

If Pool, Gandy and Smith aren’t scoring, nobody is.

Burnett was dealt a difficult hand, as Guevara’s last two
recruiting classes didn’t materialize. Did Guevara hit a lag
after landing Pool, Michigan’s Ms. Basketball and one of the
top five recruits in the country three years ago? It appears
so.

Every coach enters her new job hoping that somehow she can turn
around the program in her first year. It’s time to play a
different tune now — one of patience.

After Sunday’s game, Burnett stated that maybe in three
years, Michigan could be playing at the level of Michigan State,
currently No. 25 in the country.

But there’s a problem. Pool, the most skilled player
Michigan has had in years, hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament
yet and has just one more year left after this one.

Turning understanding into results

Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt sat in Pool’s living
room just three years ago, trying to convince the Ann Arbor native
to play in Knoxville at one of the nation’s premier
programs.

Pool declined, devoted to the idea of playing close to home. She
averaged 7 and 11 points in her freshman and sophomore years,
respectively, as Guevara’s teams combined for nine Big Ten
wins. Three years later, Pool’s decision to play here screams
“WHAT A MISTAKE!” to the casual observer.

Luckily, there’s still time, and more importantly,
she’s got loads of potential.

At 6-foot-1, a player isn’t supposed to be able to run the
break in the women’s game. But Pool could play point or off
guard, as well as small forward. She’s the team’s
second-leading scorer (13 points per game), leading rebounder
(eight a game) and best 3-point shooter (34 percent). Of
Michigan’s top three scorers, she has the best
assist-to-turnover ratio (36-to-52). Last season, Pool’s
ratio was a whopping 46-to-106. Someone is improving.

But there’s something missing; Pool still isn’t a
star. According to Rapier, “Tabitha is almost unselfish to a
point that it might be harmful for her.”

In Thursday and Sunday’s games, it seemed like she was
hesitant to drive to the basket to create her own shot. Pool said
after Sunday’s game that she is trying to get her teammates
good looks. That’s admirable, but not smart when you’re
the best scorer on the team.

“We want Tabitha to be the go-to player as far as getting
the ball in her hands and her to take the open shots,” Rapier
said. “We talk about passing up a good shot for a great shot,
but there’s a balance to that. She basically has the green
light. Any time she’s open, that’s a good shot.
She’s starting to feel that.”

If there’s any chance of Michigan beating Burnett’s
new three-year timeframe, Pool has to take Burnett’s advice.
She has to take more of a leadership role on this team and look for
her own shot above her current teammates.

Next season, Gandy and Smith will be gone, and Pool will be the
only proven scoring option Michigan has.

“Tabitha is the next one to step into that role,”
Burnett said. “It’s crucial for her to gain an
understanding (of that).”

One thing is for sure: Burnett is thankful to have Pool, and
Pool returns the favor.

Why wouldn’t she? Burnett has been credited with molding
many great women’s basketball players, including the Los
Angeles Sparks’ Jackie Stiles, whom Burnett coached at
Southwest Missouri State.

“I always tell recruits that (Burnett) is a coach that is
going to make you reach your maximum potential,” said Rapier,
who played under Burnett at SMS and then joined her staff 13 years
ago. “If you want to be the best player you can be, you need
to play for coach Burnett.”

If Burnett succeeds in helping Pool eclipse her potential,
Burnett’s first two years won’t have to be as
forgettable as Guevara’s last two.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
“mailto:bradymcc@umich.edu”>bradymcc@umich.edu.

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