Michigan women’s basketball coach Kevin Borseth holds a tryout at the beginning of each year — but it’s most likely not the type of tryout most people think of when they think women’s basketball.
It’s a tryout for male players who are interested in helping out at practice, running drills against the team.
“Guys give you a look because they’re quicker, stronger, more athletic,” Borseth said after practice on Tuesday. “We’re just looking for players that understand basketball, that have some skill. We might need a big guy to stand behind (our players) and defend, or maybe some little guards who can penetrate.”
Playing against bigger opponents has become the norm for the undersized Wolverines (7-4 Big Ten, 14-9 overall), whose tallest starting player, sophomore forward Rachel Sheffer, is only 6-foot-1.
Having practice players around to imitate players like Ohio State’s 6-foot-4, three-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year Jantel Lavender or Michigan State’s rebounding machine Lykendra Johnson, has paid dividends this season.
Michigan has beaten a multitude of bigger teams this season, and part of that success has to be credited to the effort of Borseth’s practice players.
Phil Wendland, the team’s graduate manager, is in charge of the practice players.
“(Borseth) scouts the upcoming opponent, and he’ll see if there’s a girl who drives left, (for example),” Wendland said Tuesday. “If she can drive left, we have some of our practice players come in and drive left. They’re important to simulate other players on other teams.”
But Borseth hasn’t always been an advocate of a male practice squad. During his first year as coach at UW-Green Bay, his team started off the year 3-8. After the eighth loss, he decided to get rid of the practice team.
The Phoenix went on to finish 19-10 that year and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“I was never really a major advocate of using men’s players, because I thought that it came at the expense of your other players,” he said. “I think (that year with UW-Green Bay) is really where my opinion came from.
“You want your players to get as many reps in practice as you can get, and sometimes when you have male players, they don’t get that.”
But this year, with a depleted squad that now features just 10 active players on the roster, a male practice squad is about as important as ever for the Wolverines.
Borseth and his staff have found 12 male players who rotate days throughout the week in which they practice with the team. The players are asked to perform different roles in practice, depending on who Michigan will be playing in its next game.
“We use them for individual workouts, skill drills,” Borseth said. “We’ll put them in to defend five-on-five, and sometimes we’ll run the other team’s plays. We use them in a lot of capacities.”
But the players are more than just robots doing what they’re told on the court. For many of them, playing on the practice squad gives them the opportunity to continue playing the sport they grew up with. All of the players played varsity basketball in high school.
“They bring so much more to practice (with) their intensity,” Sheffer said. “They shove me, they push me, they’re not afraid to get at me. They’re not afraid to hurt you or do anything to you — and that makes you a better player.”
And there might be a little extra motivation for the guys, too.
“I think their mindset coming into practice is a lot different than a girl’s (mindset),” Sheffer said. “(To) them, going against girls is just like, ‘Well, we can’t get beat.’
“So just knowing that they don’t want to get beat, we want to go at them hard.”