CHICAGO — It’s an invasion!
No, this isn’t a repeat of Beatle mania, nor is it coming from any of the numerous nations that are currently angry with the United States. Rather it is an exodus of women’s basketball head coaches from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big Ten.
With the addition of Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett, formerly of Southwest Missouri State, and Wisconsin’s Lisa Stone, who left Drake for Madison last year, the Big Ten currently boasts four coaches who have made the move from the MVC. Rounding out the quartet are Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and Indiana’s Kathi Bennett, who are both in their fourth seasons.
So how did the Big Ten become so concentrated with coaching staffs from this particular area of the country?
“I think some of it is coincidence, and some of it is logic,” Bluder said. “You have a mid-major conference in the Missouri Valley, and you’ve got two top conferences in the Midwest, so I think that if you’re a coach in that smaller conference, and you aspire to be in one of those more prominent conferences.”
Although one might guess that having so many familiar faces would provide a sense of comfort in that they are more accustomed to one another’s playing style, most of these women agree that this knowledge incites intimidation more than reassurance.
“Actually, having Cheryl Burnett in the league scares me,” Bluder said. “I have so much respect for her and what she’s done, and belief in her system, and just how she does things.”
“I don’t know how comfortable knowing the other coaches makes me, because I know how good they are. Coach Burnett and Coach Stone are phenomenal.”
Although Stone is prepared to take her coaching up a notch in order to help out the Badgers, who went 7-21 last year, she realizes the expectations placed on her as a coach of a higher-level program.
“The game’s still the same,” Stone said. “I think there’s more pressure to win in the Big Ten because it’s a major conference.”
As a league veteran, Bluder imparts this bit of wisdom on the league novices.
“The talent, the competition that you play in the Big Ten every night is so different,” Bluder said. “You never get a break in the Big Ten. But it’s also nice that, if you lose in the Missouri Valley, it can take you out of the NCAA picture, whereas a couple of losses in the Big Ten aren’t as big a deal.”
After Michigan renovated its coaching staff following its 13-16 finish last year, most Big Ten coaches are unsure of what sort of competition the Wolverines will provide.
“The coaches in this conference are very intelligent, and they’re not going to overlook anybody,” Stone said.
“I certainly don’t think the cupboard is bare,” Bluder said, in reference to the Wolverines’ talent.
Burnett believes that other teams are no more interested in Michigan than they are in any other team in the league.
While Penn State, headed by captain and pre-season Big Ten Player of the Year Kelly Mazzante, and Purdue are the conference favorites heading into regular season play, the race for the league championship is likely to be a tight one.
“The Big Ten for women’s basketball is going to be incredible,” Bennett said. “The senior class this year is one of the best that I’ve ever witnessed. There’s almost an All-American on every team, and some teams have two.”