Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Coaches Taking Small Steps Toward Success

The A-Sun's newest women's basketball head coaches (L-R): Kennesaw State's Nitra Perry, Lipscomb's Greg Brown and Northern Kentucky's Dawn Plitzuweit.

Business coach and entrepreneur Brian Tracy was once asked about developing a winning edge.

“Small differences in your performance can lead to large differences in your results,” he responded.

Three Atlantic Sun Conference women’s basketball programs – Northern Kentucky, Lipscomb and Kennesaw State – are under new leadership this season, and achieving those small differences seems to be the order of the day.

For each of these programs, the key is improvement. From the coaches you hear words such as consistency, competing, growth, discipline and execution. Sure, each would like to have more of the success that comes in the forms of wins, but they also are grateful for the little successes and the small wins that are coming as the teams and the staffs continue to learn and trust each other.

Less than halfway through the conference season, A-Sun newbie NKU is faring the best of the trio, sitting in a tie for third at 3-4 in A-Sun play and 6-10 overall. Lipscomb is 1-6 in the conference and 2-15 overall, while KSU is 4-15 overall and seeking its first conference win.

“I have to accept the small victories as a coach right now,” said Kennesaw State Head Coach Nitra Perry. Perry joined KSU from the University of Toledo, where she spent four seasons as a member of the Rockets’ coaching staff. In 2011-12, she served as the program’s associate head coach. During her four years at Toledo, the Rockets amassed an impressive 96-40 overall record, a 50-14 mark in the Mid-American Conference and scored a WNIT title in 2010-11.

“We need to continue to find ways to have some successes in order to be able to instill that feeling that we can compete, and that has been a struggle so far,” Perry continued. “Obviously we are not where we wanted to be at this point in the season. I would give myself a four or five out of 10 at this point. We are still trying to learn each other as a staff and as a team.”

Bisons Head Coach Greg Brown, a 1993 graduate of Lipscomb, credits his familiarity with the A-Sun from his time at UCF. Brown was the associate women's basketball coach at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and is a former assistant for Tennessee’s Hall of Fame coach Pat Summit. He spent the last five seasons at UCF, helping lead the Knights to two Conference USA championships in 2009 and 2011, resulting in two NCAA berths.

“Unfortunately as a coach you always look at where you want to be,” said Brown. “From August to January we have seen a huge amount of growth. It hasn’t parlayed into the amount of wins that we want, but there has been growth. Our skill has gotten better and I like that we are getting more competitive. Over the last couple of weeks you can see that the players are listening.

“There is a great quote that says ‘everyone hears but few listen,’ and I think we have a team that is listening, and then they execute. There is no better example of that than our walk-on Kelly Smith. She is coming off a two-game stretch in which she shot 57 percent. She is not doing anything any differently than she was before, and she is not one of our better athletes, but she listens and simply executes.”

NKU Head Coach Dawn Plitzuweit’s challenge is not only one of being new to her team, but also being new to a conference and leading a team adjusting to the level of Division I basketball. However, unlike her peers Perry and Brown, one trial that she does not have to endure is that of being a first-year head coach.

Prior to her five years as associate head coach at the University of Michigan, Plitzuweit spent five years as the head coach at Grand Valley State University. Under her direction, the Lakers earned four postseason berths and won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2005-06. Plitzuweit compiled a 117-39 (.750) record at Grand Valley State, including a 68-22 (.756) mark in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

“I was fortunate to be a head coach at the Division II level and an assistant at the Division I level. I liked that because I had the opportunity to learn how to evaluate and see the game from different perspectives. I had a chance to say, ‘how would I do that?’ It definitely was a good learning opportunity and it helped me identify areas in which I could improve as a coach.

“Being back in the head coach’s seat again, I am very glad that we have the staff that we have. Each one of my assistants brings something different to the staff and the team. But even with all of that experience, it is hard to know for us exactly where we are right now,” said Plitzuweit. “Obviously we would like to have more wins, but I am happy with how our kids are competing. I do see us getting better as the season progresses.”

For first-year head coaches Perry and Brown, the evolution from assistant coach to head coach is admittedly a work in progress. From delegation to hiring the right staff to the finality of making the decisions that ultimately matter, the process is certainly one that takes time.

“I had been to these roundtables and talked to other coaches in preparation to be a head coach, and they all said that it would take 18 months to make the transition from an assistant to head coach,” said Brown. “I didn’t believe that. I thought. ‘Oh, I can do it faster than that.’ They were right.”

“I have been very fortunate in my career that I have been in positions in which I was given tons of responsibility and had my hands in a lot of things. But now instead of just being involved in things, physically you have to make a decision on everything. You have to make that adjustment – really it is more of a mindset thing. As an assistant you have one mindset, and as a head coach that is different.”

While each program is distinct in working through its transition, the teams and their new coaches are also encountering similarities. One of the most relevant is dealing with the amount of athleticism and the level of competition that takes the floor every game in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“I have been impressed with the athleticism of the players in this league,” said Plitzuweit. “This league has a combination of players who are tremendously athletic and those who are great shooters. We aren’t as athletic as others in the conference, and that frankly has been a major challenge for us.”

Brown echoed Plitzuweit’s analysis in respect to the athleticism in the A-Sun and his team’s “lack of it at times,” and Perry simply boils it down to the fact that “every game in the A-Sun is a dog fight because it is so competitive.”

The Norse began their conference season by jumping right into the fire, playing four games in eight days against teams with which they were unfamiliar. They lost both contests on their first A-Sun road trip to Jacksonville, but won three straight before falling to A-Sun leaders FGCU and Stetson over the weekend.

“The tough part early for us was the first stretch of games, playing four games in eight days, against teams that we were not familiar with,” said Plitzuweit. “That was a real challenge, particularly for us as coaches to get our team ready to play.”

Plitzuweit likes the balance that she is finding in her squad. However, she still relies heavily on four seniors and a junior who provide valuable leadership and who put the Norse in a position to be competitive. She also likes to mix in her two pairs of freshmen and sophomores, the “energy givers” who bring charisma and excitement to the lineup.

“Overall I think we have been able to achieve a good balance,” said Plitzuweit. “Our team has brought a great level of intensity to this season. We will be good in time, because we are continually improving.

“Our players just have to find a way to compete. We need to be more disciplined, because we don’t take care of the basketball the way we need to. I think we can become more skilled and more efficient in our execution in order to get more and better shots and take advantage of our opportunities on offense.

“Defensively we are in a learning curve when it comes to the league. Obviously we can watch tape but we are not going to be able to simulate what teams like Vanderbilt and LSU do in practice, so we just have to make teams work and do our best to not give too many good looks.

“For us the biggest thing that will help us is to improve on our consistency of play. We have seen that in the move from DII to DI, and we have even seen it to be true from exhibition to regular season games. We have a very small to zero margin of error, so we have to play extremely well and very hard in every game to have a chance to be successful. We can’t take plays off and be successful, and I think so far they have responded to the challenge.”

For Kennesaw State Head Coach Nitra Perry, she is in the business of creating a culture of winning. She came to KSU because of Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams’ vision for Owls athletics, a plan she identified with and one within which she felt that she could begin to compete in the A-Sun and build a winning tradition.

“Our team plays hard every game,” said Perry, “and think we are developing that type of blue collar team that I would like. But unfortunately we have been plagued with injuries and had a couple of players leave before the season began. And right now we just don’t have the numbers to play the style of game that I would like – up tempo on both sides of the ball.

“But Kennesaw State is a place that we can build a culture of winning, because of several factors. First, our Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams has a very real and clear vision for the program, and that is one of the biggest reasons I came to KSU.

“Plus, it is also a beautiful campus and the school is really growing. From an athletics standpoint it is a place that you can recruit to, and the community is really beginning to take hold of the institution and the athletics programs.”

Brown entered his first season at Lipscomb knowing that he would have plenty of opportunity to do what he enjoys the most – teaching. A consummate student of the game, Brown helped his team identify clear goals from the outset and continues to work on those as the season progresses.

“From our team’s standpoint I didn’t know what to expect, because I was coming from entirely different offensive and defensive systems, said Brown. “I knew it was going to take some time to teach and to get them used to what we are trying to accomplish.

“I was very fortunate at UT and UCF to be able to do a lot of teaching, so not having as much time to do that now has been an adjustment as well. I still do a good bit, though, and I have to this year because we are a new staff. I do thoroughly enjoy that, and we try to be a teaching program.

“We set three goals and continue to talk about that process and get them to focus on three things: defensive field goal percentage, outrebounding the opponent by five, and keeping turnovers down. It is really not a hard game. If you do a good job of those three things, you can’t do anything but win.

“Then, within those three things we try to teach out of that. Why are we turning the ball over – Bad passes, not receiving it well? Why aren’t we getting the field goal percentage that we want – Are we not contesting shots or giving up too many second shots?  As we get better at the simple execution of those things, then we will begin to reap the rewards of that.”

So Perry, Plitzuweit and Brown continue to help their teams take those small steps toward the results they desire. Clearly they aren’t where they want to be at this point in their seasons, but the second half is just around the corner. So what do they need and expect from their teams now that they are halfway through the season?

“We’re still learning how to win,” said Perry. “Especially in this league, you don’t just go out there and win. We have played well in spurts, and that’s really been the story of our last two or three games. We’re getting closer, but we’re just not over the hump yet. We really need all six or seven players to come out and play well for us.

“I know it sounds cliché, but our expectations honestly are to be our best on a daily basis,” said Plitzuweit. “That means our best not only in practice and in the games, but in the classroom and in the community. We talk all of the time about being engaged, being in the moment, wherever that may be.”

And for Brown, it is about just doing it. “Tennis pro Vic Braden said ‘just hit the same old boring winners.’ For us that means just do what we’ve asked you to do and let things fall from there. That is the best thing that I have seen from our team over the past couple of weeks."

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