Detail-oriented, fast team excites Stringer
C. Vivian Stringer stood Oct. 24 at Media Day with sunglasses shielding her eyes, signifying how the Rutgers head women’s basketball coach approaches this season.
Entering the final season of her seven-year contract, Stringer firmly has blinders up in regards to her future.
The Hall of Fame coach is all about the here and now — a time when the Scarlet Knights have the chance to put together perhaps the program’s biggest turnaround in recent memory.
Coming off a 16-14 season in which the Knights missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, Stringer is staying calm.
“Historically Rutgers has been known to be that team that has the greatest turnarounds in the history of the NCAAs,” Stringer said. “It doesn’t stress me out because I know that last year was a very unusual year for us.”
It started with several injuries to key assets. Former forward Monique Oliver, projected to be one of the top players in the nation entering last year, dealt with lingering ankle and Achilles’ injuries.
Then-sophomore guard Briyona Canty, last season’s top-rated guard recruit and No. 6 overall prospect by ESPNU HoopGurlz, opted for knee surgery after seven games and had open-heart surgery.
The Knights were also young and inexperienced. Rutgers is still youthful — it has no seniors — but with only two freshmen, much of last season’s core remains intact.
“Sixty-five percent of our team has gotten a great deal of experience,” Stringer said. “So I think that a lot of the errors that we made in particular had so much to do with really our youth and inexperience.”
Stringer now sees a detail-orientated team that learned from falling short in several close games last season as a result of fundamental mistakes.
Seeking redemption, the Knights now emphasize the small things in each practice: positioning, coming off screens properly, getting the elbows up on shooting and moving the feet on defense.
“It has everything to do with growing up,” Stringer said. “I know that the vast majority of our team is young people, and they needed to go through that phase. We don’t like the feeling that we had, and so now we pay attention. … I think that we now know what we didn’t know before.”
Despite graduating three of its top six scorers from a team ranked 280th nationally with 56 points per game, the Knights feel they have the personnel to carry a balanced attack.
With Tyler Scaife, the top point guard recruit nationally, running the offense, Rutgers looks to implement quick, up-tempo ball movement.
It is part of a conscious effort to spread the floor and create more open shots.
“We’re looking to run the ball more, get out in transition,” said junior forward Betnijah Laney. “Also we’re trying to open our game up with everyone having an outside game so that they can knock down the shot because the one thing that we lacked last year was just everyone being able to be consistent and making shots.”
It became imperative with the loss of former guard Erica Wheeler, who accounted for 52 of Rutgers’ 77 3-point field goals last season.
To help cope, the Knights brought in freshman guard Alex Alfano, a perennial outside shooter at Red Bank Catholic, N.J. high school.
Sophomore guards Kahleah Copper and Precious Person also developed better outside strokes over the summer, Stringer said.
But most importantly, the Knights know explosiveness in transition starts with forcing turnovers and playing pressure defense.
Copper said Rutgers is keying in the most on strengthening its defense, which ranked 21st nationally in scoring last season.
“We’re really focusing on the defensive end and just trying to be that No. 1 defensive team in the country,” said sophomore guard Kahleah Copper. “We’re trying to play good defense so that offensively we transition.”
In the end for Rutgers, it boils down to reinventing its personnel and extracting scoring out of every individual.
That winning formula may be the only way to keep the attention off Stringer’s $1.035 million salary.
“You might see the same names, but you’re going to see different play from them,” Stringer said. “And that makes all the difference.”