A day at practice: Teaching a new system and being stern about ‘core values’

“Don’t write it was the worst college practice you’ve ever seen,” women’s coach Todd Starkey told me after he worked with his team for almost two and a half hours last week.

Well, it was.

It was also the best college practice I had ever seen.

It was the first time I’ve watched a practice all the way through. I saw 10 or 15 minutes a couple of times in Bob Lindsay’s time here, long before I ever thought about writing a blog. I never saw a practice under Danny O’Banion. I could have; I was just teaching more then and had less time.

I’ll give some impressions of the Starkey style in a few minutes. First a little bit of hard news:

The “white team” in practice was as close as KSU has to a starting lineup at this point. It had five familiar faces: junior forward Jordan Korinek, senior guard Larissa Lurken, junior point guard Naddiyah Cross, junior forward McKenna Stephens and sophomore guard Alexa Golden. Korinek and Lurken, KSU’s top scorers, started every game. Stephens started 19 games, Cross and Golden 17.

The other two white team members were junior forward Zenobia Bess, a 6-1 transfer from Illinois State who sat out last season because of NCAA rules, and freshman guard Ali Poole, a 5-11 second-team all-state player from Carrollton High School. Starkey describes both of them as players with “high basketball IQs.” He calls Bess “the best screener on the team,” and screens are a key part of the Starkey offense. Poole could well be the second-best long-range shooter on the team after Lurken, who has been the team’s best (and sometimes only) three-point threat since she came to campus three years ago.

Redshirt freshman Tyra James, who started 10 games last season and was third on the team in scoring with a 9.5 average, was on the sideline with an injury. James missed her whole freshman year with a knee injury; the vibe I got about her status was not good.

Nobody’s performance  bowled me over. Starkey said it was not one of the team’s better practices, which he said had been on an upward trend until then. Korinek was practicing for just the second time after sitting out two two weeks with a leg injury. She moved fine but looked rusty. Lurken acted like the senior she is. Cross handled the ball smoothly in individual drills. Poole did indeed shoot well and did not look like the youngest player on the court.

Redshirt freshman guard Megan Carter, a highly regarded recruit last year who suffered a season-ending knee injury in KSU’s third game, got banged up early in practice and spent the rest of the day on the sidelines. Starkey has said Carter is one of Kent State’s best at creating her own shot and shooting off the dribble.

The team’s first game is at home against Bradley on Friday, Nov. 11. There’s no exhibition game this year. The team will have a closed scrimmage against Cleveland State next week. “We need practice more than competition at this point,” the coach said.

One last note: The team won’t have an on-campus male team to practice agains this season. That’s become a common practice in women’s basketball to force teams to go up against bigger, stronger and faster opponents than their own second string. Starkey said that in his first year, he wanted to make sure his players got as much practice time as possible.

And a footnote: Watching practice with me was Morgan Korinek, Jordan’s older sister. She’s an assistant coach (and former player) at Division III Kenyon College.

So what’s a Starkey practice like?

Last week, the coach seemed more like a teacher than anything else.

Starkey has repeatedly emphasized that his is an almost entirely new offense and defense compared with the dribble-drive and match-up zone Kent State used through much of last season.

So often in half court sets at practice, the coach would stop play. He’d stand next to players and step them through the ways he wanted them to defend or set a screen. At those times, he kept his voice low and patient.

“The team has bought into what we’re trying to do, and they’re trying to apply what we tell them,” Starkey said in an interview after practice. “But at the same time, their heads are swimming with all sorts of new information.”

The time he raised his voice the most came late in practice, when he thought team members weren’t talking to each other enough on defense.”You’re a good player,” he said to one of his returning starters, “but you have to do that.”

“You can’t get mad at a team in a game if you don’t demand the same thing in practice,” he said. “I get unhappy when I see us getting away from core values — things like lack of communication, lack of focus, lack of effort.”

You could see the emphasis on communication on defense in other drills. It’s something I don’t remember a lot of over the last few seasons; in fact, I remember an opponent’s broadcast team talking about what they saw as a lack of it from KSU in a game.

There was a time he did sound exasperated.

“You do that against Bradley, you’re going to get beat,” he said after a play went bad. “You do that against Baylor, you’re going to get destroyed.”

Kent State plays Baylor, ranked No. 4 in the country in preseason polls, in the opener of the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida during Thanksgiving weekend.

Practice was organized in 10 or 15 minute segments, with half-court sets alternating with foul shooting and transition offense. As in most gyms, the players ran sprints when the coaches weren’t happy. (Starkey wasn’t kidding when he said earlier this fall that sophomore guard Taylor Parker was first in every sprint. True. Every one.)

It was a long, hard practice — at least so it seemed to me. Starkey said it could have ended 10 minutes earlier.

But one time down the court, the blue team turned the ball over. The next time on defense,  players got out of position and three of them ended up lying on the court under the basket.

And then Poole hit a three-point shot and Korinek a layup, and they were done.

When Starkey teased me about what not to write (“not the worst practice you’d seen”), I did tell him what I was going to write, which is:

I’m not nearly smart enough to watch practice and tell how good a team is or is going to be.

“Really,” Starkey said with a chuckle. “Neither are we. Not at this point.”

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