September 30, 2012 1:59:03 AM
STARKVILLE -- A'Quonesia Franklin isn't a numbers person.
If she was, there might have been a time when she doubted she could play Division I basketball.
But Franklin never has been one to let artificial or perceived physical ones stand in her way. That's what makes it so easy for Mississippi State University women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer to reminisce about someone he came to know by accident.
"The kids can look at Aqua and know that was a kid who was underrated as a player coming out of high school, rated No. 248," Schaefer said. "She didn't let that deter her. She was a four-year starter who took a team to the Elite Eight and went and played two years in the (WNBA). She has played for coach Schaefer, just as (director of basketball operations) Maryann Baker has, so when things get tough and (the players) think I am crazy and a lunatic (and) go, 'Is this what it takes to win?' Aqua and Maryann can go, 'Yep, this is what it takes to win. You need to do it. Trust me. I have been through it, and it is what is best for us.' "
Franklin's job as an assistant women's basketball coach at MSU will be not to underestimate any of the Lady Bulldogs, regardless of where they were ranked or what was on their résumé when they arrived in Starkville. Like the journey Franklin took from player to a coach, she is focused on helping all of MSU's players, especially the guards, be the best they can be and push the program to even greater heights.
"Coach Schaefer always talks about what you have between your breastbone is that heart," Franklin said. "I have tons of heart. I don't care how big you are. I had a saying in college that it isn't how big you are, it is how big you play. I think that comes with heart, toughness, and competitiveness. If I play Michael Jordan, I am going to try my best to beat him, whatever it takes.
"We are trying to instill that in our kids. You have to be competitive. You can't go into a game with the mind-set that this is Kentucky and they have won so many games. They are people just like we are people, and you have to give yourself a chance. We have done a great job thus far of getting that out of them, and coach Schaefer telling them that if there is any ounce of averageness in their system, we're going to find a way to get it out of them. We don't need any average players. God didn't put everybody on the Earth with the same thing, but everybody is exceptional, and we have to find a way to get it out of them. They have taken it to heart that we are trying to get their best out of them every day."
Schaefer, Franklin, and the rest of the MSU women's staff will work on the final details to make sure everything is ready for 1 p.m. Wednesday when the team opens practice for the 2012-13 season. NCAA rules allow Division I women's basketball teams 30 practices in a span of time 40 days prior to their first regular-season game. MSU will kick off Schaefer's first season at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 with an exhibition game against Shorter at Humphrey Coliseum. It will play host to the University of Houston at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 in the regular-season opener.
Franklin has been preparing MSU's guards for Schaefer's intense style that demands that they play defense for 94 feet. The former standout at Texas A&M University is part of a coaching staff with associate head coach Johnnie Harris, assistant coach Brittany Hudson, and Baker that will try to help MSU rebound from back-to-back losing seasons. In 2009-10, MSU advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Schaefer and his staff know what it is like to play at that level. Schaefer and Harris were part of the coaching staff that helped Texas A&M win the national championship in 2011. Franklin worked last season at the University of Kansas, which advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
As a player, the 5-foot-3 Franklin was part of the first group of players coach Gary Blair brought in when he took over at Texas A&M. Schaefer, who helped recruit Franklin, watched her play an integral role for four years and help a program that went 9-19 in his first year at the school (2003-04) improve in each of the next four seasons. Texas A&M won 16, 23, 25, and 29 games in Franklin's four years at point guard. As a senior, Franklin helped lead Texas A&M to the Elite Eight, where it lost to the University of Tennessee 53-45. The WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs used the 38th pick of the 2008 draft to select her. She played with the WNBA's Seattle Storm in 2009.
As much as Franklin considers Schaefer a "numbers guy", she admits she was ranked a little higher as a senior coming out of John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas. Schaefer's version of the story doesn't bother her, though, because she discovered some of the recruiting analysts might have confused her with another player because she switched jerseys with that player at a travel basketball showcase.
"He keeps pushing me back," Franklin said. "I think I was 163 or 164. He makes it a big thing. In one of the polls, I was probably 200-something, but I let him tell the story."
Just like Schaefer, whose nickname is "Secretary of Defense," has earned a reputation for his hard-nosed style, Franklin overcame questions about whether she was tall enough to play at the elite Division I level and built her game with an attention to detail. Taking care of the basketball is at the top of that list. In three of her four seasons in College Station, Texas, Franklin had double the number of assists to turnovers. The only season she didn't was her junior season when she had 149 assists and 78 turnovers. Franklin never averaged more than 9.9 points per game as an Aggie, but she knew when and how to make the pass and valued each possession. Her goal is to impress those things on MSU's guards.
"The only thing I worry about with number is my point guard's turnover ratio," Franklin said. "If you have more turnovers than you do assists, then we have a problem. If you miss a pass or an open player, that is fine, as long as we still have possession of the ball. (After that), then we can go and try to make something happen."
Franklin said MSU will use hard work to make things happen. She feels the competitive spirit that exists between the coaches will spill over to the players on and off the court. Franklin said each coach has three players, and that she has stressed to her players they are going to have the highest grade-point averages on the team.
"I think (the players) have what it takes, and I think they're working hard," Franklin said. "I think they see strides every day of getting better and learning more about the game. Most importantly, you can cover up a lot of your mistakes by playing hard. Playing hard is going to be our biggest thing. Our motto or theme is: The next chapter. All out. All game. All season. I think that is the work ethic and the mentality we have put into the girls to have this year."
Dan Olson, a former college basketball coach who now runs his own recruiting website, Dan Olson's Collegiate Basketball Report, remembers Franklin being that kind of player. He recalls Blair and Schaefer talking about how they had found a point guard who didn't attract a lot of attention and was the type of player Texas A&M needed to get to the next level.
After seeing Franklin as a player and watching her work as a coach, Olson is confident Franklin will make an impact at MSU.
"She was a legitimate stud player," Olson said. "She has that little pizzazz. The kids like her and they listen to her.
"Even when I met her as a senior at Texas A&M, I could tell she was going to be a heck of a college basketball coach. She is a born leader."
Said Schaefer, "A'Quonesia Franklin is going to be a great head coach one day."
Franklin said she would like to be a head coach. She credits all of the coaches she has worked with for showing her how to do things the right way, and that that is the way she will do things at MSU. If her track record is any indication, Franklin -- and MSU's guards -- will have success getting things done.
"We want to instill in them how to work hard, how to compete day in and day out," Franklin said. "You're not going to have any games in the SEC where you can just have an average day. You have to bring your best day in and day out. I think we instill that in them and then go out and get recruits that fit your system, not just players because they are ranked this high. You have to find somebody who actually fits your system and to do what we want them to do. Everybody coach Vic recruits is big on defense, so if you can't guard the ball 94 feet, you probably don't fit our system, so we have to go out and get those special players who fit our system and, of course, the ones who can put the ball in the hole."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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