November 4, 2013 3:01:49 PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Vic Schaefer didn't earn the moniker "Secretary of Defense" because the teams he coached stood around in a 2-3 zone.
Schaefer earned that nickname because the players he coached started to guard opponents as soon as they got off the bus, or as soon as visitors entered the gymnasium. They got up the line, they beat players to the spot, they boxed out with authority, and did everything they could to make scoring a chore.
Schaefer hopes rule changes designed to alter the way officials will call the women's game won't impact his team or affect a hard-nosed mentality his squads have earned in nearly 30 years as a coach.
"I hope my staff and I do a good enough job coaching and teaching that it doesn't impact us at all," Schaefer said last month at Southeastern Conference Media Days. "I think that is the challenge. It is what it is. We're going to play by the rules. Are we going to adjust today before we get to game one, or are we going to wait and adjust after game 14 and then complain about things.
"I have been coaching for 29 years. I have a pretty clear view what this is going to be about. I think the challenge now is for us to go embrace it and go and teach and coach and do a good job in that area."
A three-page handout was provided at SEC Media Days to outline the changes that will be unveiled at 7 tonight when the Mississippi State women's basketball team plays host to Shorter in an exhibition game at Humphrey Coliseum. Officials have been directed to focus on contact on and by the ball handler, contact on the shooter, freedom of movement, screening, and a number of other areas that likely will change the face of the game. While those areas will be open to the discretion of the officials, one rule change -- the institution of the 10-second back-court violation rule -- will be cut and dry. The rule changes are designed to allow offensive players to have freedom of movement and to limit the contact defenders have on players or the ability they have to direct or impede that movement.
Sally Bell, a longtime women's basketball official who is now the coordinator of women's basketball officials, said conference coordinators received their guidelines from the NCAA and everybody is on board and is going to be accountable to reduce the physicality in the women's game.
"I told my referees it is not going to be easy, but we are going to be steadfast and we're going to be consistent as much as we possibly can, so we're going after it," said Bell, who is in her seventh year in her position with the SEC and has been involved with the game for 40 years. "We're committed to it. It is going to be in November and December, January, February, and March."
Bell said it is common for things to change from year to year and for there to be different points of emphasis. This time, though, she said women's basketball officials have been directed "to narrow the gap with the extremes" in how they call a game. Bell said she wasn't sure if the rules changes will force a change in how officials are evaluated, but she knows the product on the court will change because everyone will operate under a new set of expectations.
"I think it is going to improve our game," Bell said. "I think it is going to be great for our game. I think there are going to be a lot of hiccups along the way. I think it is not going to be an easy thing for us. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe not. I don't know. We're going to go through it and give it our best shot and consistently try to do it."
Schaefer, a longtime assistant and associate head coach at Arkansas and Texas A&M, has instilled a defensive mind-set at MSU as he prepares for his second season as head coach. He agrees that this season is going to be different in how the rules are enforced. He said he isn't going to get too wrapped up in the changes and how they could affect his team. Instead, he said he is going to understand things will be different and make sure he and his coaches are teaching his players the right way to do things. He also said the rules changes could help MSU and other teams become more efficient on the offensive end or more adept at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line.
"I don't think turning our game into a HORSE game (where you can't touch anybody and have to let them shoot it) is going to put people in the stands," Schaefer said. "That concerns me. ... We want kids to get on the floor after loose balls and dive on the floor and be aggressive in that manner, but then you're trying to tell them it is OK here but you have to be careful here.
"Do I think you need to protect the ball? Absolutely. Do I think displacement in the post with a knee in somebody's rear end and moving them 10 feet is a good thing? No. Absolutely not. But I think you have to be careful with where we are right now with the popularity of our game, and that is one of the things that we in women's basketball and the WBCA (Women's Basketball Coaches Association) are very concerned about. Why is our attendance dwindling? I don't think you are going to put people in the stands when you have some of the things that may be on the horizon coming. That is what concerns me about the change."
Longtime Georgia women's basketball coach Andy Landers also has seen points of emphasis come and go. Like Schaefer, he said he will do his part to make sure the rules changes take hold this time.
"I think the game should be called in accordance with that rule book," Landers said. "I think as time has gone on, and I am as much to blame as any other individual for what has transpired, the game has become physical, it has become aggressive to the point where the female athlete has a difficult time executing and being as good as she is offensively. It has become a defensive game in large measure. That piece needs to be reeled back in. The only people who can do it are the officials. I am willing to go there as a coach if the officials are willing to take me there. I can' go there as a coach if the officials aren't willing to take me there because the people I play against might not on any given night be at the same place I am at and they get the advantage."
Landers isn't concerned about the consistency of officials because he trusts that the professionals will try their best to follow the letter of the law. He said after being "part of the problem" for many years, he will be "part of the solution" this season. As a result, he hopes the women's game sees an increase in scoring and an improvement in the overall style of play across the country.
"We don't have the strength, we don't have the size, we don't have the length, we don't have the jumping ability, we don't have the upper body strength that a guy has," Landers said of players in the women's game. "You hold a guy in a head lock, he can still pass the ball 40 feet up the floor. The female athlete does not have that kind of strength. We can't play through the contact. We can't carry people to the rim and dunk. We can't even dunk, so to carry anybody off the floor is asking too much. People like me, people like the other coaches in the Southeastern Conference, have ratcheted up defense through the years to a point where it has affected the game. It has violated most of the rules that are in the book. We are violation with the hand-checking, the bumping, the knocking off course, the elbows. All of it. We are great defensive basketball teams if you allow us to play that way, the best in the country, but we are not very good offensively because of that, so we have to back it off because people are more interested in 80-85 games than 40-45 games. It makes you look like you have no skill or no talent."
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb has prided herself in having one of the best offensive teams in the SEC. In 2009-10, the Commodores shot a league-leading 45.8 percent from the field in 16 SEC games. Last season, Vanderbilt was third in the league at 43 percent. She acknowledged the emphasis on defense and the increased physical style of play in the SEC has changed the way she coaches. These days, instead of spending more time coaching offense in practice Balcomb is taking more time to stop teams rather than outscore them.
"We used to win games in the 80s. Now I have to win games in the 50s," Balcomb said. "I haven't changed what I run or the skill level of the players I have brought in, so I have to coach more defense. Practice probably was 60-40, two hours of offense, one hour of defense. I didn't understand why more people didn't want to come play for me because I know some people in our conference who coach three hours of defense. I have switched over the years. We had the best defensive team we have ever had but we went down offensively.
"If they ref the games the way the rule book is written and the way we used to it 10 years ago, that is going to help us offensively, which is what we should be able to do great and to separate ourselves more."
It remains to be seen, though, if officials will be able to establish a uniform way to call women's basketball games. In other sports, like baseball or softball, an umpire's strike zone can vary from umpire to umpire. SEC coaches know every game might not be called the same way, but they hope officials embrace the concepts that have been instituted so the game will be less of a slugfest and more of a free-flowing affair that helped it earn the praise of longtime UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden, who said the skill of women's players reminded him of the men's game from generations past.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who worked with Schaefer to win a national title at the school in 2011, wants to find that balance without teams losing their identities.
"There is nothing wrong with being physical, too," Blair said. "I don't want the game to be a HORSE game. I want defense to be a part of the game. I want us to be able to teach. I want the schools that aren't in the top 40 to realize built it through defense and then the offense will come second.
"We'll adjust. We will still play pressure defense. We will still play more of a wolf pack defense now that I have Bob Starkey there with me. When Vic (Schaefer) was there, he played denial out to the bathroom. That was just the style we played. I am looking forward to it. As long as the court is 94 feet and the basket is still 10 feet, we don't need to change a whole lot."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.