In practice it has become a daily obsession, Kenisha Bell said.
Who can get the stop? Who can shut the opponent down? How many stops, as a team, can they get?
Things have changed.
Last season, the Gophers women’s basketball team played a relatively passive zone on defense, and pushed the pace on offense with the idea of outscoring the opponent under coach Marlene Stollings. All of this is fine. It earned the Gophers 24 victories, an NCAA tournament berth and a first-round victory.
But first-year coach Lindsay Whalen and her staff have altered the approach.
Seeing the quickness of guards Bell and Jasmine Brunson and the rebounding potential of Taiye Bello and Annalese Lamke, the Gophers have gone to a man-to-man defense. On offense, so far, the Gophers have been a little more deliberate. But now the Gophers can use defense to withstand the occasional offensive lull.
It has worked, so far. The 12th-ranked Gophers are 11-0, having finished the nonconference portion of their schedule perfectly. And while that schedule wasn’t the hardest — according to the NCAA, their strength of schedule so far is ranked 248th — it was successful, with a quality victory against a ranked Syracuse team and road wins over Xavier and Boston College.
Now the Gophers will begin Big Ten Conference play with Friday’s conference opener against Wisconsin at Williams Arena. As Whalen said Thursday, the team’s 11-0 record means little now. She told her players to forget about the wins, rankings and record.
“The record doesn’t mean much,” Whalen said. “But the foundation you built, and how you play, those things count.”
The Gophers have become a more hard-nosed bunch. The team ranks in the top 20 nationally in several defensive stats, including points allowed per game (53.1, 13th) and opponents field goal percentage (33.8, 16th).
The team is shooting, and making, fewer three-pointers than last season. But they have become a top-10 rebounding team and are second in the nation in free throw attempts per game (27.1).
And they are defending, a core belief Whalen brought with her from her WNBA career.
“Of the teams I’ve been on, those have been the most successful teams,” she said. “If you can establish that player-to-player defense, those are the teams that have long-term success. So, when I look at our personnel? You have Kenisha Bell, Jasmine Brunson, Taiye. It’s been great defensively. It really suits us. It suited what I wanted to do.”
The Gophers’ scoring is down from last year, but their margin of victory, so far, is up. The shooting — especially from long range — should only improve once the team gets guard Gadiva Hubbard back from injury. Destiny Pitts’ shooting improved as the nonconference schedule went on.
But, with a solid defense, the Gophers believe they can compete in most games.
“We want to be a gritty team defensively,” Brunson said. “It’s just being able to get into somebody defensively. It’s just you and the other person. You have to sit down and actually guard.”
It’s become contagious.
The Gophers held eight of 11 nonconference opponents to 53 or fewer points. They’ll see better players and scorers now in the Big Ten, but the Gophers have built a base with their defense.
“Getting stops and steals gets us going,” Bell said. “We’ve been working on it. We talk more. We’re way more vocal than before. We have to defend. We know the importance of it.”