Shipley: Timing on Lindsay Whalen’s decision to step down seems odd
The Gophers haven’t been winning, but their coach finally seems to have the young core she’s been seeking
After the Gophers’ 72-67 loss to Penn State on Wednesday in the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, freshman Amaya Battle — one-fourth of a nationally ranked recruiting class that matriculated last fall — said none of her classmates planned to explore the NCAA transfer portal.
“Not at all,” she said. “I signed a lease.”
Her roommates? Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer and Niamya Holloway. Together, they composed coach Lindsay Whalen’s best recruiting class, a home-grown quartet ranked as high as No. 10 nationally by ESPN.
These players certainly appeared to love their coach. When discretely asked at intervals this season whether they were thinking of entering the portal this spring, the young players inevitably said, “No!”
Who knows if that’s the case now?
Whalen stepped down as the Gophers coach Thursday as part of a “mutual agreement,” athletics director Mark Coyle said at a quickly called news conference Thursday afternoon.
The timing seemed odd in one way: Although Whalen’s teams had not been particularly good — in four of her five seasons, they finished under .500 in the Big Ten — the Gophers do have a solid young core with the freshmen and sophomores Rose Micheaux, Katie Borowicz and Maggie Czinano.
Whalen’s program was decimated by graduations (five) and transfers (six) last season, and letting her walk — or asking her to — makes that a very real possibility again, just as the team showed some promise by beating Nebraska and Purdue, solid conference rivals, in the final two weeks of the season.
When it was pointed out Thursday that the decision could put the program in another start-from-scratch situation, Coyle said, “I understand that.”
This, of course, is where the Gophers men’s team is after Richard Pitino drove it into the ditch. New coach Ben Johnson had to recruit an entirely new team through the portal last season — only Isaiah Ihnen returned — and this season is taking his lumps with a team relying heavily on freshmen.
Emerging from a complete roster purge, even with the talent available in the portal, is a lengthy ordeal in a conference as strong as the Big Ten. The men’s side is traditionally rich in talent; the women’s side — with three teams currently ranked in the Top 7 — has never been stronger.
The young core that Whalen has put together seems to be exactly what she had been searching for: talented players — six of them from Minnesota — with the competitive edge and dedication to getting better that Whalen had as the Gophers’ star point guard from 2000-04, and then later with the U.S. Olympic team (two gold medals) and two WNBA teams (four championships).
Braun led the team in scoring (15.6 points a game), Micheaux led the team in rebounding (7.9), Battle led the team in assists (4.4) and Borowicz led the team in steals (1.6). Heyer, a 6-foot-1 wing with an accurate 3-point shot, averaged 7.1 rebounds a game for the Big Ten’s best rebounding team.
The Gophers finished 11-19 overall, 4-15 in the Big Ten, but there is talent there to build on. That includes Holloway, who didn’t play this season after tearing a knee ligament in summer practice, and 6-foot-5 center Sophie Hart, a transfer from North Carolina State who joined the program in January.
The portal could quickly dismantle that promise at a school that has struggled to rebuild once mighty programs.
“We’ve gotta figure it out,” Coyle said. “I went back and I looked at the last 25, 30 years — and I may be off — and our winning percentage is maybe 40% on the men’s side and just above 40 on the women’s side in Big Ten play.”
Since the Athletes Village opened in February 2018, Minnesota’s facilities are beyond good enough to attract talented student-athletes, and the Gophers are competitive in just about everything but basketball these days.
“There is no reason why it cannot be done here,” Coyle said. “And that’s the question we’ve got to figure out.”
We don’t yet know how much Whalen wanted to step down — she was a last-second scratch at Thursday afternoon’s news conference — but it seems a little odd that she dropped out when she finally appears to have the core she’s been looking for.
These are talented players who could help any program; why not ensure it’s Minnesota’s? What harm could, say, one more year mean if it ensured their return?
“I don’t think we’re starting over. I don’t think that at all,” Coyle said. “I think we have a really great core group of people here who have made progress throughout this past year, and it’s our job to go out and find a coach that can continue to build upon that success.”
This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.