U’s Littlejohn remains upbeat and outspoken

by Ryan Schuster

Twenty-one games into the Cheryl Littlejohn era at Minnesota, the performance of the Gophers women’s basketball team has been somewhat of a disappointment to the team, the fans and, most of all, to Littlejohn herself.
After inheriting a team last April that went a combined 8-47 the past two seasons, Littlejohn and her players said that the team would win, and win quickly. They did not promise miracles, but they clearly envisioned a better beginning than the team’s 4-17 start and 1-10 Big Ten record.
Instead of being a season of resurrection, this year has turned into a test of the new coach’s will.
“We need to make progress,” Littlejohn said. “I thought it would be a different situation at the beginning of the season, but we have to develop now.”
Minnesota ranks last in the conference in scoring offense, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, assists, blocked shots and turnovers and has only won once in its last 12 games. Of the team’s four victories, three came against Southwest Texas, Western Illinois and Alcorn State.
A loss Friday night at home against Michigan State, the only Big Ten team that Minnesota has defeated this season, would give the team a season-worst seven-game losing streak.
The realization of the team’s situation and lack of progress in several areas and on the stat sheet are not lost on the players. With each mounting loss it becomes harder for the players to remain upbeat.
Whether they like it or not, losing has become a way of life for many of the Gophers players.
“They think about it a lot,” Gophers assistant coach Jody Adams said. “(The players’ thinking is) more on the negative side. We’re trying to get back to the positive side.”
It would be a mistake, however, to blame all the team’s failures on Littlejohn. The first-year head coach appears dedicated to the program and has done at least as well as departed coach Linda Hill-MacDonald did with largely the same lineup a year ago.
Through 21 games under Hill-MacDonald last year, the Gophers were 3-18 with similarly uninspiring wins over Wyoming, Fairfield and Ohio State.
It would also be premature to judge Littlejohn solely on the exploits of a team she didn’t recruit. Her lineup changes and substitution patterns have taken some people by surprise, though.
The Gophers have used 13 different starting lineups this season with 11 different players receiving starts. Senior center Angie Iverson, sophomore guard Kiauna Burns and junior forward Sarah Klun, three of the team’s top returning players from last season, have all been benched at different times this season for poor defense, lack of intensity and inconsistency on the floor.
While her personnel moves have raised some eyebrows, that is just fine with Littlejohn.
“I can’t speak for what a lot of other people would do,” Littlejohn said. “In order for you to set the correct standard, you have to have high expectations. I’ve got seniors who aren’t cutting it. They go right beside me on the bench. They become a cheerleader. I don’t care about your stats last year — you’ve got to prove it to me now.”
Littlejohn said she believes her players know their roles on the team regardless of who starts and that they know her system. After that, she said, it is up to them to accept it.
For the most part, her players agree with her coaching style.
“She’s searching for something that she can find,” Klun said. “That’s one of the ways she feels she can do this — through this style of substituting and different lineups.”
In fact, the prevailing opinion among the players is that the team’s predicament is due more to their lack of execution that any fault in Littlejohn’s coaching philosophy.
“We’ve been working under her for quite some time and gotten used to how she runs things,” junior forward Sonja Robinson said. “It’s not a question of what the coaches are doing. The players have just not played well this season. It has nothing to do with the coaches.”
Littlejohn also acknowledged that it will take more than one year to turn around a program that has gone 2-46 in its last 48 regular-season Big Ten games.
“It did not take one year to get this way and it won’t take one year to turn it around,” Littlejohn said. “I don’t get down. I just get pissed off. And I get — guess what — determined.”
Littlejohn describes herself as the “ultimate optimist.” She won’t be satisfied until she turns the program around and she refuses to pull any punches about how she thinks or does her job.
“People here like to be politically correct,” Littlejohn said. “That’s not me. I’ve got a no-nonsense approach. I’m gonna come at you just the way I am.”