Women’s hoops hopes for more improvement, wins

David La

CHICAGO — Minnesota women’s basketball coach Cheryl Littlejohn knows the three R’s spell success in school.
But for success on the court, another R — recruiting — is the key.
“For us, we’re at the bottom trying to make headway. Recruiting is the name of the game.”
While Littlejohn gradually improved the Gophers over the last two seasons, the third-year coach is aiming for a .500 record from her group this year.
“We have newcomers that are going to contribute,” Littlejohn. “We’re going to look for some freshmen and sophomores to do some things this year.”
Acquiring the different players is no easy task for Littlejohn. She is aware of the Gophers less-than-stellar tradition, but refuses to dwell on that aspect of the program.
“When I’m recruiting behind Tennesse or Wisconsin or Illinois or Penn State — they’ve got tradition,” Littlejohn said. “I sell the reverse, you’re not going to be part of somebody’s past. When you talk about tradition, you talk about the past. At Minnesota, you’re going to be part of a future. You’re going to be a pioneer.”
Penn State’s coach of 20 years, Rene Portland, sights such a recruiting approach as a high-risk, high-return proposition.
“If a kid that wants to be part of something new, that’s all well and good,” Portland said. “But I think when you’re untested and unproven, you’re taking one hell of a chance.”
The Gophers roster includes three players with junior-college experience, a strategy that Portland calls a definite quick fix.
“The route that Littlejohn took was the junior-college route,” Portland said, “which she was very entrenched with at Alabama. So she did what she knew. The route she has taken can be effective.”
Portland said the ultimate upside to players who finally get their shot at the Division I level is the fire kindled by their hunger.
“When we played Minnesota at Penn State we saw a very hungry team,” Portland said. “To be quite honest the game got very, very physical.”
Littlejohn says one other key to her visions for improvement is the understanding of roles. She said the program’s stalwarts must prepare for some reduction in minutes for the benefit of the bigger picture.
“Good kids are going to keep us where we are,” Littlejohn said. “We need big-time players. “Every year I’m recruiting more talented players, and the current players say, ‘Look, we need to play the kid, she can help us do it.'”

David La Vaque covers football and basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]