Imagine Frank Kaminsky returning to the University of Wisconsin as men’s basketball coach, fresh off of helping the Milwaukee Bucks to multiple NBA championships.
That would roughly parallel the path Lindsay Whalen took to becoming women’s basketball coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in April.
Whalen is basketball royalty in Minnesota, where she was a three-time All-American and led the Gophers to their only NCAA Final Four as a senior in 2004. Then, after starting her WNBA career with the Connecticut Sun, she returned home to play nine seasons for the Minnesota Lynx and led them to four WNBA titles.
So far, her coaching career is living up to that lofty standard as the No. 12 Gophers are off to an 11-0 start heading into tonight’s Big Ten Conference opener against the Badgers (9-3) in Minneapolis.
Although he would like nothing better than to spoil her conference debut, UW coach Jonathan Tsipis counts himself as one of Whalen’s many fans.
“I’ve been an admirer for a long time,” said Tsipis, who met Whalen for the first time on the recruiting trail in the spring. “I think it’s a natural progression for her. She was such an outstanding point guard in college and then continuing on with the Sun and the Lynx. A very humble person, that’s the first thing that you notice about her. For all the accolades and everything, there’s a quiet confidence about her.”
Whalen’s return to the Gophers has been met with an outpouring of fan support, including a sellout crowd of 14,625 for her coaching debut — the largest crowd in the nation this season.
“I think for women’s basketball on the whole, it’s a great thing,” Tsipis said. “You get caught up sometimes in what can only be best for our program or our league, but the more eyes we can have on our product is a good thing.”
While he acknowledges Whalen’s popularity in the state might give her a head start in recruiting, Tsipis vows he will not back off in his pursuit of players from Minnesota, long a productive area for UW.
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“Obviously, we have to make sure that the kids in Minnesota see that there’s a great opportunity here,” Tsipis said. “I’m never going to be a former WNBA player and can’t pretend to be that. But it’s a different experience you would have here as a student-athlete.”
Junior Courtney Fredrickson is one of three Minnesota natives on the UW roster along with junior Suzanne Gilreath and freshman Carmen Backes. They will be joined by another, Sara Stapleton, next season. Fredrickson, who is set to undergo knee surgery on Friday and will miss the rest of the season, remembers scrimmaging against Whalen at times while with her North Tartan AAU team.
Her best memories are from watching Whalen play with the Lynx.
“I was there in 2015 when they won the championship,” Fredrickson said. “I actually got courtside tickets and it was crazy. I loved watching Lindsey, Seimone (Augustus) and Maya Moore and all of them. She’s just phenomenal and from what I’ve heard from my Minnesota basketball friends, she is a legit coach.”
Whalen, who retired as a player this past summer, has put her stamp on the Gophers with an emphasis on defense. Under previous coach Marlene Stollings, who left to take the job at Texas Tech, the Gophers played a fast-paced offense that averaged just under 85 points last season. On the other end, they relied almost entirely on a zone defense and surrendered nearly 75 points a game, last in the Big Ten.
“I think the biggest change is defensive,” Tsipis said. “They’re primarily a pressure man-to-man team, using the athleticism they have in several spots.”
The Gophers, who are scoring an average of 74.2 points while allowing just 53.1 points this season, are led by senior guard Kenisha Bell, who is third in the Big Ten in scoring (19.5) and junior Taiye Bello, who leads the conference in rebounding (13.4).
“Offensively, they’d like to get out in transition and they do a great job of getting to the free throw line,” Tsipis said. “Lindsay is putting them in great positions to attack.”