MINNEAPOLIS - Lindsay Whalen had her players stand around in a circle during a recent practice at Athletes Village, and asked them to raise their hand if they had played with the person standing next to them.
Not a single hand went up in the air. As Whalen enters her fifth season as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach, her challenge is to mesh a roster with eight players who are either a freshman, redshirt freshman or sophomore, along with three graduate students.
Whalen is 60-57 in four seasons at Minnesota after being hired in 2018, but just 28-44 in Big Ten play and still seeking her first NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach. The Gophers are projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten.
At Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday at Target Center, she referenced her 2011 season with the Minnesota Lynx. They were projected to finish last in the Western Conference, were in first place by the All-Star break and she helped lead the Lynx to their first WNBA title.
"That was always fine with me as a player, I was always good with that. Anything we can do to motivate ourselves and motivate each other, we’re going to let it motivate us, that’s for sure," Whalen said. "I want every player to experience what I got to experience when I played. I want to play in the NCAA Tournament every year, so that’s always going to be the goal. That’s what drives me, that’s what drives my players is to have that experience."
The Gophers return just three players from last season: Katie Borowicz, Alanna Micheaux and Maggie Czinano. Whalen will have five new starters when the season opens Nov. 7 against Western Illinois at Williams Arena.
Minnesota does feature the best freshmen class in the history of the program, with four Minnesota players all ranked in the top-100 as high school seniors. Mallory Heyer, Mara Braun and Amaya Battle highlight the group, with Nia Holloway out for the season due to a knee injury.
So how does Whalen get a look at the new faces to see what the product looks like? Scrimmaging against the scout team.
"I’ve scrimmaged a lot more against our scout team than I ever have before, so we can start to work through some of these times of adversity. I need them to get up and down so that the first time we do play, it’s not the first time we’re getting up and down together," Whalen said. "I’ve made that more of an emphasis this year than ever before."
So how’s the chemistry with all the new faces? They say it’s not an issue.
"It’s going in a great direction. We all play so well together, even if like 4-star recruits, great recruiting class, it’s not like I’m going to get this many points, I’m going to get this many steals. We all work together off each other, so it’s great chemistry already," Borowicz said.
WHALEN PRESENTED GAME BALL AT BIG TEN MEDIA DAYS
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren had a surprise for Lindsay Whalen before she took the stage on Wednesday at Target Center during Big Ten Media Days.
Warren presented the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach with a game ball before she took the podium. She was recently inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on her first time on the ballot. She has one of the most decorated histories in women’s basketball, winning four WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx as well as Olympic gold. Whalen also led the Gophers as a player to the program’s lone Final Four appearance in 2004.
"We wanted to present a ball, that’s one of the highest honors you can get as an athlete is to get the game ball. Lindsay has the ultimate game ball when she was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame," Warren said. "Absolutely phenomenal, so we wanted to get a painted ball from a local artist to coach Whalen to tell her how much we appreciate her.
Target Center is also hosting the Big Ten Tournament next March.
"Welcome to Minnesota, it’s home to me. Honored that we are hosting such a great event. Minnesota has hosted many in this building, WNBA championships, women’s basketball Final Fours, Super Bowls, men’s Final Fours. We know how to put on a great event," Whalen said. "We know everything Commissioner Warren does is first class and we’re going to do a great job of hosting the Big Ten Tournaments here in the next few years in a first class manner."