Jody Conradt teleconference: February 10
General statement to open the press conference... "First, let me thank all of you for taking the time to talk this morning. I appreciate the media support we have in our game and the recognition that surrounds it. Right now, our team is really on a roller-coaster ride. As far as playing Connecticut on Sunday, as a coach you never want to face a team like UConn who comes in after a loss. Past experience tells me that that gets them going. As far as our Texas team goes, we are trying to find ourselves. We've been up and down and fighting the injury bug all year long. Like UConn losing at home Wednesday to Rutgers, we also are coming off a pretty devastating loss to one of our biggest rivals, Texas A&M."
With such a young team, was she expecting this kind of season with its ups and downs? "I was not expecting this team to be as inconsistent as we have been, nor to take as long as it is taking us in getting to some type of consistency. And, in sports, injuries always are an issue. I've said this time and time again. We brought in seven freshmen this year, our largest freshmen class ever. At the beginning of the year, four of them were ready to play quickly. Of the four, three of them not playing. Well, one of the three has just returned Mari Mergerson, and her first opportunity to play came four games ago. We have two freshmen who I projected as starters out with knee injuries [point guard Carla Cortijo, forward Earnesia Williams], and Mergerson has been out for the majority of time. This has been difficult. Leadership always is an issue when you have a young team. And, all that fell on the shoulders of junior Tiffany Jackson and senior Nina Norman. Nina has done an admirable job, but she has never been a lead guard in her time here, and that always is an issue when she becomes a senior and we need to turn to her leadership. Now, Tiffany has not been available to us since injuring her ankle Saturday against Colorado, and she is still questionable for Sunday. This has all put the team in great state of flux."
Considering all the time you've been in this game and with all your experience, would you say this is one of the most frustrating years you've ever had? "Coaching is a roller coaster ride sometimes for all of us. Yes, this has been a difficult year, but this team knows what it needs to do. We continue to struggle with teamwork and chemistry on the court. Off the court, I've said repeatedly that our players and coaches really like each other. The players all get along and care about each other. But, we still have the freshmen standing back and waiting for the upperclassmen to lead. That's been difficult. If I had something to rethink from this year, maybe it would be the number [of new players we had] coming in together. But, it is what it is for us."
At this point of the year, it looks like you are playing a lot of people and not narrowing down the lineup.... "That is absolutely correct. And, it's not just with the freshmen. Look at players like Katrina Robinson, Erneisha Bailey, Tamra Cobbins who we've called upon - their minutes this season far exceed their total career minutes or appearances. It has made it interesting. I call this season the "perfect storm"- it has all come together in a really devastating way the youth, the inexperience, the injuries, and the fact that we over-scheduled for where this team ended up being. On the other hand, there is no way you can see the future. You assume in the fall that you are going to have healthy athletes who can compete for you with your difficult schedule."
The playing status of All-America junior Tiffany Jackson (UT's leading scorer, rebounder and steals leader)... "Tiffany is day-to-day with her right ankle injury. Even if she can play, she will not be 100 percent Sunday. At this point, we have to be cautious. A re-injury might put her out for the rest of the season. Yet, certainly we are not going to have any success in any game without Tiffany's help. It will be a game-day determination with her. And, I might add there is no pressure on Tiffany to come back quicker than necessary. She plays all out and is so competitive. She gives her all out there. She comes back when she feels that she can do it. We are in what seems like a 24-hour treatment mode trying to get her ready. We do not know her status two days out."
What are her impressions of the Connecticut team this year... "They are very much like the team we played last year. What strikes me is their balance. There is no question they can score, and you cannot focus on one player. Charde Houston is the engine that drives the team. When she performs, they are very very good. When she doesn't, Geno [Auriemma] is depending on others to step up. You always are concerned with the balance they have. I was noticing that more of their points are coming from the perimeter than in the past. When you are depending on that, there are good nights and bad nights with your perimeter shooting game. I look at their roster, and I've seen some of those names there for quite some time. Surely, some of them must be getting ready to graduate, right? But, I guess they won't be doing that before Sunday, however."
Getting back to the Texas team... How frustrating is it for such a young team to not have the season they anticipated having? .... "Obviously, that is a concern, but really, they are doing pretty well right now. Wednesday night, in our loss to Texas A&M, I was encouraged to see a little spark in the second half. We started the game by giving up transition baskets again and again. It was a disaster in the first half. Then, at halftime, I saw them regroup. I know it is hard to believe that when you are losing by 20, you can feel positive about it, but I did, because of the connections I saw them make on the defensive end. It was a start. We all felt like we supported each other in the second half. Hopefully, we want to build on that. I've not seen them since we had a post-game meeting in the locker room on Wednesday. Yesterday (Thursday) was our NCAA-mandated off day. We had to take a day off this week, and Thursday was our only alternative. We'll see how they are in practice this afternoon."
The expectations are high which are placed on the Connecticut team each year, as if the season is failure if they don't get to the Final Four. Can you address how difficult it is to get back to the Final Four every year and what the competitive landscape is right now in women's basketball? "We all have those expectations for Connecticut even those of us who compete against them! And, it's no different for us here at Texas. I always say that at Texas, you have to be No. 1 or better. That's the expectation. It is difficult to deal with high standards, but you like it and want to deal with it because it means that people are watching you and paying attention. It doesn't make you feel very good when you are not successful. Women's basketball is evolving to where a lot of teams can be successful on any given day. Because of that, people are going to have to re-adjust their thinking a bit. On the other hand, all of us who are competitive, the Final Four and a national championship is the goal to attain. If you get there as many times as Geno has, it should be an expectation for players and team and their supporters. But, there should not be devastation if they don't' reach that goal."
On the up-and-down play of Husky sophomore Charde Houston, a player who had Texas as one of her final college choices along with UConn... "You don't know an individual until you live with them day to day. I know that Charde would have made a tremendous difference in our program. Work ethic is something difficult to assess until you have them on campus. Look at freshmen players. At this level, they all were very good in high school. They haven't ever been pushed because most other players in the high school setting cannot challenge them. They haven't developed the work ethic that they need at our level. We struggle with it every day. For instance, it is a struggle for our freshmen on the defensive part and to get them to do things they take for granted. It takes some time before players come to this realization of what work ethic is. I really believe that a players' rise to the next level or not is determined by their work ethic."
With all the issues facing Texas right now, what is her feeling about facing Connecticut on Sunday? "Every game is important. We need wins. The problem for us right now is that we have played one of the toughest schedules out there, but we don't have quality wins over anyone highly ranked. A win Sunday would be a big boost to us. It always helps you to have quality wins for the post-season. From a practical standpoint, however, we need some confidence and to feel better about ourselves. We need to feel good. We still look around in the locker room and ask, why aren't things going better? We haven't been able to make it happen, and Sunday is another huge challenge facing us."
The Texas teams' mindset going into Sunday's game? "Again, I'm not really sure since I have not talked to them since Wednesday night after our loss to Texas A&M. All I know is what their response was to the Texas A&M game. They were starting to believe that they could trust each other and feel supported by each other on the court. There are not any trust issues with this team off the court. It's what is happening on the court. I heard them say that when they feel like they are extending themselves and it doesn't work out, that someone has your back. It was encouraging to talk about it and hear those responses. I will know more after practice today."
With the team status, do you have a concern that freshman shooting guard Erika Arriaran is trying too do too much? "What happens with high school players when they come in is this. When things go bad, they go one or two ways they either hide or do too much. All of them fall into one category, and neither is good. I've seen both with Erika. At times she has not stepped up and there are times where she has taken what I refer to as 'random shots' - the kind she made in high school! The kind that never happen here. Most of the time she is working harder to get open. Erika's responsibility is to work hard to use screens. She did a better job with that against A&M, especially in Tiffany's absence. Yet, it's hard to know what she's capable of. We are asking her to do so much outside of shooting. Rebounding, which is a strength of hers, or playing man-to-man defense that she's never focused on, for example."
Do you have any regrets about the schedule you set up for such a young team? "Because of our inconsistency and with the injuries, I feel like I could have scheduled wins for this team. But, that's hindsight. One of the unique things about women's basketball is that the top teams will go out and play each other, out of conference. It gives great coverage for our sport because of the great matchups and it gets us on national TV. That has to happen for our sport to continue to grow. The philosophy we have at Texas has always been that to be the best, you challenge yourself in playing the best. Yes, we take some losses, but the adversity of that will make you better down the line. But, I don't know if that applies to this team right now, because we haven't had success. Will it penalize us in terms of getting into the NCAAs? We still don't' know. I do know that this schedule will help us down the line with the young players and in the off-season."
What are your memories of the 2003 Final Four matchup with Connecticut at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta [won by Connecticut, 71-69]? "It seems like a lifetime ago! We have to live in the moment in sports that what's happening right now in our business. That Final Four experience was definitely a high point for that group of young women. It was a special time for us- everyone all come together, they players complemented each other. As far as the game went, we could 'what if' it to death- and we did it for a long period of time. It is respect that the players and I have for UConn- they were the standard when we played them, the defending champions. It is what you have to play to and we did play to that standard, even though we were so disappointed with the loss. Going to the Final Four. It is always a highlight. You want to win it all, but we all know that getting to the Final Four is so difficult."
Does this Texas team have a late-season run in it? "I don't know. That's my honest answer. I do know that the schedule is not any easier as I look forward. It is an unbalanced schedule for us in the Big 12 (Conference). We play each South Division team twice, and the North once. We won the North division already! We lost one out of six to the North teams. Now we are playing the hard-nosed, really good teams twice. We face Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas A&M coming up. There is no relief there. This is a really tough stretch for us as we finish.
Again, we look at our personnel, too. On Sunday and for the upcoming games, it will be Tiffany's decision as to if and when she plays. I trust her with her maturity and knowing whether she is ready to play. That is a big piece in what we will be able to do."