Commodores on the Run
By Tony Lane
There's a new coach in the driver's seat of the Vanderbilt women's basketball
program, and suddenly people are scanning for the state troopers.
Melanie Balcomb promised she would press on the accelerator of the Commodore
Camry she inherited from Jim Foster last May, pushing the ball up the floor
at every turn. After an Elite Eight showing last spring and the return of All-American
center Chantelle Anderson, some observers wondered about the wisdom of tinkering
with a successful half-court philosophy.
Balcomb smiles wryly when she reflects on the rebound effect of her new style.
"It doesn't mean we get in this race with people, and that's what everybody's
afraid of," she says, talking as fast as her approach is rumored to be.
"They think we're just gonna get in an up-tempo race with people. We're
Instead, the former Xavier coach is bent on pressing the advantage, especially
offensively, when it's available. Vanderbilt fans will see point guard Ashley
McElhiney angling toward the middle of the floor in transition, flanked by guards
Abi Ramsey, Hillary Hager, Ashley Earley and Tia Battle on the wings, with posts
Anderson, Jenni Benningfield (another wing option as well), Jutta Korkko and
freshman Nicole Jules beating their counterparts down the center.
Ay, and here's the rub - if the 'Dores don't outnumber their opposition, they'll
relent without pushing a bad position.
"You're going to see a much more up-tempo running team," Balcomb
explained. "We're going to run off misses as well as makes. We'll run the
floor and probably take quicker shots and more shots."
However, before fans go off half-cocked about Loyola Marymount East, Balcomb
adds, "If we don't have the quick shot - we're always trying to get numbers
- then you will see a lot more similar, which is what they were good at, half-court
offense. Half-court offenses, we do a lot of things very similar to what Jim
One thrust of the new approach is to relieve pressure from Anderson, who racked
up 20.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game despite facing constant double- and
triple-teams in the half-court set.
"[Other teams] are gonna spend all week figuring who's gonna double, from
where, out of what play," said Balcomb. "If we have [Anderson] in
full-court, we have numbers and their defense isn't set, all that stuff goes
out the window.
"Chantelle won't always be inside. There's going to be times where she'll
be on the perimeter, taking outside shots, facing up and driving."
To that, Anderson said, "As long as I can keep improving and have confidence
in my ability to do that, I'll be all right. I've been working on it in our
pickup games. I just hope I won't be afraid of screwing up in front of other
teams, as opposed to my teammates, where I can say, 'Oh, well,' and move on."
Another rationale for an up-tempo attitude is what Vanderbilt lost in terms
of perimeter shooting last year.
"We don't have the three-point shooters to just stand out there. Zuzi
[Klimesova] and [Jillian] Danker, your next two best shooters are gone,"
said Balcomb. "You don't have these guards that can shoot the ball, so
we're going to try to spread the floor as much as possible."
Vandy will still hoist the three-point shot with regularity if the initial
wave doesn't produce a decent shot, something that McElhiney (43 percent from
downtown in 2001-02) and the sophomore Ramsey (39 percent) should appreciate.
"The opportunity for someone like Abi is exciting, and I think she sees
that already," Balcomb said.
Through nine summer practices and the trip to Europe, Balcomb has been pounding
one consistent message about her philosophy - it's how fast you can go, to then
go slow. For a team already conditioned for the slow part, it's been trying
at times to put the pedal to the metal.
"That's the toughest adjustment. These guys are good at going slow, but
when we started going fast, it got chaotic. That's what I spent nine days trying
to explain," said Balcomb.
"We had to come in with an open mind and try to be coachable," said
Benningfield. "For us, the toughest thing was, number one, getting used
to the new system, and number two, being under control in it. Already there's
a big difference. It's faster and giving us more shots."
Transition is also the name of the game defensively. Balcomb knows she doesn't
have the personnel to trap all over the floor, but she'll incorporate any flavor
of situational tactic to enhance the offensive game.
"I like to mix up defenses. We're not athletic enough to stay in a man-to-man
defense for 40 minutes and beat people. We might throw in a three-quarter court
press. We might have a pressure defense. We want to create more opportunities
from our defense to our offense to create those fast-break opportunities,"
Balcomb has not viewed a single game film from last year's Commodores. She
understands fully that a wide-open offensive throttle is very different from
what Vandy is used to. But "different" was also the flavor of Foster's
milk-the-shot-clock-dry approach. Success, it seems, can wear many guises -
Xavier was 5-1 against the SEC in Balcomb's final three years there.
"We will always be very different from our opponent, and so was Jim,"
Balcomb summarized. "That was what was so attractive about this team."