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Lindsay Whalen will experience basketball success again (if she can keep Gophers young core together)


Lindsay Whalen, while seated behind a table at Target Center last month during Big Ten media days, pointed out that she was on the same floor she played during her 15-year career in the WNBA, including his nine seasons with the Lynx.

She is now in her fifth season at the helm of the Gophers women’s team. The success of the game did not translate into the success of the training.

“When I was calling ‘raised fist’ here as a player, if you [would] say that [by] 2022 is exactly how it’s going to be, I wouldn’t have thought that’s how the trip would have been so far,” she said. “You can never say. None of us can.”

Was this a lesson to be learned? Or an experience to live? For Whalen, it was probably both. One of the most decorated female basketball players in hoop history — including her induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame in September — Whalen has yet to lead the Gophers to an NCAA tournament. But the first-time manager was given a one-year extension in March, locking him in through the 2024-25 season.

Some fans grumbled when the expansion was announced. Her record of 60-57, 28-44 in the Big Ten suggests she’s the wrong fit or reflects her inexperience or both.

And this season feels like another rebuilding year, as it only welcomes three returning players. She faced an exodus after her first season in 2018-19 following a 21-11 season, and that was before the pandemic hit or the turnstile that is the transfer gate was established.

Few coaches survive four seasons of growing pains, and some observers might find it easy to demand that sporting director Mark Coyle withdraw his shortlist of substitutes if Whalen cannot win this winter in Year 5. But Coyle knew this. he was getting when he hired Whalen: a local basketball icon with no head coaching experience. It was a move with the long term in mind.

And if you’re Coyle, how would you react if you called out Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma – two of the greatest women’s coaches of all time – for their contributions and told you both d hire Whalen and never look back?

Exactly. You hire Whalen, give her all the support she needs, and hope that the seeds she planted will eventually blossom.

“Some days you just take it as it comes,” Whalen said. “There have been difficult days. There have been great days.”

Whalen believes she has learned and grown since her first year. It would help this project if that growth translates into more wins this season. The Gophers won 15 games last season and looking at their roster, it’s hard to imagine more than that this season. Where do the score and the rebound come from?

The graduation and transfers — including top scorer Sara Scalia fleeing to Indiana — left the Gophers with three comebacks: Katie Borowicz, Rose Micheaux and Maggie Czinano.

The Gophers have hit the transfer portal hard for replacements, but the program’s immediate growth will be tied to a freshman class that includes three top-55 rookies in Mara Braun, Amaya Battle and Mallory Heyer. Braun hit five three-pointers and scored 23 points against Wisconsin-River Falls in an exhibition game on Sunday and appears to be an impact player.

As the Gophers open their regular season Monday against Western Illinois, prepare to see how the newcomers adapt to a ruthless Big Ten in which six teams make the preseason AP Top 25. The grueling conference season will wrap up in Minneapolis in March, when the Big Ten Women’s Tournament arrives for the first time.

By March and beyond, the program must begin to gain momentum. The young nucleus must grow rapidly. The list needs more continuity. And Whalen needs to stack up some good recruiting classes, which will be a challenge because three of Minnesota’s top prep players in the Class of 2023 have already signed up elsewhere.

If Whalen can go 3 for 3 on those tasks, she’ll win more games and get the program back into the NCAA Tournament.

Once that happens, Whalen’s journey will feature more of the success she has so often enjoyed as a player.

startribune Gt Itly

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