Jan. 7, 2013
SAN DIEGO -
San Diego State head coach Beth Burns
"We're really at a point where we're excited for this opportunity. We have four seniors on our team, and all four of them start, which was a big reason why our non-conference schedule was so difficult. Now we find out if the lessons were learned. We've taken a couple on the chin, but I think it prepared us for what we want to do. I think the challenge for this group will be that a year ago we were kind of under-the-radar. We had so many new people. We had four new freshmen and a new point guard, and we now are very much on the radar. We have the returning (Mountain West) Player of the Year, the returning Newcomer of the Year. They dominate our stats and their two counterparts, as seniors, do an awful lot as well. Our mental challenges are much bigger than our physical challenges. We're going to be everybody's big game. Three of the teams we're going to play, we've beaten three times (last season). I think our challenge day-to-day is to be able to match that intensity against each other in a practice setting. It's going to be a real challenge, especially as a coach. These first two out of the gate - Fresno, I've never seen, and half of their roster is either from Australia or Oklahoma, so I've never seen them and I've never coached against their coach. So it's kind of odd for me. We play (Colorado State) on Sunday, they have a brand new coaching staff. Their coach comes in from South Dakota and I've always been smart enough not to schedule South Dakota. It's kind of weird. You're opening up in conference, but we've got to do a lot of homework to get ready. I think as important as everything is, we know home games are diamonds. Home games, we've got to have. Fresno got votes for winning the league. Fresno a year ago was similar to our team. I think they were 26-5 and their point guard was Player of the Year in the WAC. So right out of the gate, we're going to be challenged."
Do you learn more in games you lose than games you win?
"Coaches will always say that because you have no other alternative, but they'd all rather win. I think it's all for our team. I think our staff does a great job of laying out what we have to face. Our challenge is more mental. Mentally day after day, basketball is really difficult. It's really a grind. Sometimes when a team is older and they've been to March, and March is fun, they kind of go through the motions. And we're not good enough to go through the motions and not get beat. So part of what we did is heighten our attention by playing the caliber of teams that we did, and every mistake we made was exploited. Against Oklahoma State, every defensive breakdown we had, they scored. So we'll find out. Our RPI was as high as 11. Now that we've lost to Oklahoma State, I think we're sitting at about 30 this morning. Ourselves and Wyoming are both in the top-50. So we'll see."
What are the biggest positives that came out of the non-conference schedule, and what are the biggest concerns?
"The biggest positives are that we're 9-4 when Ahjalee Harvey fractured her hand three games in, and Dezi Culberson had knee surgery. Just when we started to get a rotation, our starters stayed intact, but we had no rotation. Every game was different for me, even going into the game was like, `Who can I put in next?' There's a comfort level knowing what your job is, and because of external circumstances, that changed. So for us to be able to sustain that level of winning, we moved Courtney (Clements) to the point. My concern was more of the minutes logged. Now the positives are (Harvey is) back, (Culberson) gets better every game, and the development probably of our forwards. We might have faces that you're used to in the forefront, but we have a lot of defensive things on our team that we need to continue to improve. Some of the kids we guarded in the non-conference season were really good. And that's got to help our young forwards going forward."
Coach, you're players sound like coaches. Does that warm your heart a little bit?
"Talk is cheap baby. So let's put our money where our mouth is. And as seniors, that's good. Conference play, it has nothing to do with what you do, and it's everything about how you do it. This weekend we were off getting prepared, and a lot of teams opened in conference. In conference, (coaches) know everything these kids can do. They know every kind of offensive structure they can have, every kind of defensive play. It's just how we do it.
When you look at what other (MW) teams have done in non-conference (games), what jumps out at you?
"Nothing really. This has been a great league. This year, I'm not surprised at all. Wyoming didn't have a senior last year. Personally, I thought they were the team to beat because of how well coached they are and how disciplined they are and the kind of things they bring to the table. We know it's going to be a dog fight night in, night out."
San Diego State senior Chelsea Hopkins
What have you learned about how to approach (the Mountain West)?
"First off, the Mountain West is just an excellent conference. Like coach Burns was talking about, just having a level of focus. We know we're going to play in tough environments. Last year, Wyoming was a big experience for me with the altitude and stuff like that. So it's just about being prepared and focused every single night. You have teams that may not reflect winning in their record, but they can beat you. They're going to be ready to play you just like they think they're the better team. It's all about maintaining focus and knowing that even if you have a target on your back, people are going to give you their best every single night. And I think we really faced that last year in conference. We were picked No. 1 in preseason and we took everybody's best shot. Air Force was the worst team in conference and they played us to a single-digit game two or three times. That just goes to show you that it's not always about record. It shows that people are going to come and play hard, and you've got to be ready to take everybody's best."
When you say, `You have to be focused every night,' is that only on game days, or is that in practice as well?
"Same thing for practice. The mental focus definitely carries over to the games. I know that's something that we struggled with early on. Our tempo in practice would carry over to how we play. Night in and night out, practice really determines how successful we are in the games. It's a focus that you have to have at all times, and I think the biggest thing for us is attention to detail. Knowing the scouting report. If this person is right-handed and you let them go right, that lets you know where you're mental focus is. Are you really locked in? Are you really engaged? It definitely starts in practice and then you hope to have that carry over into the game."
San Diego State senior Courtney Clements
What have you learned about how to approach conference play?
"I think the thing I've learned is it might not be the fastest, most athletic conference, but they will wear you down mentally. They'll take 25 seconds of the shot clock, and find the best shot possible. And that can beat you just as bad as somebody that can jump out of the gym. Mentally, I think you have to be smart, you have to be prepared. In altitude, that's all mental. We learned that last year. We conquered all those things. We won at Wyoming, we won at Air Force. We did a lot of things well for especially our young players who haven't been there before, did it. With this conference I think everything's mental. Physically, yeah we can play with anybody. But if you're mentally not locked in every single game, these teams are going to make sure they expose you."
How do you feel about the mental capability of the team at this point?
"I think we're getting better and we'll continue to get better. With the way our non-conference schedule went, it was tough. It was tough for me and (Hopkins) as well as the rest of our team. Going into conference, I think we learned a lot from the non-conference. We're going to try to do our best to carry it over, and I know our coaching staff is going to do everything in their power to make sure that we're ready for every single game, and that we don't miss a beat on anything."
With mental stuff, how do you know your limits?
"In practice, you see people getting basic defensive concepts. It's really not about knowing an offense, it's about knowing your concepts. If you know your defensive concepts that we learn every day, you can win games. As long as you know to jump to the ball, to be in help-side (defense). There's certain things you know that if you do, you'll be successful. Coach (Burns) touched on (Culberson) and Stamps. They might not be good offensive players, but they know their defensive assignments down to the T. And that's what makes teams win. And I think having Kiyana coming back and getting healthier everyday will help us a lot as well."