The Virginia Tech Women’s Basketball team kicks off their season on Tuesday against USC Upstate. Before the season begins, I sat down with head coach Kenny Brooks to discuss his expectations. In this first part of our conversation, Brooks discusses the difficulties of ACC play and the success his staff has enjoyed in the transfer market.
Question: In your first season, the Hokies started out really strong, 13-0, and then after winning the first two ACC games, they were 15-0. Then, they unfortunately lost 12 of the next 14. Did that kind of show you first hand just how difficult in conference play is in the ACC, and has that helped you prepare for the next couple of seasons?
Kenny Brooks: Yeah, I mean, I think it did. Getting off to that 15-0 start was probably a blessing and a curse at the same time, because the reality is it takes time to build a program, and we knew that. Even though we were 15-0, the staff knew we had a lot of work to do as we went into the ACC.
We had a really good group, a really good core, we just weren’t equipped for the rigors of the ACC. Knowing that you have to be good and you have to be loaded, but you also have to be deep, and we just ran into a situation where we weren’t very deep. But the kids played extremely hard, and I thought we benefited from their effort.
That kind of set the tone for us, because going into the first year or two years, it’s really about establishing the culture. I think as we are in year three, it wasn’t always a picture perfect road, but I think we are on that path to developing that culture, which in turn will help our philosophy as a basketball team.
Q: What is kind of the culture and philosophy that you try to build in the teams that you coach?
KB: First and foremost, you’ve got to be a good person. You’ve got to understand that you represent more than yourself. Your wants and your needs sometimes have to take a backseat to the overall development of the team. You have to represent your team well, you have to represent this university, and it’s something that I take pride in, being a teacher. You can call me a coach all you want, but my primary responsibility is to educate.
You know, sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle, because in this business it’s win, win, win. But I take pride in these kids and developing them, developing them into the good people, and people who can go out into society and make a very positive impact.
We don’t bend – I’m self-proclaimed probably one of the most stubborn people in the world. We won’t sacrifice integrity just to get wins, and I think the kids are starting to understand that. It’s just as important to me that they go and pay attention in class and be a good student here on campus as it is that they make a good box out on the court. I think all of that goes hand in hand.
You know, the kids understood what we would tolerate and what we wouldn’t, what we expected and what we wouldn’t allow them to do. In year three, I think they have a really good understanding of that.
Q: What do you think the Hokies need to do this year to take that step from a consistent WNIT team to an NCAA Tournament team?
KB: Well I think we need to, number one, stay healthy, and everyone continue to get better. I’m a firm believer that what we had last year was an NCAA caliber team. I say caliber only because you have to make it to be an NCAA team. I think the biggest hurdle is not us, I think a lot of it is just our league. I really do. If you look at us compared to a team outside of our conference who went to the NCAA Tournament, we’re as good or better.
We’ve played against some teams that we feel like we’re better than, it’s just a matter of how many teams they will take from the ACC. They took eight last year, and we were ninth place. So we’re right there. I think if we had one or two more wins last year, quality wins, we would have been in the NCAA Tournament. So, it’s definitely our goal. It’s not something that we talk about every day like “NCAA or bust,” because we’re still in the infancy of our tenure here in this program. We are really just focusing on day-to-day operations and getting better every day, and if we do that, I think in the long run we’ll be where we deserve.
Q: Now that you’re two seasons in and this will be your third season, what is the biggest surprise for you that you weren’t really expecting when you came here, and how is it different from coaching at JMU?
KB: I think the biggest surprise is probably the national recognition of Virginia Tech. Obviously, coming from James Madison, that’s my home, that’s my alma mater, but it’s more regional. Tech, you know, you wear a Tech shirt, and you’re bound to run into somebody who’s a Hokie no matter where you are.
I was in Paris and I’m looking at the Eiffel Tower, looking up, and somebody says, “Go Hokies!” And I’m like, “wait what?” You know, it’s just amazing to me how many alums are out there, how many fans are out there. I didn’t know that, obviously, as an outsider. But when you start living it, you experience it, and that’s been very, very surprising.
The difference, well obviously resources, but it’s really the level of competition. At JMU, probably one of the reasons we left was because as a competitor, you always want challenges. You always want to get to the point where you’re challenging yourself in your career and your life.
At JMU, I felt…I felt a little bit stale, because I think my last three years there, we won three conference championships and we went 50-3 in conference. We probably could have kept on that path for a little while longer playing in the CAA. Obviously the allure of coming here and being able to play at the highest level was something that I coveted. But I got here and you know, it’s something that you wish for and you want, but you don’t really understand how hard it’s gonna be until you experience it.
It’s ok at JMU, we would play Virginia, and we’d have some success against Virginia, but the game after that, we’d play a much smaller school. Then we might gear up again to play another big team, and we would gear up for that like our Super Bowl. It was easy to get the kids up.
Here, it’s every night. You play Duke on a Thursday, then you’ve got Notre Dame on Sunday. You got Syracuse the following Thursday, and then you’ve got Louisville that Sunday. Every night, it’s a grind, and I think your preparations, both mentally and physically, have to be different compared to what we had at JMU. But it’s something that you want – it’s what I signed up for. Going into year three, I think we will be better prepared and better equipped for it. I look forward to the years ahead because I think with the successes that we’ve had in the last couple years, that should allow us to recruit at a higher level, too.
Q: You have almost everyone back from last year’s WNIT team. It’s probably your most experienced team. Does that affect your expectations and the approach that you take when coaching them?
KB: Not at all. I mean, every team is different. Obviously, year three with Regan [Magarity] is a lot smoother than year one. Year three with Rachel Camp is obviously smoother than year one. Year two with Taylor Emery, you know, I understand her a lot better than I did at this time last year. But, at the same time, we’re still adding pieces. We added a couple significant pieces to last year’s group, which in turn has made us kind of start over.
So even though the kids are experienced…it’s one thing to be experienced, but are you experienced in this position? Last year, we moved Rachel Camp to point guard, so that was her experience, and now we’re trying to move her off the ball again. So that’s kind of a work in progress that we have kind of taken a couple steps back in. But once you do that, then you can incorporate Dara Mabrey and Shaniya Jones.
We’ve had some situations where we had a couple kids who were vital parts to our success last year, but they’re injured this year, so we’ve had to insert Trinity Baptiste. So essentially, we have a lot of the same parts, but we have a lot of different parts, and some of our same parts have shifted positions. That experience is good, but we’re not going to be, as my old coach used to say, “We’re not going to be a well-oiled machine,” because we have to reinvent ourselves.
Q: That brings me to another question I had about the fact that you’ve taken the JUCO route a couple of times now, bringing in a couple of pretty good recruits, most notably Trinity Baptiste. What do you expect to see from them this season?
KB: We’ve gone the JUCO route here just trying to stabilize the program as we get going. One of the things with the transfers now, like it or not, it’s a big part of the game now, whether it’s a junior college transfer or just a four-year transfer. You look at our junior college transfers, essentially they are all 4-2-4. What that means is they all qualified and went to a four-year institution, but instead of transferring somewhere else and sitting out, they chose to play. They chose to go to a junior college and play, and we were able to get a couple of those kids.
We got Taylor Emery, we got Trinity Baptiste, and we got Alexis Jean. All of those kids are 4-2-4 kids. It’s just going to be a way of life for all coaches, whether it’s football or basketball…because of the easement of the transfer rules. You know, kids now they can transfer whenever they want, so that’s going to be a market. So you look at that and you have to be ahead of that. We’ve gone that route a little bit, but I think that those kids are going to have a positive influence on our team.
Trinity Baptiste, she’s probably thanked me more in three months than some kids did in four years, because she’s very appreciative of the opportunity to come here at a wonderful university, not only to get an education, but to be able to play at a high level. She’s experienced some things already in a couple of months that she never dreamed of experiencing as a student athlete. So it’s been very beneficial to her, just also in terms of her attitude, her athletic ability, and her prowess are really helping our culture.
Q: Is that transfer route one that you think you will continue to explore?
KB: I think we have to. I think it’s kind of like the evolution of college athletics. You look at the Kelly Bryant situation, look at football in general. Those kids have four games and if they don’t like what they see, they can save the year. I think in a sense, it has some of the same merit in basketball, and you just have to look at it a different way. I think it is something that if you don’t look at and you’re not ahead of, you’re going to miss out on a lot.
There are a lot of kids who have gone different places and didn’t like it and they’re looking to transfer. The recruiting process is a little different when you recruit a transfer as opposed to a high school kid. A high school kid, going through it for the first time, they want the bells and whistles. They sometimes overlook substance, and that’s why they transfer. Then, when they’re transferring, it’s like they are a little bit more mature, and they are looking for more substance.
When you look for substance, Virginia Tech has a lot to offer. I think that’s what is going to make us attractive. When I see Taylor Emery out there, I don’t look at her like, “she’s a transfer and Dara Mabrey is not.” They’re all Hokies.