The University of Minnesota women's basketball team will be shooting for a new attendance record when it hosts Indiana on Sunday. With a 14-3 record, the Gophers are off to their best start in team history and are ranked among the nation's top teams. It's a remarkable turnaround for a program that had its coach fired in a cheating scandal less than a year ago.
The top of Kim Bell's head is 6 ft. 7 in. above the floor of Williams Arena. It shakes from side to side as the senior center from Minneapolis reflects on how Minnesota's women's basketball team filled the role of Big Ten Conference doormat the last few years.
"My sophomore and junior years, it kind of seemed like our team was falling apart," Bell says. "Because we were frustrated with the coaching, then we'd get frustrated with ourselves, and we'd get frustrated with each other. So, I think our team was just falling apart."
Friction with former Coach Cheryl Littlejohn contributed to some players transferring away from the U of M. A group of the remaining players complained to university administrators that Littlejohn was breaking NCAA rules.
Littlejohn denied the allegations, but last spring she was fired after investigators found she'd violated practice limits, funnelled cash to a player, and encouraged her team to obstruct a university investigation. Winning only 11 percent of her Big Ten games did not help Littlejohn's cause.
This spring the U of M reported its transgressions to the NCAA, and hired Brenda Oldfield away from Ball State University to be the new coach. Oldfield says the team she inherited was hungry for a fresh start. It did not take much to win over her new players.
"The way you communicate, the way you treat people and individuals - you're able to build a reputation and a relationship with them," Oldfield says.
"I think trust was probably the number one factor, between them and our coaching staff, and how we interacted with each other. We really try to be as up front and honest - with as best communication as possible - so they know where we're coming from at all times."
The adversity of the last few years seems to have helped the players on this year's team bond together. Sophomore guard Lindsey Whalen of Hutchinson says Oldfield harnessed what was already a cohesive team.
"The team chemistry on this team - even last year - is just very strong. Everyone gets along very well and we were more playing for each other," says Whelan. "This year we're guided a little better and you can see the results."
Whalen scored 32 points last Sunday in Madison, Wis., where the Gophers earned an upset victory over the first-place Badgers, in front of more than 17,000 fans. Sophomore guard Ebbe Hemberg says it was a thrill to play before the largest crowd ever to attend a Big Ten women's basketball game - even if it was on another team's court.
"A couple of times there, you just couldn't hear yourself think. It was just deafening. But that's what it's about. We just had so much fun with it that we weren't as intimidated as I think they expected us to be," Hemberg says.
While the Gophers were winning in Madison, a broken sprinkler pipe was flooding their home court in Minneapolis. So this weekend they'll play on the men's court in Williams Arena, where the capacity is 14,000. Team officials hope to break the university's women's basketball attendance record of 6,746.
Interest in the women's basketball team has swelled with its victory total. Oldfield has recruited three Minnesota high school stars who will enroll next year.
But the bright prospects are tempered by uncertainty over how the NCAA might punish the university for the rule violations under Littlejohn. The university is on probation as a result of the academic fraud scandal in men's basketball. If the NCAA classifies Minnesota as a repeat violator, it could order that women's basketball be disbanded for two years - a sanction nicknamed the death penalty.
At a hearing scheduled for April, U of M officials will argue that the violations in the women's program pre-date the probation, meaning repeat offender sanctions should not apply. Oldfield says the prospect of the death penalty is overblown.
"Those kind of things happen in programs where it's been a repeated offense, and in women's basketball this is the first time. I really think it was misguided and misquoted to be able to put that information out there. But, again, we're going to have to wait until April when that decision is made," she says.
The Gophers continue their best-ever season against Ohio State University in Columbus Friday night. They come home to host Indiana Sunday afternoon.More Information