It’s not very often that a world renowned Hall-of-Fame player takes a coaching job at a small program with no recent success. Gold Medalist Jennifer Azzi did just that when she accepted the head coaching position for Women’s basketball at the University of San Francisco. Not only has USF had only one winning season since 1996 but they were an afterthought at the small San Francisco campus. Even games against big programs like Gonzaga would not draw more than a handful of fans. However, if there was one person who could turn the dreadful Dons into a winner, it is Jennifer Azzi.
“Anybody who has ever been through this process knows that it takes a long time and I think that’s the thing that most people don’t understand. The biggest thing to change here was the mindset and again that’s a hard process because that really gets passed down,” explained Azzi. “I am pleased with the team and the players that are here because they really have been working hard. They are enthusiastic and young but with that brings young mistakes so we definitely still have a long way to go.”
Azzi now enters her fourth year at the helm of the Hilltop. Although the Dons have not showed improvement in the win column (they are 21-69 under Azzi) they look like they are on the right track. Every player on the young Dons squad has been recruited by Azzi and her staff which helps the Dons run Azzi’s style of offense. The 2013-2014 Dons are led by the WCC All-Freshman duo of Taylor Proctor and Zhané Dikes. Having a world renowned basketball player as the head coach gives USF an advantage over other programs.
“I think it’s definitely helped in recruiting because we have such a great staff. Both Shanele (Stires) and I played professionally, I played for 13 years and Shanele played for 10 years, so that experience is invaluable and I think that the players can relate to us because we played at such a high level,” said Azzi. “That’s been great for us recruiting wise but you know USF is such a great school. The academics are outstanding, the small class sizes, and San Francisco is the greatest city in the world so we should be able to recruit here. It’s finding the young women who want that different experience because it’s not like that big college campus with football and all that stuff. USF to me is about setting you up for the future.”
Joining the dynamic duo of Procor and Dikes are the aptly named “fab four” Freshmen class of Rachel Howard, Kalyn Simon, Hashima Carothers and Claudia Price. The Dons will finally have a young squad that will be able run the up-tempo offense that Azzi prefers. Over the last two decades, the Bay Area has been known to be the Mecca of fast paced basketball because of the Run TMC, We Believe, and Splash Brothers era of Golden State Warriors basketball. Not only is Bay Area basketball known to be fast paced, but the fan base is notoriously loud and proud at games. Unfortunately, the Dons have had a hard time building the fan base over the last decade but Azzi hopes her new style of basketball will change that.
“We are getting more and more support. As we get better we are getting better crowds. At our exhibition game this year we had more fans than at the Gonzaga game a couple of years ago. I think that our team is fun to watch because we are up-tempo and athletic so as we get better the more fans are at the gym,” replied Azzi.
Although the Dons are loaded with young talent they are also plagued by young mistakes. It will be exciting to watch the Dons play this year but it will also take some time for the Dons to learn how to fundamental basketball.
“We are getting where we want to be but we are still teaching the fundamentals. So many girl’s basketball players aren’t taught how to screen or taught how to run an offense so we are still working out some of those fundamentals,” Azzi pointed out.
Last season, the Dons got off to promising 7-4 start but injuries derailed the season. There was even a game last season where the Dons were forced to play with only six healthy players. The injury issue has also effected how the Dons practiced this season.
“You know it’s tough because one we are young and two were coming back from major injuries last year. At one point even this fall we had only seven players who could even practice so we are up against that battle. It’s been really challenging but were getting healthy and that’s been our main focus,” explained Azzi.
Expect the 2013-2014 Dons to be the most accomplished Women’s basketball team to play at War Memorial since at least 2006. Even though the Dons will definitely show some growing pains they will also play an electric brand of basketball. These young Dons have the perfect group of players to help transform USF into the next great Women’s basketball program in the Bay Area.