Two things about USC practices stand out right away: they are spirited, and they are technical.
Players are called from their warm-up shooting into a circle, where they clap in unison. Coach Michael Cooper gives them the focus for the day, and on this practice before a road trip, it is “sharpness of mind.”
The Trojans start with a series of three-woman weave patterns that they are expected to switch up and finish in 11 minutes or less. Players clap and cheer each other on; it almost feels like an interactive drill. Their enthusiasm seems to propel their feet, and they finish in well under the allotted time.
Then it is time to make teams, and after jerseys are reversed Cooper orders a 14-point game that will take no more than four minutes. But the clock is stopped a few times on the way there so Cooper can make corrections and impart wisdom.
“Listen to our defensive schemes and stay with it! Don’t keep trying to change it up!” he says before walking on court to explain something.
A few minutes later Cooper has a directive from the sidelines, aimed at the defense: “Open your mouth and talk to each other!”
Red wins, so gold runs 17’s (players run from sideline to sideline 17 times, touch eat sideline and count out).
In the next game Jacki Gemelos keeps hitting threes, which might be why her gold team wins. Red runs. Then it is water break time for the team and a coaches meeting on the court: Cooper and assistants Laura Beeman and Michael Cooper Jr. The detailed practice plan Cooper drew up earlier in the week sits on the scorer’s table like a beacon.
This continual ‘instruction-checking for understanding-instruction revision’ rhythm in Trojan practices is like a school classroom. Cooper says that is intentional.
“Basketball is a thinking player’s game, and you have to be prepared,” he said. “It’s not like you can turn your game on and off like a light switch.”
Preparedness – one of Cooper’s tenets in coaching – has been the cause of some misunderstanding about him. When he was coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, fans criticized him for staying seated for the majority of the game – a practice he has continued at USC. Cooper said his coaching philosophy stems from that of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
“Wooden said that if you’ve taught everything you needed to in practice, you won’t have much to say during a game, because the team already knows what you want them to do,” says Cooper.
“To become an elite team, players have to know the concept of what they’re doing. Sometimes I have to remind them at timeouts, but we are as prepared as we can be at practice. If I get up during a game, they get rattled.”
Like a teacher, Cooper also expects players to be prepared off the court, as well. Athletes are given play books and scouting reports on other teams, and are regularly quizzed on the material. If they do not know it, there are consequences.
“It’s important for players to be sharp and know who they’re guarding – and to know what we’re doing.”
The coaches talk to players throughout the practice. Cooper instructs the team to backpedal on defense during one drill. On another, both Cooper and Cooper Jr. – who is known as “Deuce” – stop players to talk about foot positioning.
“You can’t get beat that fast!” Cooper says.
There is definitely an emphasis on defense and on-court communication during practice. Cooper acknowledges that.
“Defense wins championships, and a defense is only as good as talking to each other,” he said. “If you’re a talking team, you can work your way through things as they come up.”
The third assistant coach, Mary Wooley, arrives at practice and immediately jumps into the mix from the sidelines.
“Timing and spacing, ladies, let’s go!” she says to the team as they hammer out a play.
The last part of practice is dedicated to ironing out offensive movement and plays – a “continuity offense,” Cooper calls it. As the Trojans run it over and over and make adjustments, Cooper’s interruptions become less and less.
Practice breaks, and plans are made for the next morning – the first of their six-day road trip. The Trojans go on to win all three games before they come home. It’s coming along.
“Our goal is to win the Pac-10 and go to the NCAA Tournament, and I think we have as good a chance as anyone else in the conference,” Cooper says. “UCLA, Cal and ASU are right there in the mix too. The Pac-10 is really, really growing.”
This year the conference has been the home to two ranked teams in Stanford and UCLA, and ASU, Cal and USC may soon join them, as each has incoming recruits that could take their teams to the next level.
Next year the Trojans will add top-ranked point guard Ariya Crook-Williams from Long Beach Poly, and forward Alexyz Vaioletama from Mater Dei. Gemelos, currently second on the team in scoring, will stay for her final year of eligibility after extensive injuries.
Stefanie Gilbreath will also be back from another redshirt season, and if her restlessness on the sidelines during practice is any indication, she’ll be more than ready to go.
Cooper and his staff seem to provide a sound balance in coaching styles. Beeman, who coached with him for the Sparks, is more of a one-on-one coach. Wooley – the lone holdover from his first year at USC last season – is very vocal. “Deuce” is similar to his father on the court, but not so much off of it.
“The Coopers are not even remotely alike,” said director of basketball operations Alex Delanian with a laugh.
USC, currently third in the Pac-10, traveled to Northern California this week to take on Cal and Stanford. They fell to Cal in the first matchup, 82-71. They meet No. 4 Stanford at 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 22 in Palo Alto.