With four games left, Suzy Barcomb's Seattle U team is in second place in the WAC, thanks in part to a culture change, and in part to her secret weapon - the Princeton offense.
The day the WAC’s preseason women’s basketball poll was released and Seattle University was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams, newly hired coach Suzy Barcomb marched into practice and delivered a bold proclamation.
“I said we wouldn’t finish seventh and that we would finish in the top four,” Barcomb said.
With four regular season games remaining, the Redhawks are well on their way to proving Barcomb right. SU (11-14 overall, 8-2 WAC) sits in second place in WAC standings behind league leader New Mexico State as it heads into its final away game of the year against CSU Bakersfield on Saturday afternoon.
It’s quite the turnaround for a team that won only three conference games en route to a 9-21 record last season, and that wasn’t expected to challenge for the league title in its first year under a new head coach.
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But it’s especially surprising when you consider how the Redhawks started the season – with six losses in their first seven games as they compiled an unimposing 3-12 non-conference record.
Perhaps, even back in October when she predicted a top-four finish for her squad, Barcomb knew something about this team that everyone else did not.
For one, Barcomb has been here before. She forged her reputation as a rebuilding sorceress by methodically turning struggling Division III (Puget Sound) and Division II (Cal State-East Bay) programs into championship contenders.
“We stayed with the process and stayed with what we’re trying to do and developed a great deal of trust in each other,” Barcomb says.
However, Barcomb also had a few tricks up her sleeve.
The Redhawks kept things vanilla through their non-conference slate, in part because Barcomb was still installing her new system, and in part because they played a grueling schedule that kept them in full game preparation mode which, Barcomb says, took time away from their ability to just “practice what you need and work on things.”
“I thought if we could get through our nonconference schedule, we would perform well in the WAC,” Barcomb says, matter-of-factly.
Then, when WAC play began, the Redhawks unleashed their secret weapon: The Princeton offense, a quirky old-school system that emphasizes constant movement, passing, back door cuts and screens.
“We wanted to introduce Princeton all along, but wanted it to be something the WAC hasn’t seen,” Barcomb said. “It’s a style of offense that’s very deliberate and time-consuming to learn. It relies on timing and is difficult to guard. No one likes to guard it.”
Barcomb did not run Princeton at Cal State-East Bay, but she played against it whenever her team faced Humboldt State, which until recently, was led by Joddie and Skip Gleason, the husband-wife coaching tandem who joined Barcomb’s Seattle U staff last offseason.
“I hated guarding it when they ran it at Humboldt,” Barcomb said. “We talked about how we hated guarding it, but love running it and teaching it.”
So, Barcomb figured, why not run it in Seattle?
It took a while for Barcomb and the Gleasons to install their Princeton system this season, but now that the team has figured it out, it’s paying dividends.
“I think we just started playing together, and the new system that the coaches put in (is) really working for our personnel,” said senior wing Kaylee Best. “Once the second half of the season started, we put in the new offense, started moving without the ball more, getting everyone on the court involved and making them have to defend everyone, with or without the ball, man or zone.”
Best, who on Thursday, became only the 16th player in Seattle U history to hit the 1,000-point milestone, is second on the team in scoring this season, averaging 13.9 points per game.
The Redhawks, she says, thrive on the strength of their ensemble cast.
Junior forward Jacinta Beckley was a role player last season, but has now worked her way into the starting lineup and is now one of four SU players who’ve averaged double digit scoring since the Redhawks introduced Princeton for the start of conference play.
Against WAC teams, Beckley has led all SU starters with a .553 field goal percentage and is averaging 11.4 points per game, and Best says the offense started to click when Beckley’s role expanded.
“She was energy for us,” Best said. “She was averaging 15 points per game (at one point) when conference play started. That was huge, just having another person who can score and was hard for the other team to defend.”
Forward Alexis Montgomery missed all of last season with a shin stress fracture, but has now become a force for SU, leading the team in scoring average (16.4), rebounding (8.1 per game) and blocks (17).
Senior guard Claire Metoyer started 26 games during her sophomore season in 2014-15, but left the team last season at the behest of the previous coaching staff. She rejoined the team this year when Barcomb became head coach and switched from shooting guard to point guard.
“I thought it was important to have a senior playing point guard for me,” Barcomb said. “She was reluctant, but she bought in. … For the good of the team she was willing to do it.”
Overall, Best says, Barcomb didn’t just install a funky new system, she also introduced a more cohesive culture.
Prior to this season, the Redhawks had endured a rough period that resulted in a combined 19-42 record over the last two years.
“Personalities didn’t mesh as well, and we were always having people get injured or transfer in and out, and we didn’t get a chance to meet a lot of the new recruits,” Best said. “Here, the coaching staff, and every girl they’ve brought in to recruit, they’ve made sure they mesh with us personality-wise, and also skill wise.”
Barcomb and her new staff have been both an energy jolt and a breath of fresh air.
“In terms of the wins and losses, this is the most successful we’ve been since I’ve been here, but also in terms of the intangibles, the team chemistry and us liking being around each other. It’s huge, it’s something I haven’t had in a long time and it’s a really awesome feeling,” Best said.