More than the COVID-19 health scare that’s maintained a global presence, LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas said her program’s dealt with a pandemic of another sort.
With the Tigers believed to have positioned themselves for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament in March, they like so many other teams destined for postseason play had to deal the disappointment of the tournament being cancelled, thus ending their respective seasons.
“When we had to cancel, there’s no potential crowning of being a NCAA champion,” Fargas said of the Final Four which was scheduled to be played in New Orleans. “There’s the mental wellness of the student athlete. My goal is to give them all the resources that we have to mentally help them get back to competing at a high level and doing it in the safest way we possibly can.”
The NCAA’s Division I Council announced a Nov. 25 start date for the 2020-21 season which can consist of either a 24-game regular season plus a multi-team event of up to three games, or a 25-game regular season without the multi-team option.
Southeastern Conference play will continue with the same framework of a 16-game schedule with play for women’s basketball scheduled to begin Dec. 31.
“They didn’t know what was going to happen, whether we were going to have a season,” said Fargas, who team opened the start of full-team practice Oct. 14. “When the NCAA announced a Nov. 25 start date, that’s when they knew they were going to have a season.
There were plenty of protocols put in place in the summer for LSU’s voluntary workouts, including temperature checks upon arrival at the practice facility, assigned basketballs, assigned baskets, assigned seats all while maintaining social distancing.
Fargas divided her team into three groups or pods in which players remained together with roommates to conduct workouts in the weight room, conditioning and individual work on the court.
Once each group completed one of the aforementioned tasks, the areas were then sanitized for the following group’s use.
“They have been very much on top of practicing social distancing and wearing their masks,” Fargas said. “Not gathering in large groups, staying within our own bubble within the team and that’s worked for us.”
Fargas quipped that her reputation as more of a defensive-minded coach took a hit during the span of her team’s voluntary workouts and eight-hour-a-week countable athletic activity.
It was by design.
“Everything was offense and spacing drills,” she said. “There was no contact at that time. We’ve been as safe as we can, using two courts and being distant. We were getting a lot of shots up. I hope we should see an improvement in our field goal percentage and free throw percentage. It’s good to spend that time on our skills such as ball-handling, passing, dribbling, shooting.”
Fargas didn’t expect to venture too far from that philosophy during the three-week span her team was permitted for 12-hour-per-week athletic activity which all led to the start of full-team workouts.
Fargas said none of her team’s 30 practices in preparation for the regular season would last more than 90 minutes, but that testing protocols would increase to three times per week in accordance with SEC guidelines.
“We’re going to adhere to that,” he said. “I hope this allows to keep our players safe. Contact tracing will be key in all of this. This is a way for us to say, ‘if we’re going to play, these are things you need to do’.”
Here’s Fargas on other topics
“We’re going to be in shape. We’re going to have a higher field goal percentage, but we may not be able to guard anybody. We’ll definitely make the pace very up-tempo and very exciting to watch. I like the fact that we’ve got a returning nucleus. I know they are starving to play considering how the season had to end and for so many student athletes with not being able to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Time is of the essence. They understand there’s a sense of urgency and they have really done a great job of getting in the weight room, being diligent in how we’ve paced them and moved them to getting their strength, quickness and endurance back. While also easing them back into the basketball workouts. I’m excited for the upcoming season for what we have in store.”
On being able to move past the end of last season
“I don’t think you can flush what the kids went through. It’s a way for them to understand the reality of the world that we live in, but also how precious it is to have time with your loved ones. To be able to spend that time with them and get to know your teammates a little bit better. We’ve been able to utilize the isolation to bring us closer together. Over the summer we consistently had weekly Zoom calls. We were able to connect our incoming first years (players) with our young ladies that are overseas. When we decided to have our team meetings we had to find a perfect time and that’s very hard to do when you have East Coast, West Coast but we also had young ladies from France and Shauna from Australia. So, 4 (p.m.) o’clock seemed to be the perfect time. We utilized this time to be connected with each other and appreciate the time that we do have together.”
On precautions taken in preparing team to play
“We wanted to educate. We have an unbelievable medical team here under the leadership of Shelly Mullenix who kept us up to date. The precautions were social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands. Our team did a really good job of staying the course. They’ve stayed committed to not taking those risks. They made a sacrifice to kind of create their own bubble where they’re around their teammates. From a basketball standpoint, we stayed in small groups. We cut our team in half so we could completely be spaced out while we’re weight training in the morning. When we did come back and get on the court, we tested temperatures when you came into the building. The only access was the practice facility. You could only enter a certain way and had to be cleared to enter the building. They had assigned seats in the gym along with assigned basketballs and assigned baskets. We were really fortunate to space and keep them distant while we were able to get up a lot of shots. We also want to make sure we’re testing and tracing. I’m so thankful we’ve been very diligent in making sure our kids are healthy during this difficult time.”
On whether any player has developed during this time
“It was tough for some of our kids to do anything during the summer because of the lack of access to the gym by not being here on our campus. To be at an institution where they said yes, bring your team back in the second phase. That allowed us to give them a place to put up shots. A place to feel some type of normalcy even though it’s a lot different. Just getting up a lot of shots, I could see where there was a hunger there. Where they were, ‘coach, can we be in the gym even more’. We’ve got some players than can really stroke the ball. I like the fact that we’re shooting the three ball at a higher percentage and more attempts than we’ve had. We’ve got the versatility to do so. We were very intentional of bringing in young ladies of not only shooting a three but making a three. That’s something you’ll see in this year’s team because we’re a lot different. We’ll have multiple players comfortable in making threes for us. We added Sara Shematsi, who is a junior college transfer. She’s somebody you have to keep an eye on because this kid’s going to be a pro. She’s showcased how well she can stroke it from deep. She’s a big guard, can play multiple positions for us. I’m excited that one of young ladies that had to sit out last year, Sharna Ayres. Along with the nucleus coming back, this is going to be an exciting time for our team. I’m going to see whether we have enough balls to share because I think everyone’s hungry for shooting.”
On the team’s depth and the number of players you hope to play
“The depth of our team’s exciting. We may be able to do some platoon subbing and we can bring in waves of players and really keep the tempo at a high rate. I like the fact that we’ve got experience coming back along with adding some newbies. The fact we have players that can play multiple positions will allow us to look at different lineups to look at different schemes. What’s my best defensive lineup, what’s my best offensive lineup? We’ll be able to mix it up a bit and that will be great. If we can get to 10 deep, I think that’s a number where you can press a lot, you run the ball a lot. We can get up and down. You can wear on your opponents by pushing tempo on makes, misses or turnovers. That’s a pace that’s going to be really hard to defend and the fact that I feel our team’s in really good condition. If we can get to a good, solid 10 players playing some good minutes. … in the past we’ve had that number. I feel we have 10 impactful players that can play those minutes.”
On whether the lack of contact in preparations will affect the defense
“I believe defense tells a lot about your team. Defense is about heart, hustle, stamina. Defense is also about togetherness and when you have that as your core, when we don’t make our defensive rotations it’s more about where’s your support for your teammate. Don’t leave out on an island by herself. Those type of comments when I’m correcting our team on their defense makes us become more of a family. Through COVID and the Zoom calls and trying to stay connected through all of the team building exercises that we did, and once we got here, our team chemistry … you worry about that because you’re not seeing each other. I feel like our team chemistry is really strong in lieu of everything with the social distancing and what they’ve had to endure. I think our defense is going to be questionable a little part in the early part because of schemes but not because of heart or hustle or stamina. That’s something that’s a non-negotiable and you have to play that way regardless if you’ve been on or off for three months. Those are things that are staples and those are things that are coming from within.”
On overcoming the loss of not being able to condition with the local state police
“We were not able to work out with them this year. That has been something that’s been instrumental in not only our physical fitness, but our mental fitness. I love the mentality of those who’ve served, and I love the mentality we had going into that environment. There was a respect there for those that lay their lives on the line for us. We had police officers that served in the military and that’s pretty special to be able to have type of training, that type of focus.
With the way we’re doing it with our strength coach Chris White, we assess where our student athletes are, and we build a out a plan. Some of our kids did some stuff, whether they were running, or we sent them back with ropes or bands to work out. By assessing them and creating a preseason plan that’s allowed us to come back in pretty decent shape. Some of the kids have been here since the end of June and we gave them a break after July and then now we’re back. Everything’s gradual. We’re taking it one day at a time. Chris, myself and our trainer Amanda Barbee, we’ll ask them how was their load today. Whether it was a heavy day and then we may have to stay a little more half court. Those conversations allow us to put together the best game plan to keep our student athletes healthy.”
On how does playing fewer games and the unorthodox preparations affect your team
“It’s important to be aware of the mental wellness of the student athletes. You have to be locked in to making sure they’re coming into an environment where they enjoy coming to practice. What that looks like? It’s music playing, them plugging up whatever music they want to listen to at the very beginning and allowing them to have that relaxed feeling until the whistle blows and it’s time to start and get into the meat of practice. Overall, you have to be aware that they’ve been through a lot and it’s not easy. I commend all student athletes that are playing, who decided to come back. I commend them for coming in every and being focused and really trying to get better and trying to push each other to have a season. To play and compete at a high level. The SEC’s one of the most physical conferences, one of the most athletic conferences in the country and they understand we’ve had to adjust some things, but we’re not having to adjust the mentality which is something we’ve been really creative with even though we can’t have the contact with. Even in the drill work that you do, you can still challenge your team to be at that mental level of competitive greatness and that’s what we’ve been able to do here.”
On the outlook for Faustine Aifuwa this season
“She did a great job of coming back and completing her education and getting her degree. We’re thrilled she’s returning to play with us. She is going to be one of those players that can dominate the league. I like the fact she’s one of the best post players in the country, not only in our league. She’s one of the best rebounding shot blockers, has a nice touch around the basket. One of the things she’s doing is she’s shooting threes. We’ve got to get her ready for the next level. The more layers that we add to her game the more versatile she’ll become the more of a defensive nightmare she’ll become because she’s playing at an elite level. Last season she was running about four miles a game. That’s a 6-5 post player that’s in great shape, running more than any post player on our team and even some guards and she’s able to maintain that level of competitive greatness. She had a great junior year and I expect her to have an exceptional senior year. She’s been working. She’s done a great job of not only transforming her body but also transforming how she attacks practices and how she attacks the games.”
On how this year’s schedule will look
“We’re in two bubble-type tournaments this year. We want to make sure the COVID protocols set forth by the NCAA and SEC are being met. We’re moving forward in creating those tournaments where you’re getting a couple of games in at one destination. Everybody’s got to make sure they’re testing and tracing and that will be key for all schools playing this year. We’re trying to do our best in making sure our student athletes are doing what they need to do here before going into competition.”
On any COVID guidelines that determine a game’s postponement during the season
“We’re leaving that up to the expects and deciding what that looks like. There’s been a lot of conversations on making sure we keep the student athletes free and clear as best as we can. The honesty of your symptoms on how you’re feeling all come into play. Making sure the testing and make sure we reach the protocols set forth in regard to what type of testing that you should be doing and how often. We’re going to follow those guidelines and follow the lead of our medical team here. So far, for women’s basketball, we’ve been very diligent on making sure that we’re practicing as best we can those COVID protocols and making sure that our student athletes continue to that outside of being in the area or here at practice. They’re having to do that on their own personal time as well and being smart about what that looks like. Even when you have all of these protocols listed and you’re doing the necessary steps before you compete, I think we’ve also got to address what you’re doing before you compete. That’s going to be just as important as any test that we put our kids through.”
On expectations for Khayla Pointer
“She’s been unbelievable for our team. Leading us in scoring last year and (being) the assists leader, our playmaker, our go-to. Faustine Aifuwa, Ayanna Mitchell aren’t putting up the numbers without Khayla Pointer. She’s one of the best point guards in the country. She’s somebody that’s shown over and over in big games how she can take over a game. I’m excited about her senior year, I’m excited about the fact she’s coming into this leadership role for us where she’s finding her own voice. She’s also somebody that’s a great team player. She’s really been a major factor in how our perimeter play defensively has turned the complexion of a game around. She’s not only this really good offensive player, but this kid’s come up with a lot of major steals when you look at some of the games we won last year against some of those top-ranked teams, Khayla Pointer had a big hand in that. I’m excited about the senior year for her and all of our seniors. I think she’s going to be somebody at that next level you’re going to love to have her on your team.”