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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Catching up with USA Basketball's Carol Callan

There wasn't a person at the U.S Olympic Training Center from Friday until Monday with a more hectic schedule than USA Basketball Women's National Team Director Carol Callan.

Knowing that I had requested to talk to her, as I do every time I head out to one of the U.S. junior national team events, she attempted to come into the area where I was working on multiple occasions only to be whisked away on more pressing matters.

After the U-17 national team was announced on Monday morning I was finally able to spend somewhere between 5-10 minutes catching up with her.

The first item was following up what Geno Auriemma said to me in New York the day that he received the Winged Foot Award and that was the U.S. women's national team could meet Canada and incoming freshman Kia Nurse in a game before the FIBA World Championships. While she wasn't ready to say that was definitely going to happen,  she did say that after the U.S. national team holds a training camp in Annapolis, Maryland that there would be another group of training sessions somewhere on the East Coast.

"We want to stay on the East Coast," Callan said. "There was going to be one thing that wasn't really our deal that was a reason to be up there which is no longer going to happen but we should know something in the next couple of weeks."

Reading between the lines, perhaps the Canada/U.S. thing could happen during that time as there is a gap in Canada's schedule from September 12 when the final training camp wraps in Edmonton and September 27 when the FIBA World Championships kick off in Turkey.

Remaining on the subject were some other questions regarding the national team.

A year ago USA Basketball had active college players including UConn's Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart take part in training camp. They were all added to the national team player pool along with Odyssey Sims, Kayla McBride and Alyssa Thomas. With Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart the only ones still in college, I asked her if they were considering inviting any other active college players between now and when the training camp kicks off in September. I am sure there are other worthy candidates but the name of Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd was the one to pop into my head so I used her as a possible candidate so that is why she mentioned her name specifically in the quote below.

"I think for September it is probably too soon to bring college kids," Callan said. "I think one or two athletes could be added from the WNBA but for 2016, it gives us a little more time to continue to look. Jewell Loyd is obviously a great player and if we were to think 'hey we need a little help there I am sure we would add anybody."

So how much does Callan think that the college players gained by going head to head with Olympic gold medalists?

"I think there are some things you need to do physically," Callan said. "It gives them a level of confidence that maybe they can handle it so I think it is invaluable. We had middle school kids in here for our U-17 tryouts. It is the same thing on a completely different level."

It should be noted that picks No. 2-4 in the most recent WNBA draft were players who took part in the U.S. national team camp. No. 1 overall pick Chiney Ogwumike was reported to have had a scheduling conflict and sixth overall pick Bria Hartley was injured and unable to attend after being invited.

The final item on the national team was the selection of Geno Auriemma's staff for the upcoming World Championships. Normally it is two college coaches and two WNBA coaches on the staff. Considering how strongly Auriemma feels about having DePaul's Doug Bruno on his staff that results in the other two assistants being WNBA head coaches and normally female WNBA head coaches. However this staff features just one WNBA head coach in Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve as the other assistant coach is South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. Her inclusion over any WNBA head coach makes total sense as it would come to the shock of absolutely nobody to see Staley on the sidelines as the U.S. head coach in the 2020 Olympics.

"When you look at their resumes individually and collectively, it is a great staff," Callan said. "Dawn talks to players about her experiences in USA Basketball, you want to have that for all of those players even though they are already at that level. Cheryl Reeve has been great at Minnesota and Doug, his contributions to women's basketball over time and his support to Geno, it is such a good feel to the staff."

Callan admitted that with the upcoming 3x3 U-18 tournament in Colorado Springs and championships the U-17 and U-18 teams will be going after, she has plenty of think about before the national team camp or World Championships but she is still excited about the prospects.

"I have a few things before I get down there but we have been working on it, we have been planning," Callan said. "It is like you have been planning all year to get to that point so I am very fired up and ready to go. I think it is going to be great. I think the talent pool we have to work from is exceptional. It is going to be hard to pick 12 and that is what this is all about."

Callan was bouncing back and forth between the U-17 practices at Sports Center 2 and U-18 tryouts at Sports Center 1 and with nearly 200 athletes vying for 24 spots, she got to see a lot of talent on display.

"The younger group that we just finished, it was the most that we ever had to the point that we maxed out (in number of competitors)," Callan said.  The talent level, it is amazing to me that it become as difficult as it is and when you throw in those numbers it is a task. At the end of the day what defines it is that there are some kids who played on our U-16 team that didn't get selected (for the U-17 team), clearly we have a larger pool of athletes and we were very talented. We could have gone many different directions with our teams so that to me shows that this works.

"This older group, they are only a year older than some of the (U-17s) and they just look more mature and to a person they are all great kids, it is not like you are going to deal with effort and attitude, they are just great kids. You'd almost like to not turn kids away when you select 12 but that also makes it that much more special."

With three Connecticut high school players among those taking part in the U-17 trials including Avon's Abby Laszewski, who survived the first two cuts, and Meriden's Kiah Gillespie, who lasted until the final cut, I asked Callan what she thought of the performances of Laszewski, Gillespie and Desiree Elmore.

"I think if you live in Connecticut you probably dream of playing at UConn but you are almost sucked right into that feeling so you want to get better, better and better because you know what you would need to do to get to UConn," Callan said. "I think there is enough competition out there with good players that they have to continue to improve and I think you see that, not only the competition but the attention that is paid to women's basketball in Connecticut and I am sure it brings them right along."

This year's U-17 trials marked the first time players could apply to be a part of the process. Laszewski and Elmore were part of the more than 100 kids who were invited to the trials after submitting an application. While the 12-member U-17 team did not include any of those players who needed to apply to be included in the process, it was a valuable experience for them and it didn't hurt that representatives from pretty much every organization which ranks high school players were in attendance either. This format began at the U-16 level Callan said she wants to do whatever it takes to best identify and develop the top prospects in those age groups.

"It makes us think that maybe we need to take this regionally," Callan said. "I think we are going to work to that end."

I asked her if she meant having some regional tryouts and then inviting the best of the best to one training camp to select the final roster of 12.

"I don't know if 'you come to that and if you are this, you get to come' but just to try to see who is out there and maybe we still do the open application process with the national team trials too. If we keep doing this, we are going to have a pretty good idea of who the kids out there who are pretty good. It is going to give a lot of kids a chance to get to know us ad maybe get the benefit of what we can do with them."

So where did this idea come from?

"I have been around forever and we used to have an Olympic Festival by the USOC and four teams played each other just to have the Olympic experience," Callan said. "We used to have regional tryouts with 250 kids so the format we have is a little bit based on that, we added the skills thing and it is a progression kind of thing. We used to open trials only then we did a combination of open and invites then we went to only invite and now at this youngest level we realize that there are a lot of kids out there that maybe kids don't know about. There is very little different between 35 and 36 so it is based on experience and we tweak it as we go down."

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