Stringer Resets Expectations for Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — This is C. Vivian Stringer’s 39th season as a women’s basketball coach, but she is not so rigid that she refuses to tinker with imperfections, even big ones. About a month ago, for example, she told her players to forget about running the offense — her offense.
At the outset of recent Rutgers basketball games, the Scarlet Knights have not run patterned plays. Get up and down the court, play freely and see what happens, she has told them. If it works, they stick with it. If it does not work, they start running plays. It is not that audacious.
“I’m trying to be creative because my job is to motivate,” Stringer said this week after a practice at the Rutgers Athletic Center. “If I didn’t, I’d be a hard-nosed coach who just decided that’s the way it’s going to be.”
And there is something else: Stringer has told her team, 17-13 and unranked since the first week of the season, that it will not accept an invitation to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament if it does not receive one of the 64 berths in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Stringer, who will turn 62 on March 18, has made it clear that she was not disparaging the W.N.I.T. Her team is young and has been inconsistent all season, so she feels the need to reset expectations.
“Coach Stringer may seem as if she’s frustrated at times, but she loves basketball too much to give up on us,” said Brittany Ray, a premed student who is a senior guard and the Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer.
With top-ranked Connecticut expected to cruise to another conference tournament title, there is probably no more compelling story in the Big East women’s tournament, which will be played through Tuesday at XL Center in Hartford, than Rutgers, the No. 6 seed.
The Scarlet Knights, who will play the winner of Friday night’s South Florida-Cincinnati game in their opener Saturday night, are expected to squeeze into the N.C.A.A. tournament if they win at least two games in Hartford. But Stringer and her players have learned to take nothing for granted.
Three Rutgers players were asked to provide an adjective to describe the season. Ray picked unpredictable. Rashidat Junaid, a senior center, chose roller-coaster. Khadijah Rushdan, a sophomore guard, went with challenging.
At one point Stringer was so frustrated with her players that she told them they could book flights for spring-break vacations later this month. Nikki Speed, a sophomore point guard, said: “I don’t plan on going anywhere for spring break. I plan on playing right now.”
The Scarlet Knights play one of the most challenging schedules in women’s basketball, but they are 2-10 against ranked opponents this season. They ended their regular season with a 20-point victory over Louisville, but they lost by 31 points to Syracuse at home nine days earlier.
Rutgers has been lacking in the statistics that seem to mean the most to Stringer: free throw percentage, turnovers and rebounds. She has used 11 different starting lineups, and even the players say they have been inconsistent.
“We’ve had a hard time having all five starters on the same page,” Junaid said.
This is not a new development at Rutgers, even when stars like Epiphanny Prince, Kia Vaughn, Heather Zurich and Essence Carson were around. The 2007 team, which lost to Tennessee in the national championship game, earlier lost two games by 25 points.
The players who have been around long enough are regarding the Big East tournament — and perhaps the N.C.A.A. tournament — as a reprieve. Rutgers made the N.C.A.A. Round of 16 last year after unexpectedly losing 11 of 29 regular-season games.
“We’ve dug ourselves somewhat of a hole,” Rushdan said, “but we can redeem ourselves in the Big East tournament.”
It is a good thing, the players say, that the high point of the season followed the low point, not the other way around. Rutgers has won two in a row and five of eight. Stringer seems to have settled on a starting lineup. The players say they feel good about their chances.
Rutgers has only nine players, so Stringer has been unable to pick up the pace as much as she used to — or wants to. At least the Scarlet Knights are playing with more ease now. There was a time when she could not imagine not running a set offense, but that has all changed.
Stringer, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, has one more fire to stoke. Ray said Stringer had tried to emphasize how close Rutgers was to being a very good team. Four of its losses were by fewer than 5 points.
“It’s not over — we could get on a roll,” Stringer said. “People shouldn’t be surprised if we do well. Why shouldn’t we?”