Professional Basketball

New coach, returning superstar, quality draft picks give CT Sun shiny outlook

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UNCASVILLE – The Connecticut Sun has struggled making shots for several years now, finishing mid pack or lower in WNBA point average repeatedly.

So what did management do when three-year head the highly reserved women’s basketball veteran Anne Donovan resigned this past winter?

They hired a young college coach who is all about offense and labeled by his newly adapted team as a “genuine human being … a real people person.”

The team which finished last in the Eastern Conference with a 15-19 record will now be managed by new head Coach Curt Miller, fresh from turning a losing team into a winning operation in two years at Indiana University, following a highly successful career at Bowling Green.

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Coach Curt Miller – Photo by Terese Karmel

“”We have to be in attack mode,” he said Thursday at the Sun’s annual pre-season media day. “I’m a big believer in spacing – my goal is to get them the spacing that will allow them to be successful. We have a lot of weapons,” he added.

One big weapon is 6-4 Chiney Ogwumike, who is returning healthy after sitting out the entire 2015 season with a knee injury and subsequent surgery,

The former Stanford University All-America was 2014 WNBA rookie of the year after leading the Sun in scoring and rebounding with an average 15.5 points and 9 rebounds I 31 games.

Another weapon is rookie 5-9 Rachel Banham, the fourth overall pick in the WNBA draft, who was among the top shooters in the country at the University of Minnesota. Banham averaged 28.6 points her senior year and tied the NCAA record for single game scoring when she tallied 60 points in a double overtime win at Northwestern in February.

Ogwumike, a presence in training camp, which began earlier this week, said she’s very excited to be back and a little scary given the long lay off, but that feeling quickly dissipated once she stepped on the court.

“I still know how to play basketball,” she said with her trademark big smile.

The staff is being cautious with her, advising that she avoid heavy pounding during practice and she is also watching herself.

“But when I’m on the court, I feel great all the time,” she said.

“She’s so excited we can’t get her to stop practicing,” said 6-4 post player Kelsey Bone, who was named the WNBA Most Improved Player. “We can’t get her to sub out of practice most days. We tell her ‘Hey dude, you haven’t played contact basketball in a long time, you’d better come out.’”

Bone said Miller brings passion and total commitment to the game. “He eats, sleeps, drinks women’s basketball.”

Ogwumike echoed Bone’s remarks.

“He’s so personable … he’s a human being, you can talk to him,” she said. “The most important thing is he wants to be here. He’s proud to be here and he’s so excited for us, you get the feeling we’re like his daughters.”

Banham, who exudes confidence in her shooting ability, also praised Miller and is especially in sync with his offensive philosophy.

She said he’s given her the “green light” to shoot whenever she’s open and the fact that she knows she was drafted to score has given her confidence. “When I’m open he wants me to shoot; he’s made that known,” she said. In conversations with the coach, he has told her “you need to be aggressive. Don’t sit back and relax.”

Banham’s success stems from her quick release (she studies Steph Curry’s shooting) and what she said is a “really good sense of the game. I can read defenses really well, I have a quick release and I can shoot deep,” she said.

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Rachel Banham – Photo by Terese Karmel

Banham knows she’ll face far tougher defenses in the WNBA and is already experiencing being hounded by 5-9 Jasmine Thomas, in her second year with Connecticut. Thomas set single season career highs last year in defensive rebounds (108) and steals (41), among other categories.

Miller said once Banham “learns to handle the uber defensive=minded athletes in this league, she can play on or off the ball.

As for Banham’s offense, “she has the green light when she steps off the bus” he said, praising her “swagger,” a characteristic necessary for all great athletes.

Although he’s only been with the team three days the coach said the varied weapons he has seen gives the Sun a good balance inside and outside.

Right now, though the emphasis is on skills and chemistry

“Wins are important,” he said “but to us it’s the process. Are we playing with great attitude and effort. Are we creating the right locker room culture. We’re not talking about wins and losses or play-offs. We’re talking about process and if we’re doing the right things, the wins and loses will take care of themselves.”

The Sun will find out quickly if the process is working.

The first pre-season game is May 4 at home against the Chicago Skye, runner up in the 2014 finals to Phoenix, followed by a home game the next day against San Antonio,

They begin the regular season May 8 at Dallas; the first regular season home game is May 21 against the Washington Mystics.

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