Practice insider: Taking a look at women’s basketball preparation

The clock nears 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in early November as student athletes from the women’s basketball team begin to filter into Frost Arena for their practice.

They are one week removed from their first exhibition game and awaiting their final exhibition on Saturday ahead of their season opener against Brigham Young University on Nov. 14.

As they wait, the athletes pick up balls and practice their shooting. At 1:15 p.m., head coach Aaron Johnston arrives.

Johnston has headed the program for the past 15 years and has built a Summit League dynasty since the team’s transition to Division I.  Even through all those years, he said his approach to practice really hasn’t changed a whole lot. Two things he always looks for are effort and focus.

“Outside of that [effort and focus] we’re just looking at each individual player,” Johnston said. “Are they playing to the best of their abilities? Can we give them some tips on how they can be a little bit better in their position?”

The players are divided into a first team and a second team group based on the color of their practice jersey. This however is not necessarily an indication of who will start in the upcoming game.

“We rotate a lot, so tomorrow’s teams in practice could be completely different than they were today,” Johnston said. “We don’t switch them a ton in the middle of practice – that way they get some time to be comfortable with their teammates – but from day to day we switch teams around. … Some practices might be first team, second team, but a lot of times we actually split them up pretty even.”

Practice begins with a one-on-one drill, charging a lone defender with preventing the ball handler from scoring a layup. Sometimes the defense wins, other times the attack player. Regardless, it gives the coaches a good look at the athletes’ positioning, approach and execution without outside action while the student athletes are able to practice for fast breaks during their upcoming games.

The team then moves on to a three-on-three full court drill. Afterwards, Johnston slows practice down to walk through defensive positioning and explain to his athletes how they need to set up and react on defense and why.

Next up are some more drills putting the players in one-on-one and two-on-two situations.

From there they move into practicing at game speed, taking advantage of a group of male practice players to challenge the team with height, speed and less familiar players.

“They don’t come in daily; they come in every once in a while,” said Johnston of the practice players. “They give us a different size, strength and a different level of quickness to play against. I think our team really likes it because the give us someone different to play against. It gets kind of old playing against the same player every single day.”

Johnston then moves on to a full court scrimmage in which he rotates through his first, second and practice teams, sending in a new group every few possessions.

Afterward, the practice team departs and Johnston runs his players through a drill to simulate the final minutes of a tight game.

“It’s just a good way to put players in situations where they have to think about what’s going to happen at the end of the game and how they need to respond,” Johnston said. “As coaches we help them through games, call timeouts, but there are certain times where they need to react quickly where we can’t call a timeout.”

Following the drill, the players have a chance to break up into groups of two or three and practice their three-point shooting.

The Jacks finish practice with Johnston guiding them through a new inbounds play. After sending them through the play as long as time allows, he finally gathers his team in center of the court for a few final instructions before they depart for the day, their two-and-half-hour practice complete.

Right now Johnston said practices are focused more on game fundamentals but as the season progresses, they will grow shorter and become more focused on individual opponents. Even so, the overall structure is consistent.

“We usually start off doing some defensive things as we did today,” Johnston said. “Then we move into offense, some full court stuff, maybe some situations that they’ll be in – that’s pretty consistent.”