Michelle Smith Feature: USC's Trakh, Simon not looking towards the future
USC senior Kristen Simon sat down for the first time with new head coach Mark Trakh last spring and laid her cards on the table.
“I understand the future, but I wanted us to be a really good team this year,” Simon said. “I just came out and asked him ‘How are you going to help us?’ I wanted to make it clear how time-sensitive it was for the seniors and why we needed to immediately begin the process to rebuild USC women’s basketball.”
So far, Simon and her Women of Troy teammates have experienced the immediate success that Simon was pushing for.
USC has the best record in the Pac-12 after finishing the non-conference schedule at 10-1 after winning the UTRGV Holiday Classic last week. And Simon is the Pac-12 scoringer at 18.5 points a game.
“We inherited some really good kids,” said Trakh, who returned to USC last spring after six seasons away. Trakh’s first stint at USC lasted from 2005-2009, the program making two trips to the NCAA Tournament in that span. “They’ve bought into everything, I have a great staff and the kids work hard. It’s been fun so far. I don’t know how many games we will win, but it’s been a positive environment and culture.”
Trakh is realistic. He knows the degree of difficult goes up quickly as the Pac-12 season begins, with USC opening the schedule in the Bay Area against Cal and Stanford.
USC’s non-conference schedule included only one ranked opponent, Texas A&M, the only loss.
“Our schedule hasn’t been very strong, but at the same time, you build confidence through winning. We are doing some good things and playing some good defense. We are sharing the ball, not turning it over. We’ve been pretty efficient. But now we have to take a step up. We will find out a lot about ourselves.”
Simon has been the key to USC’s confident play. In addition to being the Pac-12 scoring leader, she ranks in the top 10 in rebounds (8.5 rpg) and free-throw percentage (77.0)
“She’s one of the best back-to-the-basket players I’ve coached at the college level,” Trakh said. “She’s just really strong, she finishes strong and she plays strong around the basket.”
He said one of his priorities starting the season was to give Simon and fellow seniors Jordan Adams and Sadie Edwards the final year they deserved.
“When you take over a program you never want to say, ‘When we get our own kids…’. As soon as you accept the job, all the players become your kids. I can’t promise them that we are magically going to make the NCAA Tournament. But our staff is very invested in making sure they have a great experience, whether we go to the tournament or the WNIT or we don’t make the postseason at all. We want to put them in the best position.”
Simon said she appreciates the way the new staff is holding players accountable and establishing a new identity for the program.
“You can have all the talent in the world, but structure and culture are the most important things,” Simon said. “Our defense, our fast break, our energy, we are thriving off of those things. We’ve been tested a little and we are staying together. Overall, I think we are playing better.
“For us to start 10-1 shows us that we are capable of winning games, of doing the right things,” Simon said. “We are winning games we are supposed to be winning, and I wouldn’t say that we were able to do that last year. This is a step in the right direction.”
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.