2017 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament: Washington's Mike Neighbors is trusting in the process
When Mike Neighbors took over the University of Washington Women’s Basketball Head Coaching job in 2013, it was a short 18 inches from the assistant coach seat to the head coach’s chair on the bench. For Neighbors, though, it felt as if he was trying to take a sip of water through a fire hose.
"Everything comes at you so much faster. It felt like so much was hanging on every decision.”
The perennial list maker kept a tally of all the mistakes he made that first season. By March, his count was 418 errors in his new post. One particular gaffe, however, gnawed at Neighbors.
When the season began, he looked at the talent on his squad, which included freshman and eventual NCAA women’s basketball all-time scoring leader Kelsey Plum, and knew they had the talent to make the NCAA tournament. He quickly set a goal for the team to play in the postseason. The Huskies put “NCAA Tournament or Bust” on everything they owned from practice jerseys to duffle bags.
Washington did indeed make the NCAA tournament that year but was eliminated in the opening round.
“As we sat in Iowa City and I heard my team saying ‘this is so great. We did it! We are here!’ I realized we were done the minute the field of 64 was announced.”
That, says Neighbors, was the moment he decided to do the unthinkable for a coach – banish goals. Goals, he reasons, are limiting and the Huskies had no need to go further once they reached the goal they had set many months before of reaching the NCAA tournament.
But if there are no goals, how do you measure success? And progress?
By Neighbors’ explanation, you don’t. You just work within the process. The following year, 2014-15, the Huskies roster was depleted by injuries. Rather than risk fatigue due to long practices, the head coach modified the weekly schedule including a more moderate “skills development day”.
In his third year on Montlake, Washington practiced one day a week. The other days were recovery, skill work, or film. Neighbors rarely substituted players with his three biggest stars averaging nearly 35 minutes per game. Fans watched with interest in the Pac 12 tournament semi-final vs Stanford as the Huskies battled without a using a substitution until just three minutes remained in the game. Surely, some thought, UW wa going to burn out playing those kinds of minutes.
Washington finished fifth in the Pac 12 last season, yet made it all the way to the Final Four with a limited roster, one day of practice a week, and not a single goal.
For Neighbors, it was not validation – as he needed none. That is the trick about a goal-less season. t is only about process. His began with studying the millennial generation. He adjusted to his players rather than asking his players to adjust to him.
“How long will you wait for an app to load before you swipe and move on to something else?” he muses “I have narrowed down the amount of time I talk to three seconds at a clip. Anything longer than that and they might just move on.”
If that sounds like a dig at attention span you have Neighbors all wrong.
“I love this generation, I wish they would let me BE one of them. This is how they digest information, and I took it as my job to learn how to deliver it in a way they can receive it.”
This season the attention on UW has been relentless. Coming off a Final Four appearance, Plum was the focus of national interest as she closed in on the NCAA women’s all-time scoring record, which she broke in the final game of the regular season. It was a spectacular 57-point performance that brought relief as well as yet more attention to the Huskies as they prepared for post-season play.
Drops 57 points
Breaks NCAA all-time scoring record
Is there anything Kelsey Plum can't do? pic.twitter.com/6MLtlhSe5G
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) February 26, 2017
There is no goal for the Pac 12 tournament. There is no limit for the NCAA tournament. Even with all the success of the program, Neighbors says this is the first year he is sure his team is going to the dance. But that, of course, is not a goal.
"We don’t know where the finish line is,” says Neighbors before a game, “we just know it isn’t right now.”