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Jennie Baranczyk and the power of empowerment
Oklahoma's first-year basketball coach has surpassed all expectation by lifting up her players in ways they'd not experienced until she arrived
How’d she do it?
That’s where you have to begin, right?
That’s where you have to begin when trying to comprehend where the Oklahoma women find themselves under the guidance of first-year coach Jennie Baranczyk.
Sherri Coale put the program on the map. Took it to a trio of Final Fours in 2002, 2009 and 2010. Yet, the last time she took it to the NCAA tournament was 2018, the last time her squad won a game once there was 2017 and the last time OU reached the Sweet 16 under her direction was 2013.
At 5 p.m. today, Baranczyk’s Sooners take on Notre Dame inside Lloyd Noble Center. Win and the program returns to the Sweet 16.
How’d she do it?
Well, here’s a question.
Empowerment is a virtue.
Empowerment is a value.
Can it be a strategy, too?
Because that’s how she’s done it.
A funny thing happened Sunday when Madi Williams, OU’s leading scorer and rebounder at 18.2 points and 7.8 boards per game, was asked to compare the motion-oriented offense the Sooners ran under Coale with the motion-oriented offense they run under Baranczyk.
“Sherri had a lot of — sorry, coach Coale — had a lot of set plays, telling us where to go and where we were going to be, but she also taught us how to make reads,” Williams said. “And I think that translates into what Jennie is teaching us in her motion offense.”
You caught it, yes?
Williams played three seasons under Coale, and even a season removed from her old coach, corrected herself upon slipping into a first name reference. Her new coach? Her new coach’s name is Jennie and that’s what she calls her.
Williams’ teammates also call her “Jennie.”
Baranczyk outranks her players. They play for her, after all. But they don’t play for her the way players have played for coaches through the decades.
“That’s a coaching style,” Baranczyk said. “It’s not, I’m going to tell them what to do. I want it to be about our team.”
Also, she wants her team to be made up of individuals.
That may have been a struggle for Coale the last few years of her tenure. She watched a herd of players exit the program beginning in 2017, many going on to flourish elsewhere. And while the transfer portal took from Coale’s program, it did not give back.
Maybe that played into Baranczyk making it clear during her introductory press conference last April she would be running a big-tent program.
“I think the biggest lessons learned,” she said, referencing her stops along the coaching trail, the previous nine seasons spent running Drake’s program, “are be real, be authentic, be who you are …
“I want to make sure each one of our women know that it’s not just OK to be who you are, it’s an obligation.”
There is connection for Baranczyk from that value, to having her players call her by her first name, to running an offense in which the players, not her, are in charge of their movement on the court, even to being reluctant to call time out during difficult regular-season moments, preferring to let her players figure things out for themselves.
The river running through it all is that word:
“I think we talk about empowerment of women all the time,” Baranczyk said.
On the court, it demands trust.
“You want to be really competitive, you want them to be able to make reads,” Baranczyk said. “I do believe they can make better read than we can coach.
“There’s a time and a place that we need to make a play call, but if they’re making those reads, it’s incredible to see what happens.”
Niele Ivey coaches Notre Dame.
Just the way she answered a question about the offense she’s preparing to defend makes clear Baranczyk’s leaving much in her players’ hands.
“We played Drake three years ago, so I kind of have a little bit of an idea the way the system works, but it’s so many movements, so many different concepts,” Ivey said. “[We’ve tried] to see if we could just figure out concepts, because one side is making back cuts, throwing into the pinch post, the other side is setting a flare.
“There’s a lot of movement. So I try to break it down that way to really understand tendencies and then concepts of their offense.”
That wasn’t easy to follow.
Ivey’s players can probably follow it, but it sounds like a lot.
What makes sense is the Irish trying to identify tendencies, rather than a full picture of OU’s offense, because no full picture exists. Instead, it’s left in the hands of players choosing their movements based upon what they’re seeing from teammates and the opposition.
Baranczyk has called her offense “simple” and the concepts of it may well be. Where those concepts can take the Sooners, though, may be limitless.
That and her demand her team play fast, looking for transition opportunities before setting setting up that motion offense has the Sooners not only averaging a third-best-in-the-nation 87.3 points per game, but facilitating that production via a fourth-best-in-the-nation 19 assists per outing.
“It’s a beautiful game,” Baranczyk said. “It’s so much fun.”
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It’s especially fun when a coach can walk in and unlock the confidence of the very same players who had won 32 games, combined, the last three seasons, just seven more than they’ve won this season (thus far).
Coaches are often lumped into two categories: old school and players’ coaches.
Usually, those designations are wrapped in a coach’s persona with their players. For Baranczyk, being a players’ coach means so much more than that.
“Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson are completely different people, they’re completely different players and yet they work and it’s incredible to watch,” Baranczyk said. “They can play to each other’s strengths because they know who they are and they know who each other are, and I think when you have that, that’s when magic really starts to happen.”
Today, it has the Sooners on the cusp of the Sweet 16, trying to go where the program’s not gone in nine seasons during a season they’ve already gone further than anybody guessed.
What a concept.