Virginia Tech women’s basketball endured quite the roller coaster season in Kenny Brooks’ first year as head coach.
The Hokies got out to a blistering 15-0 start to the 2016-2017 season, and even started 3-1 in conference play. However, Virginia Tech would go on to lose 13 of their last 15 games, pushing the Hokies outside NCAA Tournament conversation. However, Tech rebounded with three wins in the WNIT, pitting the Hokies against Michigan in the quarterfinals. After a season like that, some reflection is in order.
“It was one of the more enjoyable years that I’ve ever encountered as a coach from a preparation standpoint,” Brooks said. “You never want to lose as much as we did. I say lose as much as we did, but we were 20-14. A lot of coaches would take that and run with it.”
Brooks said that the season, though stressful, helped prepare him for future seasons at Virginia Tech.
“I learned a lot,” Brooks said. “It was funny because so many people were calling and checking in on me. ‘You doing alright? You doing ok?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. I’m not ready to go over here and commit myself because I’m worried about all the losing.’ It was, ‘Are we growing? Are we getting better?’”
When Brooks arrived in Blacksburg, he inherited a program that desperately needed a reboot. Virginia Tech hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2005-2006 season, and the 2015-2016 season produced the Hokies’ first postseason appearance in a decade. The team had talent, but didn’t win many games.
Brooks’ primary goal was to change the culture at Virginia Tech, which had for far too long been associated with losing.
“That’s a vague term, because what is culture? We wanted the kids to understand that we were going to do things and do them a certain way,” Brooks said. “Everything that we were going to do was going to lead to our program being respected. Not only throughout the nation, but on campus. We wanted to lay down the foundation that everything we did outside of basketball was going to be a reflection of how we were going to act during basketball.”
“We focused on little things to build culture,” Brooks said. “Little things, sometime you don’t think they matter — they matter, because they’re going to matter in the course of a game.”
Part of Brooks’ culture building involved tearing down what once was, and rebuilding from scratch. However, that process was interrupted when the Hokies’ surprisingly cracked the top-25 in early December.
“I didn’t think we were going to be able to win as early as we did, and that kind of messed my program up a little bit,” Brooks said. “I felt like we were going to take steps backward before we took steps forward. We jumped out the gate and got a great start, and therefore, I had to back away from some of the things I thought we were going to do to build. I thought I was going to have to tear them down to build them back up, but we got off to such a great start that I started coaching differently. Then, we took a step backwards during ACC play, and then we were able to start building it back up from there.”
Of course, Brooks’ process rested on his players buying in, most of whom weren’t recruited by him. Virginia Tech fielded four seniors, three of whom played significant minutes — Vanessa Panousis, Sidney Cook and Samantha Hill.
The seniors had to change their mindset and play style. Panousis moved to the shooting guard position, after playing point guard for her entire Tech career. Samantha Hill played four positions for the Hokies, even sliding to the point guard position in certain situations. Cook had to become more of a presence on the glass, and play more in the paint than she had in previous seasons.
All of these changes could have given the seniors an excuse to mail in their last year, or hurt the team’s chemistry. Instead, they bought into what Brooks was selling.
“We had to incorporate a winning attitude, a winning style that was going to be conducive to their talents and the seniors, they bought in,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if Vanessa Panousis has ever played an up-tempo style, running, shooting, fast break situations or playing off the ball as much as she did. But all of them bought into everything.”
Buying in paid off. Panousis registered improvements from her junior season in field goal percentage, three-pointers made, rebounds, turnovers and points per game. Samantha Hill averaged fewer than four points per game in her first three seasons, but averaged 10.4 points per game and posted career highs in assists and rebounds. Cook averaged 12.7 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game, shot a career high from three and registered 12 double-doubles for the season. All three also got the farthest any Virginia Tech player has been in a postseason tournament since the 2001-2002 season.
“They had moderate success last year, and for them to experience the success they had and then all of a sudden it gets ripped away from them, and for them to end on that note,” Brooks said. “I think it was satisfying for me as a coach because I watched the sacrifices that they made and if any group deserved it, they did. I wish we could have continued to go on a little bit further, but I think that they ended their careers, and they’re always going to come back and people are going to say what great kids they are, but now, people will be able to say their winners. They took this program to places it hadn’t been before.”
On Friday, we’ll take a look at Kenny Brooks’ outlook for the 2017-2018 season, as well as his outlook for the future of Virginia Tech women’s basketball.