Last week the Big Ten Conference hosted Big Ten Basketball Media Days in Indianapolis. In the past, the men’s and women’s teams had separate events. But in 2021, Media Days celebrated both the men’s and the women’s programs in one place, at one time, and in one venue.
Michigan State University head women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant was the first speaker of the day and led off the event with an opening statement, followed by questions from the media. In the afternoon, members of the media had an additional opportunity to talk to Coach Merchant during the one-on-one interview session.
Coach Merchant opened the day with the following:
“We’re very excited about this team,” she said. “Of course, it’s October. Every coach is undefeated, so everybody is excited about their team right now.
“But, we were an NCAA Tournament team last year,” Merchant continued. “We have 84 percent of our scoring back, and a first-team dynamic guard in Nia Clouden, (who scored) almost 19 points a game for us last year. She is really fun to watch. We have) a much more experienced group with our top-seven players back.”
Much of the conversation about the 2021 Spartans focused on rising senior guard Nia Clouden, who opted not to enter the WNBA Draft last spring.
“I’ve got to look to Nia Clouden,” Merchant said. “At the end of the day, leaders matter and experience matters. When she goes, we go. (By) putting the team on her back, with the experience we have, I expect us to do well.”
But there are things that Coach Merchant believes that Clouden can still improve upon. One of those things is consistency. In another area, Clouden seems to have recently developed a sense of self-awareness.
“I was very pleased that on national television she (Clouden) talked about getting better defensively,” Merchant said. “That was encouraging. I’m going to ride home very happy today.”
Coach Merchant also talked some about Clouden’s leadership and how she is encouraging her player to grow in that area, even though it is outside of her comfort zone.
“We did some things this offseason, because she (Clouden) has to be more vocal,” Merchant said. “I think for her to be successful in life, in general, she’s going to have to have a little more of a commanding vocal presence.
“She has certainly a commanding presence, but it is not always vocal,” Merchant continued. “I think that’s the next level of leadership. It’s great when you can lead one, but you’ve got to lead many in life.”
Three Selfish Goals
As for the rest of the team, Coach Merchant also described one of the ways in which she encourages each of her players to grow.
“We look at everybody individually because I think the better we are individually, the better we’re going to be collectively,” Merchant said. “We like them to write down three selfish goals.
“(We tell our players) ‘This is about you. You want to shoot a certain percentage? You want to average an amount of points? You want to get a certain accolade? Just put it down.’
“I think what it does is to help us throughout the year to hold them accountable to their own goals. ‘You said you wanted to be this kind of a shooter, right? Well, to do that you’ve got to get more shots up in the gym, and we have to work on your follow through.’
“So I think it helps them focus on themselves,” Merchant continued. “I think they’ve been trained to always say publicly it’s about the team, and I want the team to do well, but what are they doing individually to excel? I think it’s OK to put yourself on that list and be first and get yourself where you need to get.”
Equality and May Madness?
With the women joining the men for the first time at Media Days, and with some of the changes that have occurred this spring with the branding of the Women’s Tournament to also now be a part of “March Madness,” as well as the ability of the players to brand themselves through name, image and likeness (NIL), there was a lot of discussion in Indianapolis about the current position of female athletes and women’s sports in general.
“There’s never a better time for a female student-athlete to brand herself than the four years she’s in college,” Merchant said. “The WNBA is great, but it’s not there yet. They’re still fighting for equity...It’s not the same (as the NBA).
“So, I think for us, you have a built-in fanbase, and have the Big Ten Network and you guys (the media) that really invest in and care about the sport and that want to ask the questions and tell the stories.
“So, when I see that I think that we’re moving in the right direction. I’m excited about the vision for women’s basketball nationally, here in the Big Ten, and certainly at Michigan State.”
Coach Merchant even proposed a very innovative way to potentially elevate the women’s game.
“I’m thinking a little more outside the box,” she said. “There are only so many TV windows, and there are only so many venues. What if we adjusted our season a little bit and maybe instead of March as our ‘Madness,’ the five or six months of the season ends more in May?
“What’s on television in May?” she continued. “Is there a different way we can do it and adjust the months of the season to end at a time when people are still thirsty for basketball and we have our own stage nationally? If we’re not fighting so much for television windows, it can grow our sport and our game.”
Back in the Breslin
More than anything, Coach Merchant and her players seemed excited and ready to return to action in front of the fans at Breslin Center.
“I’m more rejuvenated than I’ve ever been,” Merchant said. “I think we’re further ahead right now after eight days of practice than we’ve been at any time really, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“When we play at home, no question, it is a home-court advantage,” she continued. “At Michigan State, we’re blessed to say that we’ve always been top-10 or top-15 in attendance.
“We’re excited to bring our fans back. “I do want to thank our marketing team for the cardboard cutouts. But, they weren’t very loud, so we’re looking forward to seeing and feeling the energy.”