No sugarcoating for Sugar Rodgers

December, 5, 2010

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- A blanket of snow outside kept the crowd inside Joel Coliseum to a bare minimum for Saturday's game between No. 13 Georgetown and host Wake Forest, but the library quiet just made it that much easier to hear a voice that could have been heard had the place filled to Tim Duncan-era capacity.

"Sugar, you've got to …"

Play basketball Mad Libs for the rest of the sentiment: defend, rebound, hustle. Pretty much any admonition you can think of, Georgetown assistant Keith Brown tacked it on to the end of a bellow directed squarely at Sugar Rodgers, the reigning Big East rookie of the year. And this was on a night when Rodgers led all scorers with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting in a 64-49 win to help the Hoyas improve to 7-1.

Rodgers was an unqualified success story last season, averaging 17.6 points and setting a program record with 83 3-pointers. But with more college games ahead of her than behind, she remains a work in progress -- not altogether unlike the team around her, a team with the talent to beat Tennessee by 11 points the day after losing to Missouri by nine points. And neither Brown nor her head coach let her forget.

"She knows she has a lot of work because we tell her every day," Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "We don't sugarcoat her at all."

Against Wake Forest, much of the positive, and otherwise, reinforcement came when Wake Forest had the ball. A key part of Georgetown's omnipresent pressure, Rodgers had 60 steals last season -- good but perhaps not as many as her talent indicates is possible in 30-plus minutes per game. And ballhawking, relatively speaking, is the easy part of playing defense for the Hoyas. Rodgers has a distinctive quick release on the offensive end, looking at times as though she starts her shooting motion while a pass is still en route. It's the slow grind of playing 30 seconds on the other end that takes time.

"She's the type of kid that you have to stay on top of because she is very good," Williams-Flournoy said. "Things do come easily for her, so she does have a tendency to get lazy and take breaks on the defensive end and pick it up on the offensive end. So we're trying to get her to understand that to be a full, rounded player, she's got to play both ends of the court."

Rodgers carries an undeniably heavy burden on the offensive end. She took roughly one-quarter of the team's field goal attempts last season, and she's on the same pace this season. As of the Wake Forest game, Monica McNutt is the only other Hoyas player averaging more than seven points per game. When the Hoyas need a big shot, as when Tennessee made its run late in that game when the teams met in the Virgin Islands around Thanksgiving, or as Georgetown overcame a sluggish start and a good effort from the Demon Deacons to claim the lead for good late in the first half of Saturday's game, it's Rodgers who is going to get the ball.

And as suggested by the final score in the Tennessee game, or the 26 wins last season, she's generally going to do something pretty special with it. But the Hoyas will have leads to protect, particularly as Big East play arrives, only if the defense earns them by wearing down opponents and taking away the ball.

"To be honest with you, we have to turn teams over because we can't rebound," Williams-Flournoy said. "That's almost like our only defense to not getting any rebounds; we've got to turn them over. I think we've gotten outrebounded every game, but we're 7-1. Maybe we outrebounded Augusta State. Maybe."

They did get the best of Augusta State, as well as La Salle, on the boards, but it's easy to see where she's coming from. Georgetown has quality wins over Maryland, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Richmond and Wake Forest despite losing the battle of the boards in all five games. What the Hoyas have is 98 steals and 197 turnovers forced in eight games, including 15 steals and 29 turnovers forced in the win over Tennessee, assuredly one of the biggest in program history. If Rodgers is as big a part of that as she is the offense, Georgetown will be an intriguing team come March.

And so even on snowy nights on the road in December, when it's quiet enough to hear the sound of the net as one of Rodgers' shots rips through it, Williams-Flournoy, Brown and the rest of the coaching staff will keep the volume dialed up on making their best player even better.

"She's got to play defense constantly, all the time, because that's what we do," Williams-Flournoy said. "Our defense dictates our offense. It does not work the other way."

Three things that caught my eye

1. The battle for Kentucky is on. Texas has the edge when it comes to in-state rivalries this season, with Baylor and Texas A&M fighting for space in the top 10 and the Longhorns angling to make a move, but put the state of Kentucky squarely in the conversation for No. 2 on that list. Getting a signature win to go with respectable losses against Tennessee and at Xavier and Old Dominion, Louisville handled No. 9 Kentucky with surprising ease in a 78-52 victory Sunday. Freshman Shoni Schimmel scored 26 for the Cardinals and, despite eight turnovers, is playing remarkably efficient basketball for a freshman (shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 39.7 percent from the 3-point line to go with a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio). The domino effect is Becky Burke can return to the shooter's role she thrived in alongside Angel McCoughtry -- and in scoring 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting from behind the arc against Kentucky.

As long as Jeff Walz and Matthew Mitchell are on the sidelines, the battle for state supremacy is one worth watching.

2. Unbeaten, untied and unproven describes more than a few teams. We're coming up on the end of the first month of games, and there are still 16 unbeaten teams, including seven that weren't ranked in last week's Top 25. Among that latter group is Oklahoma State, which followed a supremely soft opening stretch with quality wins over New Mexico, Arkansas-Little Rock and, most recently, Wisconsin on Sunday. None of the three wins came easy, and it's a long Big 12 road ahead, but it's still an accomplishment for a team that lost 43.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and three steals per game with the departures of Andrea Riley and Tegan Cunningham.

Fellow unbeaten Arkansas also took a step toward legitimizing a fast start against a modest schedule with 65-54 win at Utah on Saturday, following a win at UTEP over Thanksgiving weekend and against Middle Tennessee earlier this season. After suffering through a bit of a sophomore slump, at least statistically, C'eira Ricketts seems to be closer to the form that earned her a share of SEC freshman of the year honors two seasons ago.

3. North Dakota State earned a big win. North Dakota State lost by 18 points at home and 25 points on the road against its rival to the south last season, seemingly an indication of how far ahead the Jackrabbits had surged as the two programs make their way in the Division I world. So full points to the Bison for ending a 10-game losing streak against the Jackrabbits with a 78-71 win on the road in Brookings, S.D. Hannah Linz scored 12 points for North Dakota State, which is almost certainly 12 more points than anyone else diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in April scored this past weekend.

The week ahead

Monday: Having spent the weekend in the Triangle, I can attest that it will be frigid in Durham on Monday night. But hopefully the lure of No. 5 Duke versus No. 7 Texas A&M (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) will bring the students out and make Cameron the hot, noisy place of basketball lore. This is a big stage for Aggies guard Sydney Carter, who has been tremendous taking care of the basketball (27 assists, eight turnovers) with Sydney Colson limited. Can Carter keep things running against all the pressure Jasmine Thomas and the Blue Devils will apply? … No. 21 Green Bay can't overlook a road trip to Eastern Michigan, which has a good pair of guards in Tavelyn James and Cassie Schrock and gave Ohio State a bit of a game earlier this season.

Tuesday: Speaking of Georgetown and Rodgers, they get another ACC test with a trip to Miami. The Hurricanes missed an opportunity to make a statement early against Nebraska, but they've rolled through some more modest competition in recent weeks. Riquna Williams had significantly more turnovers than assists last season, but she's working with about a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio so far this season. … It's never too early for a conference game, as DePaul and Pitt get their Big East schedules under way in Pittsburgh. The Blue Demons have been shooting the lights out (37.4 percent from the 3-point line), taking care of the ball and scoring at an Oregon football-like clip, so a conference road game should be a good measuring stick.

Wednesday: Nebraska doesn't get an easy game as it attempts to bounce back from Sunday's surprising loss to Indiana. The Huskers visit in-state foe Creighton. … Cal State Bakersfield has dropped three of its past four games to fall to 7-3, but give the Roadrunners credit for playing up with their schedule, beating San Diego State and Oregon this season. Fresno State's visit is a rare chance to get a big game at home. (Bakersfield also will play Dayton at home three days before Christmas.) Albany transfer Britney McGee has an interesting line so far for Bakersfield, averaging 7.5 3-point attempts per game but also 5.8 rebounds.

Thursday: Iowa consistently produces some good players, but you're not talking about the Lake Baikal of recruiting. Which is another way of saying it's nice to have bragging rights when Iowa (six Iowa natives on the roster) and Iowa State (five Iowa natives) meet. Iowa showed some resolve in bouncing back from a tough loss at North Carolina to beat Kansas State three days later. Lauren Mansfield, the Cyclones' latest Aussie import, is shooting 47.6 percent (10-of-21) from the 3-point line and 30 percent from inside the arc -- not to mention seven assists per game. … Xavier again proves it will go anywhere and play anyone with a trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to play Middle Tennessee (, 8 p.m. ET). The Blue Raiders have hit 48 3-pointers in seven games, and the starting trio of Anne Marie Lanning, Tina Stewart and Kortni Jones has 46 of them.

Friday: It might not fall under the marquee heading, but Oakland visits Toledo in a nonconference tilt between teams likely to be in the mix for their respective automatic NCAA bids.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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