The New Kenny

JMU’s Coach Loosens Reins

Posted: February 27, 2014

HARRISONBURG — As Toia Giggetts left the James Madison women’s basketball team’s post-game press conference Sunday, the Dukes’ junior forward — not known for her enthusiasm at those events — said, laughing, “I’m not here to answer questions. I’m here to look cute.”

Giggetts, obviously, likes to keep things loose, and for JMU, loose is an approach that’s worked. The Dukes are dominating the Colonial Athletic Association, outscoring league opponents by 27.7 points per game, flirting with a Top 25 ranking and marching toward an undefeated season in conference play.

Never a micromanager, coach Kenny Brooks said he’s let this team do its thing more and more, including letting Giggetts be as silly as she wants to be.

“If I walk into the locker room before the game with this group — Toia is the class clown, and she’s doing something to make everyone laugh, and they’re loose,” Brooks said. “And I just look at them and I look at the assistants and say, ‘Are they ready?’ And they say ‘They’re ready,’ and they go out and they prove that they’re ready.”

The Dukes – 23-4 overall and 13-0 in the CAA with three regular-season league games remaining –  have traditionally had a structured offense and run set plays, but the players now have more room to adlib and improvise.

“We definitely still run plays, but it’s not, I guess, like mandatory,” said senior shooting guard Kirby Burkholder, who is tied for the CAA scoring lead, averaging 18.6 points per game, and Monday was named the CAA’s Player of the Week for the sixth time this season. “I think he trusts us so much because we’ve proven that we can read off of plays, make good decisions … and just play.”

Brooks said the freestyling starts with the instincts of senior forward Nikki Newman, who has emerged as the Dukes’ de facto point guard, bringing the ball up the floor, calling the offense, and getting the team going on its possessions. He said her basketball IQ — and that of the other players — allows him to cede, to an extent, control to the players on the floor.

“If you want to give it a percentage, I’d probably say about 25 percent,” Brooks said when asked how much less involved he is. “We’ve implemented our schemes, our philosophies early, and they’ve just executed them and taken them to a different level. They’re a very smart basketball team. They’re a very unselfish basketball team. Once they settled into their roles, they knew what they really had to do. I’ve just really been a manager.”

Brooks is yelling less, too. Since the week before the CAA opener — an 87-51 rout of two-time defending CAA champion Delaware on Jan. 12 that was preceded by a particularly grouchy Brooks — Brooks said he’s been relatively relaxed. And the players agree.

“We noticed it,” said Giggetts, who is averaging 13.1 points and 6.0 rebounds a game. “I’ve been here three years and I’ve noticed he adapts to the team. And he put in different defenses and doesn’t quite exactly say where we need to be, but he knows we’re smart enough that we’ll figure it out ourselves.”

 Sean O’Regan, JMU’s associate head coach and a member of Brooks’ staff since 2007, said the personality of the team is why players have been allowed to freelance. He also confirmed that there is indeed a warmer, fuzzier Brooks on the bench this season. O’Regan said this JMU team is one that plays better when things are light, unlike Brooks’ first CAA championship team in 2010.

Now-assistant coach Sarah Williams was a team captain on that squad and apparently ruled, judging by how Brooks and O’Regan described it, with a somewhat despotic authority.

“I think Sarah would almost dare kids to not be focused in the locker room,” Brooks said. “Dare them to yell or to be laughing.”

But this team doesn’t work that way, although it’s regularly and methodically disposing of opponents by blowout margins. Several players, notably Giggetts, don’t respond to yelling, and O’Regan said the 45-year-old Brooks has adapted, much like he’s become a more defensive-minded coach because of his personnel.

“I think he’s getting a little bit wiser in his older age,” O’Regan said. “… He’s got an understanding that sometimes Toia likes to keep it light, as opposed to ‘We’ve got to be focused; we’ve got to be tight.’ That sort of thing. Toia likes to be silly. Nikki and Kirby, the way they lead is not, ‘Hey, you guys go do this, this time, this way.’ He’s let them grow and become what they are.”

So Brooks’ angry days are done?

“It’s about the team,” he said with a smile. “Don’t get it twisted. Next year might be different. I think I’ll probably have to get on them a little more.”

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