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October 29, 2009

Suzy Merchant


Q. You guys are picked to finish second in the conference in both polls. How do you keep these girls focused on that end prize that you've talked about going to the Final Four? And does it worry you a bit about complacency setting in after getting as far as you did last year?
SUZY MERCHANT: No, I think a lot of our complacency issues that maybe came up were answered in the last 64 seconds of the Iowa State game. I think losing the way we did when we had control of that game, I think our kids kind of took that negative experience and frustration and carried it over into the off-season, had a little bit different swagger. I think if you can turn a negative into a positive, this team did.
Quite honestly, I think we're too much of a veteran group to really allow ourselves to not keep our eye on the prize.

Q. How has the team started playing Allyssa DeHaan differently as they've seen her more often?
SUZY MERCHANT: I think they're more difficult with her. They really try to push her off the block, and really when she's down low, there's no question that there's a stronger physical presence down there defensively. I mean, I just think there's someone that -- she has the height and certainly has a lot of talent, but she doesn't always match up with the strengths of some of the other kids. So I think when you look at the Big Ten, I think people really do try to -- they do a couple things to her. Offensively I think they try to beat her up a little bit and try to get away with some things, and then defensively they try to bring her away from the basket so she can't block shots. So I would say on each side of the ball those are the answers.

Q. Just kind of a follow-up to Allyssa, is that the next phase of her game, that she needs to get better as far as strength, or is she maxed out at that, or what's her next step, I guess?
SUZY MERCHANT: Well, I think -- I don't know if she's ever going to be strong. She's just not built that way. I think when you have a 6'9" frame, and she's on the leaner side, we've really worked at it, but she's just someone who isn't going to get a whole lot heftier and stronger. She works at it, but her frame isn't built that way. For her it's just been a little more of the mental side and kind of handling that kind of physical play.
I think earlier in her career maybe it got to her a little bit. I think her freshman year nobody really knew how to play her, and by her sophomore and junior year figured it out, and I think over those two years she's figured out mentally probably more importantly how to handle that.

Q. Can you kind of sum up what you view the Big Ten as right now? The conference itself takes a lot of hits sometimes, especially like Kevin had said, teams beat up on each other, records get a little bit skewed compared to where the talent level of the team is. Can you kind of assess where the conference is as a whole. And then also kind of give an overview for this year a little bit of what you see.
SUZY MERCHANT: Sure. You know, I couldn't agree more with him. I think nationally I'm not sure exactly what people think, but I know, for example, the Northwestern coach, Joe McKeowon, came in here this year and it was his first year in the league and he had spent 19 years at G Dub. His perception of the league when he got in here was a lot different. It's so competitive top to bottom. I think the coaching in the league and the recruiting in the league from the first-place team all the way through is just high quality. And so night in and night out, it's a true conference where anybody can beat anybody.
I think we are excited about as a conference moving away from 18 games and going to 16 games, because when you have the perception of people always beating up on each other, it makes it look like the league isn't as strong. But actually I feel like when that does happen, top to bottom your league is probably as tough as other leagues, versus a league that has three or four dominating teams and everybody else is kind of a drop-off.
So I feel like this year is going to be a really good example to show on a national scale that this is a league that's very challenging top to bottom, and every night you have to bring your best game.

Q. What teams are you particularly worried about?
SUZY MERCHANT: All of them (laughing). We're coaches; we worry about everything.
Honestly, it is, just as I had mentioned the parity in the league and the strength in the league, so I can't say that there's one team that we're not going to be certainly respectful of and worried about. You know, every style is different, and every coach has a different style, and sometimes the style worries you, sometimes the personnel worries you.
I mean, it just depends on what night and who you're playing.
I mean, I think everyone poses their own challenges, so to name certain teams is really hard for me to do sitting up here. I just think it's a little bit difficult to do that as a coach up here. I think everyone is so talented in different ways.

Q. After reaching the Sweet 16 last season, what are the team's goals for this year?
SUZY MERCHANT: Probably the same that they've always been. I mean, we certainly want to win a Big Ten title, and the goal of this team is to push as far as we can and obviously get to an opportunity of a Final Four and a national championship game. Will we get there? I don't know, time will tell. But that's certainly the goals of our team.

Q. Just kind of going back to the strength of the conference conversation, did last year's postseason show a little bit more about what this league is about, between you guys going deep and kind of maybe surprising a few people, and Purdue going as deep as they did and some of the other teams?
SUZY MERCHANT: Yeah, I think that's the part of your question I didn't answer, so I apologize. Yeah, I definitely think you look at the five teams that went to the postseason. I think four of us beat -- obviously three of us were Elite 8, Sweet 16 teams. But Minnesota ended up, upsetting Notre Dame in the first round, we beat a No. 1 seed. So I think that hopefully last year's performance gives us a little more credibility out there.
I think there's a vision and a belief that other conferences are a little stronger, but at the end of the day, we had three teams finish in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite 8 and one with an opportunity to play for a Final Four. I really hope that we can build on that, and I think nationally we can get our message out that this is a good and strong conference.

Q. I'm just trying to do some overview stuff here. On a national scale right now, you've got UConn, and then it seems like there's a lot of teams, again, that are right in the same mix, you could maybe say two, three, four, five all in the same mix. Can you kind of survey what you see as the national scene right now in terms of who would be -- outside of UConn obviously, who can be strong contenders from what you see?
SUZY MERCHANT: Well, it's so early right now to really pinpoint that, and there's a lot of games to be played. I think that's a tough question to answer right now until you can get a little bit into the season. But I think the one thing that's really a positive is that it is starting to do this. You know, there used to be just -- in the women's game, and to grow our sport, to really have growth in our sport, we need to do what we're doing now, where a No. 9 seed does upset a No. 1 or Minnesota can go into Notre Dame and upset a Notre Dame. That has to happen for the good of the game, honestly. People aren't interested when it's just one or two teams. That's what it's been lately up until I would say the last few years. You can see the shift starting to change a little bit. The domination isn't always there every year, year in and year out.
I think that's a positive thing for our game, because I really believe that when you look at where women's basketball is, it's kind of like in the '70s when UCLA men were going, nobody really wanted to turn on the game because UCLA is going to win it again, I'll wait for the national championship game. I'm not sure it was good for college basketball. And now it's obviously not like that. It can be anybody from anywhere throughout the country in the men's game, and there's a lot of upsets, and I think our women's game is starting to get there and has really made a shift in that direction.
To answer your question, I think the parity thing is a good thing, but to name some of those teams for me is probably a little difficult right now.

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