Growing Our Game

By Dave Slifer
Head Coach, University of Central Missouri
2018 NCAA Division II National Champion

I have been fortunate to be part of women’s basketball as a head coach for 30 years.  Women’s basketball has grown exponentially in my coaching lifetime. As stewards of this game, I urge us all to help “Grow the Game.” 

What steps can we take to ensure we positively progress in women’s basketball?

New rules

The rules committee gets great kudos for being progressive in its rule changes for the 2015-16 season.  Four quarters, resetting team fouls at the start of each quarter, and advancing the ball are examples of the forward, cutting-edge thinking which helps maximize our sport. These types of sweeping changes are helping shape our own brand and identity. Men’s basketball first put the shot clock in its game in the 1985-86 season, 14 years after women’s basketball initiated the shot clock. While the women’s shot clock has been at 30 seconds since 1971, it took men’s basketball 30 years to finally reset to 30 seconds after starting at 45 seconds.  Let’s make sure our sport continues our upward trajectory by being innovative and aggressive.   

Skill development  

Embrace “freedom of movement” and listen to some of our great leaders including Debbie Antonelli’s mantra, “Shoot ‘til your arm falls off.”  The skill level of our players is rising because of the number of shots practiced, and the infusion of quality coaching.  While we do have a few more players each year playing “above the rim,” most of our game is played with athletic young women who are spending more time not only shooting the basketball but becoming more dynamic with the ball in their hands.   A few years ago we went through a phase during which the strength coach was the most important hire after the recruiting coordinator.  Sorry strength coaches, you are important, but skill development is highly needed and necessary to continue growing our game.  Volume shooting, individual lessons, and high-quality summer teams for our young players will benefit our quest.


With the advent of advanced analytics, Synergy, and the internet flooded with articles, plays, mental training, drills, defensive concepts, etc.,  we have plenty of access to resources that allow us to think of our game in new ways.  One of the reasons basketball is such a great game is that every contest is different, and there are many ways to play/think about the game.  We have bright, intelligent coaches in our sport. Don’t be satisfied with being current with the way the game is played today, but be innovative and ahead of the curve by attempting new strategies.  Strategies that will benefit all of basketball, not just the women’s game.  An example of me being stuck in my old-time ways of doing what I’m comfortable with is benching a player with two fouls in the first half.  It took a phone call last year from my analytics expert, Coach JD Gravina from Western Illinois University, to expand my rigid, shallow mind that just because you’ve always done it that way, or the way everyone does it, doesn’t make it right.  A growth mindset is the only way we can grow as coaches and our game.


Debbie Antonelli may seem like all she preaches is, “Score, Score, Score,” but I think she is onto something.  In a basketball game you must outscore the other team regardless of how rugged a player-to-player defense you play, or the greatest zone, or press that you put on your opponent.  When studying Synergy’s top teams for points per possession for all divisions of women’s and men’s basketball, a common theme emerged.  The teams with the highest offensive points per possession were very successful throughout the regular season and postseason tournaments.  Some caution though, particularly when your two best defensive players graduate from your national championship team. Don’t make the “1,000 mistakes I made after winning a national championship.” (Thanks Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors for that self-deprecating title.) To win basketball games, you still must make defensive stops!     


Explore ways to get more fans to games.  Seems like a daunting task at times, but to grow our sport we must make the effort to develop a fan base.  One of our most enjoyable games this year is when we played Westminster from Utah and had an elementary school day.  Pittsburg State from our conference has had great success with this venture, so they provided the blueprint to allow us to get 1,600 elementary students to a midweek game starting at noon.  At first I was uncomfortable asking for our local school district to participate. However, the experience for the elementary students and teachers was super positive, our players loved it, and our administrators were thrilled with the event, even though it was work for us all.  We will look to build upon this day with other ventures to help spread the word about our program.

Develop young officials

Encourage your players to consider officiating when their playing days are over.  I’ve always considered the referees in our league to be the tops of NCAA Division II in the country. (Isn’t that the healthiest way to view it?) What better young officials could we develop than those who had the experience of playing the game. 

Next wave of coaches

One of the best ways to grow our sport is to have former players consider coaching as a vocation.  As the evolution of women’s basketball is occurring, we need passionate, intelligent young people to enter the ranks.  Most of us are still stunned to realize that we are rewarded with a paycheck by working every day in a sport about which we are passionate and love.  Share your vocational enthusiasm with your team daily and your coaching tree will sprout new branches.

Participate in governing our sport

Join committees at both the conference and national level, be active in the WBCA, and make it a point to go to the Women’s Final Four.  There are conference positions, mentoring programs, regional and national rankings — a multitude of opportunities to become “plugged in” at all different levels of our game.  Expanding your network and knowledge-base will most certainly benefit your coaching development!

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Thanks for allowing me to share these thoughts with you as we head into the stretch run.  Our game is growing and the opportunities are limitless. Utilize a growth mindset to handle the extreme ups and downs of your season. 

The Champions Blog Series consists of occasional articles written for the WBCA by member coaches whose teams have won national championships.

Release Date: 
Monday, February 25, 2019