The Outlet: ‘Working on having fun’ is a key piece to the UAlbany women’s basketball program’s offseason

University at Albany head coach Colleen Mullen high-fives Ellen Hahne during a women's basketball game last season.
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University at Albany head coach Colleen Mullen high-fives Ellen Hahne during a women's basketball game last season.

Like any Division I basketball coach around this time of year, Colleen Mullen has an agenda of items for her players to focus on improving during their summer workouts.

Ball-handling.

Conditioning.

Footwork.

That’s just to name a few, and pretty standard fare.

One for Mullen, though, jumps out as a bit different.

“We’re working on having fun, too,” said Mullen, a head coach whose UAlbany women’s basketball program had plenty of that last season when it made a run to the NCAA tournament.

Mullen is serious about making sure her veteran-laden roster is utilizing this August to work on the on-court elements it needs to develop to make another March Madness run possible. She’s equally serious, though, about making sure her players, well, aren’t taking things too seriously.

“It’s so important. It’s a hard thing to do,” said Mullen, who was hired at UAlbany in May 2018. “But basketball needs to be fun. If you’re feeling pressure, you’re not going to be able to perform. You need to be able to turn that pressure into pleasure. It’s got to be something you get to do, rather than something you have to do.”

UAlbany carried that type of attitude with it last season, a 23-10 success that the Great Danes viewed as much a byproduct of their program’s culture as its talent. That winning season followed back-to-back-to-back losing ones in Mullen’s first years guiding the program, but guard Morgan Haney — entering her fourth college season — saw firsthand how the Great Danes’ attention to a positive culture was built up during those non-winning years.

“Nothing was personal [last season]. Even though we’d be competing in every drill against each other, there were never any hard feelings — but it took three years to get to that point,” Haney said.

She added: “Coach definitely recruits girls that genuinely love basketball. Our team culture creates an environment where we allow each other to have fun and be competitive.”

So the Great Danes have worked hard on the court this summer — and also done things together like head to Mohegan Sun Arena to catch star Sue Bird’s final game in Connecticut, a team-bonding adventure that also doubled as several Great Danes’ first trip to see a WNBA game in person. A team scavenger hunt is in the plans for August, as are cookouts and some game nights, plus weekends free of organized basketball activities to make sure everyone stays fresh.

“Our days aren’t just filled with basketball,” Haney said.

That’s by design, even during summer sessions when — theoretically — basketball could be even more of a focus than when a fall or spring academic semester is in full swing. Mullen came to that less-is-more strategy after her first couple seasons as a head coach, with the second of those campaigns the 2020-21 season that saw the Great Danes only play 18 games and go through a variety of pandemic-related pauses. The tough experience of that season, Mullen said, crystallized priorities moving forward.

“The mental health of our student-athletes is paramount,” Mullen said, “and there’s so many players with so much pressure and so much expectations — and when expectations exceed gratitude, there’s an imbalance there.”

Mullen’s club brings back all of its starters and key reserves from last season, and are poised to enter the 2022-23 season as favorites in the America East Conference. Mullen likes that type of pressure, and senses her players understand they “need to level up” to rise to the challenge of being expected to win when their season starts in November.

Just as important?

“We have to have a daily experience,” Mullen said, “that’s positive.”

Categories: College Sports, Sports, Sports, UAlbany

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