Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Depth. If there is one thing to know about this year’s Temple squad it is that their roster is deep.
The Owls return Mia Davis, who averaged 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds a season ago, as well as Jasha Clinton, who filled the stat sheet with 14.4 points, 4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.1 steals a game. Davis and Clinton are just two of the five returning starters for Temple, which boasts a 16-player roster.
Also returning is coach Tonya Cardoza, who enters her 14th season at the helm of the Owls, with an overall record of 238-173, after going 11-11 during last year’s shortened season.
CoBL spoke to Cardoza in July for an update on her squad, how they handled the pandemic season, and her early thoughts about 2021-22 as her program begins its preparations for the fall. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
Sophomore Jasha Clinton (above), had a breakout year as a freshman. (Photo: Sideline Photos)
City of Basketball Love: How did it feel being back out there on the road recruiting again and seeing future players?
Tonya Cardoza: It was good. You know, it was hard just recruiting virtually, basically, sitting, watching a lot of game film. It's hard to evaluate someone through film. I like to be able to watch body language, see up-close how tall players really are. There's just a difference when you're able to view a lot at once, instead of just watching one game and focusing in on that one game. When you're at tournaments, you can leave a court and go to another game or watch two games at the same time. So, it definitely was good to be back out there and seeing the up-and-coming players in-person.
Not to say that this virtual recruiting wasn't good for us because – for Temple – I felt like the recruiting class that we brought in – our incoming freshmen and transfers – I think they're a really good class. So, I think we definitely made out in the virtual recruiting, because we signed some kids that I think are definitely going to be great players for us.
CoBL: You have this five-woman freshman class coming from all over the place; Louisville, Buffalo, Baltimore. Were these generally girls that you had been on before the pandemic, or were they discoveries during the pandemic? How did that class come together?
TC: For the most part, the majority of them are people that we had seen before the pandemic, but maybe had not seen a lot. But I would probably say, maybe one of them was just watching on tape. But for the most part, we saw them when they were younger, so that helped as well.
CoBL: From the coach's perspective, did it become a little bit of, you know, trusting the tape, trusting your assistants, gut instinct? I mean, where do you sort of have to rely on to know to make sure that you're sticking with the right people?
TC: Honestly it was a lot of it. So, in these Zooms – because we did a lot of Zooms – some of it was just that interaction, how kids were able to handle themselves on a call with a bunch of people they didn’t know. We tried to make sure that the kids we’re bring in – I feel like with this class especially – are well-rounded kids that can conduct themselves and handle themselves in a lot of different situations. So that was one of the things that we set out when we were on these zoom calls to see if they had their parents speaking for them, or if they were able to hold a conversation and ask questions on their own. And they did that. A lot of it was trusting some assistants. You know, there were some times where I was like, you got to believe that this is a good kid, because maybe I hadn't seen her. And I trust my assistant coaches so that, if they tell me that someone is good and if they’re vouching for them, I’m going with them. I had that kind of trust in them. And it got down to even, maybe we didn't see someone, but a high school coach or an AAU coach that we trust a lot and value their opinion reached out. So, it was a little bit of everything. And it just worked out for us. And we got some transfers as well, who… are all solid kids, that are definitely going to help us as well. And with them, it was a little bit easier to evaluate, because they have college games that we can watch on Synergy. With them, it was a little bit easier. With high school kids it is a little more difficult, because it's four years, and you don't know what it is in college. So, it was difficult, but I felt like we made out. In all of this, I thought we did a really good job of getting all the information we needed. And the fact that we had started recruiting them at a younger age, we had seen what they were capable of doing.
(Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
CoBL: It must make for a strange first day of practice then in the summer. This time, you’re really looking to see what you have.
TC: I mean, you don't know. Like, literally, when they came back, we were about to go on the road. So, we're already looking at our 2022 class. And I didn't want to take anyone virtual with our 2022 class. Like, I have to see these guys play. Because we already have a group of kids that I haven't seen play. Before we sign anyone, for the most part, I need to make sure that I've seen these kids.
We were so excited to go to practice because we really had no clue of what they were going to look like. You know, not the freshmen, not the transfers. So, when we showed up and played pick-up, we all walked away like, wow, like, we definitely made out. I think we have a talented group, a really, really talented group. They get along really well. They, you know, none of them are the same. They're all different. But they have talent. They work hard. They pay attention. I definitely feel like we made out. We've been happy at our workouts.
CoBL: How many weeks of summer workouts do you guys get in total and, like, where are you in that cycle?
TC: I think this is week six. We have two days next week. And then I believe it’s two days the following week. And we started a little later because we didn't make them come back for workouts. We just waited for summer school to start and went from there and there might have been two guys that were here for summer.
When we all met up right before we went on the road, we had like four days that we got in the gym. It was like wow; this is going to be really good. And the biggest difference is, last year we literally had eight players that played in games and we just brought in nine new players. So, you go from eight players that just played in games to bring it in a whole new nine, as well as your starting five. Last year we talked about how we didn't have depth. Well, that's not going to be the case this year. We have a ton of different guys and the style of play can be something drastically different because of the large number and all the different things that we have. We have bigs. Last year all we had was Alexa in the post… Lex was our only true big. Well, now we have tons of bigs. So, that's great when we talk about our depth, that we can really play a bunch of different ways.
CoBL: So, you have 16 women on the roster. With all the newcomers and returners, you know, how do you start to get the chemistry? … How did you focus on that over the last six weeks?
TC: The first couple of days that we were in the gym with them, we just wanted them to play pick-up to try to see what they were capable of doing. Instead of throwing them in drills we wanted to – again, we hadn’t seen them play in like a year or, some of them, never, for me. Some of them it was the first time other than on-film that I had seen them play. So we watched them play pick-up, and from pick-up it was, ‘Okay. With this unit right here, let’s try to run this particular play and see how it works.’ And then it’s changing the teams and trying to see certain teams together. Then from there, it was focusing on the defensive side. Today was the first day that we actually put in offensive sets. I feel like their IQ is really, really good. And they’re eager and they want to play… I feel like they’re definitely competing. And that's the biggest thing, making sure that no matter what the situation is that they're trying to compete to win. And the chemistry part, I feel like because they were pretty much the only ones on-campus when I got here… they're all in apartments together, introducing themselves. And I feel like their personalities are bringing them together. We have a lot of players that that's their personality - to be around a bunch of people or to invite someone over and cook dinner for them. So, the jelling part, I feel like we have great leadership and great individuals. That's naturally who they are - we haven't had to do that so much as a coaching staff. They already are like best friends, it's awesome to see. And the basketball part, we're still trying to figure out how we want to play because we have so many different talents, and so many different guys that can do different things.
We're still trying to figure those pieces out. And today was, like I said, the first day that we really put an offense in, just to see how they pick things up. And by the end of the practice, they're able to run up and down and call out plays and get to the right spots and help each other out. It's just been fun to watch over these last couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to actually getting in the gym and having real practices.
But definitely, the sky's the limit for this team. I feel like, like I said, the biggest thing is that they're competitive, and they want to win. When we were gone, they talked about how the pick-up games were, and that was something that they probably weren't really doing the last couple of years when we weren’t there in the summer… But now, they’re excited. They’re talking about playing pick-up. I like where our mindset is. It's about basketball, about being better and wanting to win.
CoBL: Are there any of the players in-particular that really lead from that, you know, that are really the most competitive and the one that set the tone in that respect?
TC: Honestly, there are a lot of them that are competitive. Like, when I tell you the first couple of days that we were doing things where there was going to be a winning team and a losing team – Jasha (Clinton) and Mia (Davis) were our top two players last year and neither took the game-winning shots on either team. Someone came down and took a shot. It wasn’t like, ‘Look for Mia,’ or ‘Look for Jasha.’ These are young guys that are like, ‘I’m open and I’m going to make a play,’ and they’re making plays…
So, when we talk about depth, that's a big thing, because we didn't have that last year. And teams are able to just focus-in on, you know, certain individuals. Well, when you have a bunch of guys that are not looking to be passive, but looking to make plays, it just helps so much more.
Alexa Williamson (above) averaged 12.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg for Temple as a junior last season. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
CoBL: As you mentioned, with all the newcomers, there’s a huge difference between coming in as a grad student who’s played four years of D-1 ball and coming in as a true freshman. With that being said, of the newcomers, has anybody especially stood out to you or impressed you over these last few weeks?
TC: Honestly, all of them. All of them bring something special.
(Aniya Gourdine) is someone who has this slow pace game, but she makes so many things happen. Like, she definitely has impressed me because, again, I hadn't seen Aniya play. She was one of those guys that I hadn't seen play. But everybody else around me was like, ‘We got to do it. We trust this guy.’ And so, I was really anxious to see what Aniya could do. And I didn't realize that – I mean, I watched her on film – but I didn't realize that she could really be a point guard. So that definitely changed things for us… Now Aniya can be a point guard or is a point guard and has a point guard mentality. And she can shoot the basketball. She's a really good passer. So, she definitely impressed me.
(Tiarra East), we already knew Tiarra was good. She’s a Top 100 kid. So, we already knew that she was good. And can do a lot of things; super athletic. So, not to say that she hasn't impressed me, but I already knew what I was getting when we signed Tiarra. We knew we got a steal.
(Makayla Waleed) is such a great defender, and Makayla just came back last week because she was ill. She is a great defender. I knew that’s what we were getting, but seeing it up-close in-person, like… she has impressed me with her defense.
(Jada Williams) is injured, so she hasn’t been able to do much.
(Kyra Wood), oh my gosh. Again, my assistant coaches are like, ‘Kyra, Kyra, Kyra. We got to get her.’ I’ve seen her on film, but I hadn’t seen her in-person really. And watching Kyra go every single day, she's like doing things and it's like, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be so good.’ Like, she has so much potential. But even with all that potential right now, she's getting things done as a freshman post player. And they grasp things, they ask questions, they're just really, really keen on trying to get better, and trying to, you know, find ways to, ‘How am I going to contribute?’ And it's just awesome, because a lot of times you see freshmen, they don't really want to ask a question because they don't want to be that guy. Well, these guys, they ask questions.
The transfers, they're all great. Like (Jiselle Thomas), from the moment I saw her work ethic, she works so hard, non-stop. Great player. (Jalynn Holmes), I was so anxious to see her play. Great shooter, can score, can play defense, can do a lot of different things. And we have size at the guard position, like really big guards that can do a lot of different things. And (Caranda Pera), again, my assistant coaches were like ‘You got to get her.’ That kid can shoot the ball. She is that stretch four that can knock down shots, that can handle the basketball, can pass the basketball. But her jump shot, the kid can really shoot.
So, when I say that when I go to practice, I'm excited, because, again, we have our starting five back, but we have all those guys that I just mentioned that can find a way to contribute and be a big part of our success this year.
CoBL: You bring in all of this talent and you retain all of this talent… Where do you push them? Is it building on their stats from last year? Is it about ‘Hey, you know, you might not put up as big numbers, but that's okay?’ Like, what's your sort of hope for them from that standpoint this year?
TC: I don't think we're selfish individuals where we worry about how many points we score. I think it’s more so about playing and winning. I don't think that any of them would be like, ‘Oh, I'm not playing as many minutes,’ if we're winning. You know, if we're winning, I think everybody's going to be happy.
But obviously, Mia, we need Mia to be Mia. We need Jasha to be Jasha. We need Lex to be Lex. But we don't have to have them go out every night and feel like they have to win the game, because there's going to be so many other guys on the floor that can do something and can help out… that's going to be the great thing where there's not going to be a guy on the floor that can't get something done. It's going to be hard for teams to defend Mia the way that they do if there are other offensive players that can go out and get a bucket and are going to look to go score. Same with Jasha. You're going to have Jasha surrounded by guys that, when she's putting the ball on the floor, and they're collapsing, that you can kick out to make an open jump shot. More guys putting the ball on the floor looking to attack. We just have a lot of guys that can play both sides of the ball. So, Jasha, Lex, Mia – they’ll still get theirs – but it’s not going to be just those three. It could be about eight of them. Whereas, on any given day someone's doing something that helps us win basketball games.
CoBL: Do you think your biggest challenge of the preseason is just figuring out what that rotation is going to look like?
TC: I feel like right now, I don't want to focus on that. Because I don't know yet. I made a conscious effort of not putting people together right now, because I might have done that in the past… So, I've just been trying to put different people out together on the floor and just see what works. Even with offenses, just seeing what works. Seeing what we're really good at and building off of that. I know one thing that we definitely have to do a better job this year - and we have the ability - is being better defenders. I think we could be more aggressive than we have been in the last couple of years of really getting up in your face and trying to be disruptive. I felt like the last couple of years, because we had to protect Mia a lot too, because people are going to attack her and try to get her in foul trouble. So, we had to hang out in the lane a little more to keep people from trying to attack us inside. But now I feel like because we have depth, we don't have to worry about protecting anyone, we can get up and be aggressive and make it difficult for you to try to score against us and more so to create that havoc, because we're really good. We have guys that can get out and transition and be really, really good in transition.
CoBL: You’ve had plenty of teams that have gone 11, 12 deep. So that’s not something that’s out of character for your program.
TC: Right? Not at all. But I feel like with this year, the 11th and 12th man are really players that on any given day could have been in the starting lineup. You know, the 11th and 12th man are still guys that can go out and get you like six to eight points.
CoBL: It reminds me of – I don’t know if you know Steve Donahue at Penn that well – they've had rosters that have gone, you know, 12 or 13 deep where even that eighth or ninth guy, they've still started four or five games.
TC: Right, and that's how I feel right now. I might go to the coaching staff and say to them, ‘Okay, who's your starting lineup today?’ And it's never the same. Obviously, Mia is always going to be in your starting lineup, but every single day it could be something different. And that's the exciting thing, that there's so many. We have so many pieces. You have Jasha, Mia and Alexa who all averaged double figures, right? And then you have Jiselle who averaged, I think 16 points last year, Jalen averaged about 12 or 13 points last year. That's two guys that you're bringing on your team that averaged double figures at their last schools. Caranda, who missed some games, but can score the basketball.
CoBL: Do you see that continuing throughout the season? Or could the rotation, the lineup be changing?
TC: I don't like to play like that. I like to have a starting five and stick with it. Usually, if we’re switching, it’s because it’s time to make that change. But not like, ‘Okay, today, you get to start because you had a good practice.’ Not like that. I don't like that… That's how well they've been playing in practice on any given night. It could be somebody different. That's what practices have been. So, meaning, that just makes us that much deeper.
CoBL: From an on-court perspective, what do you see is like the biggest need to focus on?
TC: I would say defense and rebounding. Those have been things that have hurt us the last couple of years. One, because of size. Two, because we don't focus enough on it… And defensively, like I said, we've had numbers where it's like, you can't be aggressive, because you get in foul trouble, now you guys have to go sit on the bench, and now we don't stand a chance. I feel like this year, if someone gets into foul trouble, it's not the end of the world, because we have so many players that can be there to step up.
CoBL: Anything else you’d like to add about your program?
TC: I'm just really, really excited about it. Again, I think if you ask any of our players, I think they're really excited about it. Just like what practices look like and, you know, plays that guys are making, the athleticism that we have and the competitiveness – they're just really, really competitive right now.
CoBL’s Mitchell Northam contributed to this piece