The best women’s basketball program in Division II is led by a millennial that loves transition offense
Sometimes, it’s more fun to get right into it than write these intros. Kari Pickens is the head coach of the women’s basketball program at Ashland University. Here’s some fun facts about Mrs. Pickens: she graduated college six years ago; she was a two-year star for Ashland; she scored 1,414 points in those two seasons; she just won 29 freaking games in her first-ever year as a head coach. She’s simply the latest in a line of coaching stars at Ashland. The last four seasons, split between Pickens and Robyn Fralick, have resulted in 133 wins and six losses. This, folks, is the best women’s basketball program Division II basketball has:
This is an Ashland team that blows opposing defenses off the floor and has done so for years now. 34 times in the last three seasons, the Eagles have tossed up 100+ points on an opponent; last year, they beat Lake Superior State 107-34. They aren’t necessarily trying to humiliate opponents; it just comes with running a transition-heavy offense. Per Synergy, 27.6% of Ashland’s possessions came in transition, which is both likely an underestimation and a full 10% above the national average. I mean, I’m sorry, but playing this fast is so fun:
It’s all a strategic choice, Pickens tells me. “There are some phenomenal defensive coaches in our league in particular, and if you get them in the half-court, they are going to fight and give everything they have. Instead of even giving them that opportunity, why not get a great look in transition and increase the amount of possessions we can have in a game?” It makes a lot of sense, and what Pickens says is backed up by her competition. In the GLIAC, Ashland has to compete with Northern Michigan (Round of 32, 23 wins), Grand Valley State (Sweet 16, 29-4), and Michigan Tech (21-9), while not even getting to the non-conference teams they draw in the NCAA Tournament: Drury (2019 Final Four), Lewis (27-5), etc. By that notion, playing fast and loose is almost a necessity to avoid better scouting:
Of course, Ashland has a non-transition offense, too. Their half-court offense features a lot of ball movement, plenty of quality looks for shooters, and a heavy amount of post-ups. “Our offense, it’s a high-ball screen, roll-and-rise action, so we run very few plays,” says Pickens. “The best part about our offense is that we go recruit good players and allow them to play freely within our system.” Seems simple enough, and it obviously bears itself out on the court:
It also helps to have a team without a me-first attitude. This year, four Ashland players scored double digits per game, with a fifth player essentially getting there at 9.9 PPG. To Pickens, being an unselfish player without a big ego is everything. “Any great coach would tell you that a great team passes up a good shot for a great shot anytime,” she says. It’s all about finding the very best look for a team stacked with great players. As Pickens notes, it’s simple, but even simple ideas can be highly destructive. If your goal is not to be easily scouted, you tell opponents straight-up that they cannot defend you from anywhere on the court:
With a few tweaks, Pickens is running something very similar to what her predecessor, Robyn Fralick, ran. There’s no sense in completely interrupting a good thing if it’s operating smoothly; you iron the bugs out as they come. “No question that she has the biggest influence on my personal philosophy,” says Pickens of Fralick, now the head coach at D-I Bowling Green State. “I played for her when she was an assistant coach and then coached under her when she was the head coach.” In addition, she gets to bounce a ton of ideas off of a certain high school coach: Caroline Daugherty, her mom. “We won two straight championships and were in a Final Four game my senior year,” Pickens tells me. It’s easy to see where she got her winning mentality from.
While a lot of teams may be moving out of the post, Pickens embraces it. Ashland had over 14% of their possessions end either with a shot or a pass out of the post, per Synergy, which is a higher rate than the national average. “[It] sounds basic, but our idea of surrounding good interior players with good perimeter players allows us to always get high-percentage shots,” she notes. Having opportunities like this:
Allows for you to space the floor properly for looks like this:
Ashland’s offense is a true work of art. Of course, it wouldn’t have been like this had Pickens not discovered the wonders of Division II on her own. “I think a lot of young ladies don’t know what Division II is really all about. I was built the same way,” she says. “When I was in high school, I remember crying, asking my mom and dad if I was going to have to play Division II because I had a really bad tournament. Then, I ended up finishing my career at Ashland after starting out at Dayton. It’s hilarious to me now that I ever said that, because I love what Division II stands for.”
Simply put, Pickens is a living story of how great college basketball can be below the Division I line. Because of her decision, she finds herself not even 30 years old yet, leading the best women’s basketball program in Division II. Obviously, it’s not always easy – “I love [Robyn Fralick] to death, but in three years, she lost three total games and won over 100,” she laments. However, it’s obviously incredibly rewarding, and she takes a lot of pride in being an Ashland graduate. “[The Ashland legacy and tradition] is really special to me, because that’s what brought me here and what I want to continue.” Here’s hoping she pushes it even further with one of the most fun offenses out there.