Keeping it in the family
Nikki Flores was just trying to play with the cats in the living room of her brother’s New Jersey home when a phone call at around 9 p.m. interrupted her.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said of the late August night.
It was the Marist Associate Head Women’s Basketball Coach on the line, Megan Gebbia, whom she played point guard under for four seasons from 2004-2008. The two tried to keep in touch whenever their schedules allowed on the recruiting trail, but often times they weren’t able to communicate otherwise because of their coaching gigs.
“I heard through the grapevine she was interviewing [at AU] but I didn’t think anything of it,” Flores said. “We’re on the phone and she’s like, ‘You know, I interviewed at American,’ and it was only like four days ago so I’m like ‘Yeah,’ there’s no way she could’ve heard back so soon.”
But it only took AU athletic director Billy Walker a few days to decide whom he wanted as his new head women’s basketball coach, and it took Gebbia even less time to determine who she wanted one of her assistants to be.
“She is a great recruiter and she knows the system so I didn’t have to teach her it,” Gebbia said. “She’s an extremely hard worker and she’s a great multitasker. Just having somebody that was a point guard that played in the system is helpful.”
All in the family
Gebbia was in an unusual situation. Five years after declining the same job, she was asked not to replace a coach who struggled to win or was bad for the program which is what typically happens when there’s a coaching vacancy. Rather, she was tasked with replacing the man who became the second-fastest coach in Patriot League history and fastest in AU history to reach 100 career wins.
Matt Corkery, now the Associate Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Texas Tech, voluntarily left the program to be closer to his family in Texas this summer.
However, despite all the success Corkery achieved, Gebbia cleaned house when she arrived at AU and began running the program the only way she knew how: with people who know “the system” inside and out.
“I needed [my staff] to know the system because I’m teaching 12 new players a completely different style; I can’t then teach my coaching staff the same thing and I’m the only one that knows what’s going on in practice,” Gebbia said. “I’m seeing the big picture and they’re seeing the little things.”
That’s why the first-time head coach tabbed Flores, Tiffany Coll and Emily Stallings as her three assistants. Coll played three seasons under Gebbia at UMBC from 1999-2002 and Stallings was a Marist standout under Gebbia from 2008-2012. While at Marist, Gebbia won over 80 percent of her games and racked up four conference titles with Stallings as well as three MAAC Championships with Flores.
“They’ve been [to the NCAA Tournament], they know what it’s like and that’s really exciting for us to try and get to the same place,” sophomore forward Abigail Fogg said. “It’s really important to have people who have been there.”
A new kind of basketball
In sharp contrast to last year’s up-tempo, high-pressure team, Gebbia is bringing a new style of play to D.C. The most apparent change will be the Eagles’ sagging man-to-man defense in which they’ll dare opponents to shoot from the perimeter versus the full-court press they ran a season ago.
“Our job is to keep it out of the paint, force teams to take difficult perimeter shots and they better have a good shooting night to beat us,” Gebbia said, “because we’re not letting people score easily.”
However, perhaps the most difficult change for the team will be what they do on offense. Rather than penetrating and kicking like they did a lot of last year, AU will transition to a motion offense that relies a lot on back screens, down screens and ball screens in which they have to continuously read the defenders.
“It’s so hard to guard,” Gebbia said. “I think it will put some teams in panic mode because there’s so much action but not a lot of time to help defensively.”
Although, what will make this offense particularly difficult to guard is its rarity. Gebbia adopted the system from Marist head coach Brian Giorgis, who is the only head coach in the country to run this particular offense. Gebbia estimated that at most, only two teams in the 10-squad Patriot League have ever faced it before.
“This system is something the Patriot League hasn’t really seen,” Fogg said. “It is a lot different than teams have encountered. There are definitely advantages to it.”
During non-conference play, Gebbia expects only three or four sets and the motion will be installed. However, when Patriot League play begins, she hopes to have more quick-hitters that people haven’t seen as well as junk defenses to throw at conference opponents.
“Our practices are more difficult intellectually than they are physically and I think that’s a huge change,” Gebbia said. “I’m not making them run 1,000 sprints; it’s more of can you do it up here because that’s where you win games.”
Although the reading and reacting will come more off screens than penetration this season, Gebbia does plan on making a few tweaks throughout the season to allow the Eagles’ athletic guards to penetrate and get in the lane.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the assistant coaching staff enjoys about their playing days is it’s not hard to sell the players on the new system. Between the trio of Gebbia’s former players, there are hundreds of wins and a plethora of conference crowns.
“The funny thing is they can’t sit there and not buy in because you have two players that won championships and had undefeated seasons in the exact same philosophy,” Flores said. “We’re like the living examples that it works so they can’t fight it.”
Because Gebbia’s system is difficult to pick up, the players are also experiencing a quicker learning curve. Sometimes the assistant coaches even jump in drills to show players how to execute a particular move or read.
“It helps because they all ran the same offense,” junior forward Arron Zimmerman said.“They’ve all run it themselves so they know the ins and outs of the entire offense. Them teaching it and us learning it has been really easy. They know all of the little things that you may have not known you even had to do.”
The coaches’ ability to both teach and reflect on their own experiences help them off the court as well. When they’re traveling around the country to recruit players, they’re able to draw upon their playing days to relate to the new crop of high school upperclassmen.
The fact that they still have such strong relationships with the coach they played for years ago is a testament to the type of person Gebbia is and the program she hopes to build at AU.
“It’s easier here to recruit because I went through the recruiting process with Meg,” Flores said. “It’s funny when I’m on the phone with kids they ask me about the head coach and I say that she was the main reason I went to Marist. I tell them that if it means anything, she has three former players coaching with her so it does make it a little easier.”
Regardless of whom you ask, all of the Eagles say the same thing: There’s a new atmosphere within the program this year. Although AU has had success in the past few years, the players feel a different sense of environment with Gebbia and her assistants.
“I think the biggest change this year is the energy our coaching staff brings,” senior guard Alexis Dobbs said. “I think the change was really good for us.”
Fogg added: “The leadership that came in is a different kind of energy. It’s really inspiring for all of us.”
The Eagles hope to ride that attitude the new staff brought all the way to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. Dobbs, an All-Patriot League First Team and Second Team selection, looks to lead AU so they can finally break the streak of underperforming in the conference tournament.
“The new philosophy and mentality I think will help us get over the hump,” Dobbs said. “We’ve been really close; we have talent, we have ability. With the new philosophy and new look, it will make us get there this year.”