May 24, 2023
State of the Program: Q&A with Minnesota’s new head coach Dawn Plitzuweit
New head coach looks to turn the tide for a hungry Golden Gophers team in 2023-24
After a 4-14 Big Ten finish in 2022-23, Minnesota and then-head coach Lindsay Whalen mutually agreed to part ways, ending the program legend’s five-year tenure in the position.
On March 18, the school announced the hiring of Dawn Plitzuweit – who last year led West Virginia to the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed after spending the previous six seasons at South Dakota – as Whalen’s replacement.
Turning Minnesota around will be no easy task. The Gophers haven’t had an overall winning record since 2019-20 and have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2018.
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Plitzuweit brings a winning track record with her to Minneapolis, though. In six seasons in Vermillion, South Dakota, she led the Coyotes to the WNIT her first two seasons before what would’ve been four straight NCAA Tournament appearances if not for COVID-19. In that pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the Coyotes finished Summit League play 16-0 and 30-2 overall. In 2021-22, Plitzuweit took South Dakota to the Sweet Sixteen, whereas a 10-seed, it narrowly lost to 3-seeded Michigan, 52-49.
In her only season in West Virginia, the Mountaineers finished fifth in the Big 12 and lost to Arizona in the first round of the tournament.
She arrived in Minnesota with just seven players on the roster. As of May 15, it’s doubled to 14. Still, Plitzuweit and her staff have the challenge of simultaneously getting all the new players to mesh while competing in a loaded Big Ten conference.
2022-23 record: 11-19 (4-14 Big Ten)
Big Ten finish: 13th
Notable wins: vs. Purdue (77-69)
Departures: Alanna Micheaux (transferred to Virginia Tech), Katie Borowicz (medically retired), Isabelle Gradwell (graduation), Mi’Cole Cayton (graduation), Angelina Hammond (graduation), Destinee Oberg (graduation), Maria Counts (transferring).
Key Additions: Sophia Hart (transferring from NC State), Janay Sanders (transferring from App State), Grace Grocholski (first year), Aminata Zie (transferring from Western Nebraska CC), and Ayianna Johnson (first year).
The Next recently caught up with Plitzuweit, and she discussed what drew her to this opportunity, what her goals are as she takes over the program and much more. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Next: What appealed to you about this opportunity?
Plitzuweit: Certainly, I think the quality of the Big Ten is something. I’ve been raised in Big Ten country; I’m fully aware of how good the Big Ten is so that certainly is a great part of it. The academic reputation of the University of Minnesota, to be able to recruit high-academic young ladies to attend our university who are also great basketball players, and then you look at our region for basketball, and I really believe that this is a top-notch reason for girls’ basketball, high school AAU level. It’s a great opportunity to recruit from within your region, within your backyard, if you will. Backyard maybe not necessarily meaning just in Minneapolis, but within our region.
The Next: How do you go about getting everyone to build chemistry and get used to playing with each other because that’s always one of the big challenges you have as a first-year coach with so many players that just don’t have experience playing together?
Plitzuweit: The first thing that we do is we work on how to do things on the court in the same way, so that builds a unity, a camaraderie, but then really, the great part about the summer months for us is that it allows us a great deal of time to do things together off the court. Whether that’s in the community, whether that’s from a leadership standpoint, a lot of different things we can do together during the summer months, which all takes time, so that’s why it’s hard, it’s challenging, but it’s really, really important.
The Next: You mentioned how deep the conference is, and one of the things that’s happened is you saw the evolution of a program like Indiana where the Hoosiers were previously very defensive-minded, they became really good on the offensive side of the ball as well; you see what Shauna Green did at Illinois with their shooting ability. What kind of style are you trying to bring to Minnesota, and how do you think it’ll fit in with the rest of the conference?
Plitzuweit: First and foremost, every player wants to be able to push the ball up the court and play fast. That’s a goal and mindset for every single player that is in our program and players that we recruit. The key to being able to do that is to find ways to get stops. For us, that’ll be via a mindset that we have, how quickly can we become a really solid defensive team? What are our abilities? That’s hard for me to answer at this point in time in terms of what does that look like for us? How exactly can we go about doing that? For the majority of my career, it’s been in a man-to-man defensive system, and we can alter it depending on how we guard different spots, different actions, and the type of kids that we have. So that’s the first thing. And then the second part is, in an ideal world, we’d love to spread the floor and attack the rim and shoot it from the arc. How does that exactly happen? Over time, we’d love to get to a motion offense. Can we get to it right away? I don’t know. I’m not really sure yet. It’s going to take some time to figure out what suits us as a whole the best from an offensive standpoint right now in year one.
The Next: Any players that have stood out to you on the roster so far?
Plitzuweit: I would say this: Overall, as a group, we’ve had five weeks or so of workouts, and they’re really hungry. They want to do really well, and it was really fun to have a chance to work with them.
The Next: Given where the conference is now, you’re going to be facing really good teams every night. What does an ideal first season in Minneapolis look like?
Plitzuweit: Ultimately, we are a program that is a process-driven program. For us, we want to first get to the point where we compete at a really high level on both ends of the court and certainly battle each possession. Once we learn how to really compete, then the results kind of take off from there. That’s our first goal is to put ourselves in a position to be highly competitive. And that’s going to be my answer in year two, in year three, in year four, so that doesn’t really change. I’m not saying that because of where we are as a program, but more of that’s who we are as a program.
The Next: You touched before on wanting to be part of the Big Ten and what the conference has done to grow awareness and support for women’s basketball. What stands out to you the most when you see what Big Ten teams have been able to accomplish in recent years?
Plitzuweit: The depth of the conference is really something that stands out at this point. I think this year, you had some really high-end performing teams, but that wasn’t just it. The depth across the entire conference was something that was really impressive. When you have that, what really becomes neat to see is how the fanbases continue to grow, and I think that’s certainly something we continue to watch within the Big Ten as well, something we certainly want to grow here in Minnesota.
The Next: Minnesota has a great fan base for all of its sports. What excites you the most about this opportunity?
Plitzuweit: It goes hand-in-hand with our players. Our players are really hungry. I think they want to be really, really good. They were like sponges, almost, when it came to workouts. You can tell that they want to be good. I certainly believe it’s the same within our entire community. People are really excited and want Minnesota women’s basketball, as well as other sports here within the athletic department that continue to grow because they want to come out, and I think they really do want to support. I think we see it with a lot of sports at any level in the Twin Cities area.
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.