February 1, 2024
‘A connected spirit’: Robyn Fralick’s more than a basketball genius
A look behind the scenes at the success of Michigan State's head coach
Robyn Fralick is a basketball coach. If she had chosen an alternate life in politics, she’d be any communication staffer’s dream. She’s never not on message.
After the first few times you hear her spiel, about consistency and trust and all the other buzzwords every coach in any sport has ever used, you start to realize something: This isn’t just superficial coach-speak, this is Fralick’s DNA.
The Okemos, Michigan, native is in the first year of what she’s called her dream job, the head coach of the Michigan State Spartans. So far, things have gone quite well.
The Spartans are 16-5 on the season and 6-4 in the Big Ten. The conference record might not seem flashy, but consider that among those losses is a three-point heartbreaker at the hands of Caitlin Clark and the No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes, and a five-point defeat on the road against No. 17 Ohio State.
Michigan State finished last year 16-14 (7-10 Big Ten), so this wasn’t a total rebuild she took over. But Fralick arrived in East Lansing and, within a few months, turned a roster that no one likely expected to make much noise into a surefire NCAA Tournament contender.
There are any number of examples that prove her bona fides as a head coach. When she coached at Division II Ashland University in Ohio, she compiled a record of 104-3. In her next stop at Bowling Green University, she took a program that won three conference games the year before she arrived to 14 conference wins and a 30-7 season last year. Her teams consistently lead the sport in sharing the ball, taking care of the ball and creating scoring opportunities.
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But it’s not just the numbers that explain Fralick’s success.
She’s the ultimate problem solver, someone who cares deeply about her people, someone committed to fostering a family environment.
“You play differently for each other when there’s a really high care level for each other,” Fralick told The Next. “When there’s a high care level for each other, there’s a connected spirit when you compete.”
Maria Kasza, one of her assistant coaches, likes to keep a notebook of what she calls “Fralick-isms.”
“‘Culture isn’t built in a day, it’s built every day.’ ‘Trust is slow to earn, fast to lose.’ Probably two heavy hitters,” Kasza said.
Again, you’d be forgiven for mistaking these for typical coach talk.
“She doesn’t just say them. It’s how she actually operates,” Kasza continued. “Coach has a really unique intuition for if someone is a little bit off. She herself is on all the time. She’ll call her staff just to check and see how we’re doing with the transition moving from Bowling Green to Michigan State. She loves her family, she loves our staff and she loves our kids. And I think she really does operate in a really loving and grateful way.”
Fralick’s five core values in life follow her everywhere she goes: Be a great teammate, manners matter, trust, toughness and commitment. During every single practice, her players stand in a circle and shout out a teammate who epitomized the core value of the day.
It’s one thing for her staff to appreciate her philosophy and structure of running a program; it’s another to come into a new place with new players who didn’t sign up to play for you and win them over, too.
“She demonstrated that from the jump,” junior guard DeeDee Hagemann said of her coach’s ability to connect with everyone in the program. “I feel like that’s why a lot of us stayed. She’s all genuine. Her and the coaching staff are best friends. We see that everyday, so it makes us want to be like that.”
‘The ultimate problem solver’
There’s a ruggedness to working at the D-II level. There are no managers, no basketball operations directors or directors of player development. It’s the head coach and their assistants.
Having that breadth of responsibility at Ashland forced Fralick to perfect having to solve all the problems that would inevitably arise. Dwelling on them was never an option.
Kasza and Kim Cameron, MSU’s associate head coach, also come from D-II backgrounds. They worked together at Michigan Tech in Houghton on the Upper Peninsula and used to battle Fralick’s Ashland teams all the time. When Fralick was hired at Bowling Green, she flipped her former coaching rivals into coaching colleagues. They all shared a background with a thoroughness in how they understood not only the game of basketball but the operations behind making a program run smoothly.
“You have to wear a lot of different hats,” Kasza said. “And you have to really just put the time in every little bucket, so whether that’s the operations piece or academics piece and then player development.”
It might sound overwhelming, but it has almost assuredly put the Spartans’ staff in a more advantageous position.
“Nobody helps you. There’s not a person to figure out what you’re going to eat for your next meal. There’s not a budget that’s endless. So you work with basically nothing for the love of the game,” Cameron said. “There are two people that do literally everything and survive just fine. I think that’s part of where [Fralick’s] solution-oriented approach comes from. You can’t expect other people to do anything for you. I think that really helps us to be successful here.”
After a recent loss to Minnesota, the staff could’ve fixated on how the Spartans didn’t shoot the ball well or on how they didn’t get stops in transition. Instead, their focus turned to, “What’re we going to do next time to make sure that’s better?”
Perhaps that’s not revelatory thinking but, as Fralick’s staff explained, few cut to the chase to figure out how to improve like the Spartans’ head coach.
“Coach is the ultimate problem solver, and I think at the root of that is, she’s an elite communicator,” Kasza said. “I think a lot of times people want to put off hard conversations, and they build them up to be so much bigger in their heads than they really are, and Coach just attacks problems head on. That’s why she gets to solutions faster than most people, because she talks her way through them.”
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‘The numbers to show it’
After two 8-21 seasons at Bowling Green, the Falcons took a giant leap forward in 2020-21, finishing 21-8. The hallmarks of Fralick’s success started to recrystallize: play fast, share the ball, take smart shots.
By 2022-23, when the Falcons finished 30-7, Fralick’s team attempted the most field goals in the country, had the seventh-highest number of steals per game and the 11th-best assist-to-turnover ratio. They also had five players who averaged 10 points or more per game.
In her first season at Michigan State, it’s been no different. The Spartans have five players averaging double figures and another averaging over nine points per game. They also rank first in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in 3-pointers made.
Take a look at their shot chart, and it’s not much different from Karl Smesko’s Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, a program that’s perfected the 3s-and-layups philosophy. Fralick, though, doesn’t explicitly articulate the analytics of 3s and layups with her players.
“I think analytics are important. I don’t think they tell the whole story, but they’re an important part of the story,” Fralick told The Next’s Howard Megdal on Locked On Women’s Basketball. “But a lot of it is just that our offense generates shots in those spots, and they’re just better shots over the course of the entire game.”
The type of shots Fralick’s offense prioritizes is just one piece to the puzzle, though. They also like to play fast and they like to share the ball. Contrary to other teams that have more scripted plays — screen here, pass here, drive here — Fralick’s system gives her players the freedom to make decisions on the fly, almost like a quarterback reading the defense to decide which receiver to throw the ball to.
“The reality is it is harder to stop players when they’re just making a play,” Cameron explained. “We love allowing players the freedom. It’s a fun system to play in. It’s a fast tempo, fast pace. You empower the players to make some of their own decisions and put other people in the best position to be successful.”
For a player like Hagemann, the system’s been a perfect fit.
In just one season, she’s gone from averaging 9.3 points per game and shooting 39.5% from the field to averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting 50.3% from the field. Her 2-point percentage has jumped more than 10 points; her 3-point percentage has jumped nearly nine.
Other returning players have seen their numbers jump, too. Moira Joiner, a fifth-year, is flirting with a 50/40/90 (FG%/3-PT%/FT%) season. She averaged 10.1 points per game last year; now she’s tied with senior Julia Ayrault (who averaged 3.6 points per game last season) for the team’s leading scorer at 14.9 points per game.
Add in junior Jocelyn Tate, who followed Fralick from Bowling Green, and she’s provided a valuable bridge to the rest of the players learning how the system works.
“It makes it hard to guard because there are so many different things we can get out of it,” Tate said of Fralick’s offensive system. “It’s hard to scout us because you don’t really know what we’re going to do. We’re reading what the defense is giving us.”
The Spartans are pretty unequivocal in praising the offense. Lots of teams try to play a similar style of basketball; few have this level of success, particularly involving so many different players throughout the course of the game.
“I think everyone says you want to play fast. We have the numbers to show it, as far as possessions and how many shots we get,” Kasza said. “Everyone on any given night can be the leading scorer. … I do think we are unique in the pace and I do think we are unique in the way that we share the basketball.”
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‘We haven’t arrived’
It was Robyn Fralick’s first true test as a Michigan State Spartan: Jan. 2, 2024.
She’d guided her team to an 11-2 start to the season, but on the other side of the floor stood Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Spartans trailed 25-17 entering the second quarter but battled back to take a 37-35 lead into halftime; they entered the fourth quarter tied at 55 and were still knotted up with 24 seconds left after a Hagemann layup.
Over the next 20 seconds or so, Michigan State did virtually everything right, staying locked in on defense and denying the ball from finding its way into Clark’s hands. But with three seconds left, Clark held the ball; Joiner did everything she could, until a quick ball fake created just enough separation for Clark to hoist up a shot at the buzzer that snapped the twine with precision.
The Spartans lost, 76-73.
There was an argument to be made that Michigan State proved itself against last season’s national runner-up and the top player in the country.
Fralick had a simple message, though: “We haven’t arrived.”
Few know better than Fralick the danger of resting on moral victories. When she coached at Ashland, first as an assistant and then as head coach, the teams she was part of were the Hawkeyes of D-II — they always had the target on their backs; everybody wanted to beat them. And in the rare instances in which Ashland lost, or was even played to a close game, Fralick so often remembers seeing those teams they played suffer a letdown in their next game.
In other words, it’s one thing to show up against the best of the best. It’s another to show up every day.
“That’s the sort of resilience and tenacity that we should have every night,” Fralick said, “regardless of who we’re playing and where it’s at.”
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‘… as long as I can’
More than halfway through her first year in East Lansing, Fralick anticipates still having much to learn about her team and the daunting challenges of the Big Ten regular season.
This team has NCAA Tournament aspirations, though, and while she stated frankly that she didn’t truly know what to expect from her group this year, it’s hard to not see the immense potential for what this program can accomplish both this season and in the years to come.
If you want the clearest sense of why, look no further than the loyalty of her coaching staff.
On recruiting trips, Kasza said, it’s common for assistants to ponder their futures. They’re often asked if they ever want to be a head coach one day.
“I always say, ‘No, I’ll work for Coach as long as I can,’” she said.
“And that’s probably the best way I can describe it.”
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.