You may remember Nolan Richardson from his days leading the Arkansas Razorbacks to back to back Final Fours, winning the national championship in 1994 and losing to current Seattle University coach Cameron Dollar and the UCLA Bruins in 1995.
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Richardson's storied career is chronicled in "Forty Minutes of Hell" by Rus Bradburd, a book that addresses many of the inequities black coaches faced in the pre- and post-Civil Rights era.
Arkansas' 1994 NCAA men's basketball championship should have been a culmination of Richardson's rise from one of the poorest areas in El Paso, Texas, to the pinnacle of his profession. But he clashed with athletic director Frank Broyles, and at a 2002 news conference, he unleashed a litany of accusations, including charges of racism. Soon after, he was dismissed as Razorbacks coach.
Now Richardson has brought his "40 Minutes Of Hell" approach to the WNBA as a first-year coach for the 4-18 Tulsa Shock, a WNBA franchise in its first year since being relocated from Detroit. In a system unlike any the WNBA has ever seen, pressure is applied in seemingly random waves, the team races up and down the court shooting threes at a 37.1 percent (tied for third in the WNBA) and Richardson makes five-player substitutions that are more reminiscent of hockey line changes than a consistent basketball rotation. Perhaps the problem right now is that since relocating from Detroit, the Shock have lost a considerable amount of the talent that helped Shock coach Bill Laimbeer win four WNBA championships.
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When the season began, Nolan Richardson referred to his Tulsa Shock charges as a semi-expansion team. Given the heavy turnover when the team moved from Detroit to Oklahoma and Richardson took charge of basketball operations, that seemed appropriate at the time. Now it appears to be an understatement. On Friday, Tulsa traded center Kara Braxton to Phoenix for Nicole Ohlde and a future first-round pick. Braxton became the third holdover Shock player traded since the start of the season, joining guard Shavonte Zellous and forward Plenette Pierson. Now, only Alexis Hornbuckle remains from the Detroit roster Richardson inherited.
However, Richardson has developed an emergent theory about his team's performance.
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"I don't know why, but it seems we play better on the road. Maybe we just press too much at home because the ladies want to win so badly for the hometown fans."
If a theory needs to describe an observed phenomenon and have some power to predict future outcomes, then consider the Shock's first visit to KeyArena for today's 6 p.m. game a bit of a test -- if they can pull off an upset against the 19-2 Seattle Storm who are undefeated at home and riding a 10-game winning streak, it would certainly add some weight to the theory.
In fact, against a team like the Storm, maybe even a smaller than average point differential would validate the theory to some extent -- while the Shock have a league-low point differential of minus-10.64, the Storm have a league-leading point differential of plus-9.47. If you were to add a few points for KeyArena advantage, this could be a big win for the Storm.
In what's shaping up to be an historic season in Seattle, the Storm have not only won all 10 home games this season and have already clinched a playoff berth, but would also move closer to yet another milestone with a win today against the Shock.
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En route to winning the WNBA's first four championships, the Comets completed their 1998 season at 27-3, the WNBA's best record. Houston was 20-2 after 22 games for the best start, a mark Seattle (19-2) can tie with a win against Tulsa (4-18) at 6 p.m. at KeyArena.
"I don't know if I really want to think about that right now," said Willingham. Seattle, which is on a 10-game win streak, clinched its seventh consecutive playoff berth Thursday when Los Angeles lost to Indiana.
The worst the Storm could finish this season is 19-15.
Of course, the Storm will insist that these milestones mean nothing without a championship and indeed until they actually win a title, it might be wise to withhold temptation to compare the Storm to the league's all-time great teams, as described by Storm coach Brian Agler.
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"I just think in reality, you have to stay in reality, you know? We'd like obviously to win as many games as we can, put ourselves in the best position. And I know those are kinds of things that you guys like to talk about and write about, which is obviously nice. But it doesn't really get anything for us -- it doesn't win the first round."
And indeed, just getting to that 20-2 milestone shouldn't be considered a given and neither Agler nor the Storm are complacent with the struggling Shock coming into town.
"Well, what they did last week to San Antonio is a good reason," said Agler of the Shock's 75-70 road win over the San Antonio Silver Stars on July 23rd. "They're a really good shooting team. I think the team and the staff itself is learning a little more about the league and how to play in the league. They played real well at San Antonio and got a win."
Indeed the last three road games provide strong support for the play better on the road theory.
"There's probably a lot of truth to that," said Agler. "I think they get away from everything, you don't have to read and hear things, you're just to yourself -- you're with you and your team. And I think there's some truth to that. I think in general people play better at home, but I think in some cases when teams are going through tough times, it might be best to get away. A lot of times you gain some confidence in that way -- you're forced to play in new things together."
After winning the San Antonio game, the Shock traveled to play the Phoenix Mercury and lost by nine. When the two teams played in Tulsa on Thursday, the Shock were routed 123-91. Similarly, when the Shock played the Los Angeles Sparks at home on July 13, they lost by 16; when the Shock visited L.A., they lost by three in overtime. In other words, there seems to be evidence that the Shock have indeed played better on the road lately, but there's a confounding variable to that as well that makes the Shock a bit of a different team since the Storm last beat the Shock 83-72 on June 27: the acquisition of point guard Ivory Latta.
"They've added Ivory Latta, starts at the point now and she's really playing well for 'em," said Agler. "Gives 'em another shooter besides (Shanna) Crossley."
Overall, even though the Storm have proven themselves to be the class of the league this season, there's still a lot of uncertainty surrounding a game that would otherwise be easy to pencil in as a win.