Gophers’ Banham could be a program changer

MINNEAPOLIS – This 18-year-old doesn’t get to be a phenom just yet.

To the thousands of fans who have seen her play at Williams Arena this year, Rachel Banham is a star. The five Big Ten Freshman of the Week Awards this season, being named a 2011 Parade All-American and 2010-2011 Minnesota Miss Basketball – all that points at stardom, but when you take away the applause and the uniform and the 20-point nights, what’s left is a sometimes-bashful teenager.

There’s an Under Armour headband and a Gophers T-shirt, a Minnesota accent and a coach who’s only too aware that her newest star has not yet reached her full potential. Amid comparisons to Lynx player and former Gophers star Lindsay Whalen, the point guard out of Lakeville North is having the best debut of any Gophers women’s player in years, but even so, she’s still developing into the player she’ll one day be.

Banham, who’s averaging a team-high 15.8 points per game this season, has led the Gophers to a 12-13 record. Minnesota is just one win away from topping its 12-18 record from a season ago, and Banham has managed to revive a lagging team and fan base. Why a player who was among the top 25 college prospects in 2011 chose to take on that role, to attend a school with a less successful team, is central to understanding Banham. She wanted to stay home, and that really all that mattered.

“I didn’t really look anywhere else; it was always just here,” Banham said. “I knew the place and the atmosphere.”

She’s Minnesota through and through. Her brother, Cole Banham, is a running back on the Gophers football team, and both her parents work in law enforcement in Minneapolis. She never considered other schools, even after she exploded onto the national recruiting scene before her senior year. There was little convincing that coach Pam Borton had to do, and no promises or goals were needed to attract the top prospect.

For every instance where a high school star goes on to do great things, there’s another story of a bust, of unrealistic expectations and mediocrity. Banham so far fits into the former category, and Borton said she never expected anything else. When she first saw Banham play before her junior year of high school, Borton recognized talent, but she told Banham that she didn’t think she was playing to the fullest extent of her skills. From that moment on, Banham committed herself to proving her future coach wrong, and with every workout, practice and game, she’s worked to give everything she has.

That intensity of effort has gone a long way for this year’s Gophers squad. The high point of its season so far came Jan. 29, when it beat then-No. 9 Ohio State, powered by a 20-point night from Banham. With an older team and Banham’s spark, this year’s Gophers have proven they’re capable of a lot more than in previous seasons, winning despite sometimes-sloppy execution.

“I think last year we lost a lot of close games,” Borton said. “We were really young, and this year we’re older. Bringing in someone like Rachel can be a big help.”

Banham’s goals for this season and her college career are simple. She wants to make the NCAA Tournament. She wants to have a winning record. Glancing at her coach as if for approval, she gets it from Borton, who’s realizing as the season progresses that those are things she and her team might just be able to achieve. And both Borton and Banham are fortunate enough to have a model to look back on, another player whose presence breathed life into the Gophers women’s program a decade ago: Lindsay Whalen.

In 2000, the Hutchinson native was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, and her team went 8-20 in her first season. But the next year the point guard was the force behind one of the biggest turnarounds in program history; the team finished with a 22-8 record made it to the NCAA Tournament, and in 2002-03, Borton’s first season as head coach, the Gophers went to the Sweet 16. Whalen capped off her Minnesota career with a trip to the Final Four in 2004 before being drafted by the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA.

Borton said she sees many similarities between Whalen and Banham, both on and off the court, and however premature the comparisons between the two might be, they’re not off base. In fact, Banham might have entered college as a more developed player than Whalen was.

“I wish I’d coached Lindsay when she was a freshman, but I didn’t get a chance to,” Borton said. “I think Rachel has a lot of stuff than Lindsay didn’t have, even as a sophomore.”

The coach added that the two players are different in a good way. Where one lacks a skill the other possesses, she makes up for it with another quality, and Banham has the potential to be an equally complete player as Whalen. And though both are known for their more visible contributions on the court, Borton was most complimentary of what Whalen and Banham can do for a team’s chemistry.

“I could talk about her all afternoon,” Borton said of Banham. “I think I knew she had this talent on the court, but I didn’t know she’d make this impact this fast. And there’s so much more to the game, and she’s doing well with those adjustments, too.”

Whalen said though many people are just catching on to how much Banham is capable of, Borton has been talking about the freshman for years. Whalen is close with her former coach, and they often talk about the Gophers’ prospects, especially talented players from Minnesota. Banham has been included in that conversation for two or three years, and when Whalen saw her play for the first time, she was impressed.

“She just has a great feel for the game,” Whalen said. “You can kind of just sense that some players have good court vision, IQ. She’s extremely athletic. The thing that impressed me the most about her was her athletic build.”

Borton also told Whalen about Banham’s leadership abilities, which are crucial for a point guard on the court and an added bonus in the locker room. Banham has become the player her teammates seek out for advice, and she’s developed a leadership role that few freshmen achieve so quickly.

“(Borton) mentioned that Rachel was the player that you can see when other people are down, she goes to try to pick them up, make sure they have a good practice,” Whalen said. “That’s big for a freshman. It can take you a while to fit into that role.”

While rehabbing after ankle surgery this fall, Whalen practiced with Banham and the Gophers several times. She quickly noticed that Banham is in top physical shape, and she has a lot more than just raw basketball talent. When Whalen was in high school in the late 1990s, she said, weight training and conditioning weren’t emphasized as much until college. Now, those elements are being introduced into players’ games earlier and earlier, and the WNBA star said they are very apparent in Banham’s skill set.

Perhaps that escalation in training is tied to the somewhat premature comparisons, and Banham knows that being talked about in the same sentence as Whalen is an honor.

“It’s crazy because she’s accomplished so much,” Banham said. “It’s a high bar… She’s had a great career.”

For a less competitive and single-minded player, such comparisons could be detrimental, but for Banham, they’re fuel. Whalen is still an idol, a role model, and even if Banham now knows she might achieve what Whalen has, she’s aware, too, that she hasn’t yet. Being a leader and playing at a high level is second nature for athletes like Banham and Whalen, but Banham is young enough that she still needs to focus on each aspect of her game.

Despite being second on the team in rebounds, Banham knows she’s been slacking off on the boards recently. And she’s not afraid to say it. Her coach knows it, too, and a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance from Borton is enough to remind Banham she’s far from perfect.

For Banham, a list of good stats mean far less than a glance or a comment from her coach. It’s early. Those raised eyebrows will keep coming, and Banham will keep reacting, pushing herself and most likely proving that these early comparisons aren’t too far from reality.

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