For VU forward, it's post-up now, post-op later

Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 3:38pm
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Pre-med student Elan Brown has had to step in and step up for Vanderbilt this season due to health issues of her teammates. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Elan Brown might one day be able to put people back together and make them healthy.

For now, the freshman who plans to pursue a pre-med degree is doing her best to keep the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team whole in the wake of health issues during the early part of the season.

A 6-foot guard/forward, she recently stepped up and stepped in at post after Jordan Coleman sustained a season-ending knee injury. She made her first start at that spot Dec. 6 against Western Kentucky despite limited practice time.

“(Coleman) was in a starting position and she was playing well,” senior guard Merideth Marsh said. “Her last two or three games — she was very, very productive when she was in there. Elan has been put in a position where she doesn’t know what’s going on. She was just starting to get in the groove of playing the guard and learning the guard positions. …It’s a learning experience.”

Much of that education has come on the fly.

Coleman was injured in the final minutes of a victory Dec. 2 at Wright State, a game in which she had eight points, seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and a blocked shot. The Commodores had one day between that and their next contest against Bowling Green, which turned out to be their first loss, and then just one day more until they faced Western Kentucky.

Brown played just 13 minutes off the bench against Bowling Green, but her four rebounds were tied for second-most on the team. She had five more rebounds (also tied for second on the team) in addition to four points in an overtime victory over WKU.

“The hardest part, at first, was just learning the plays,” Brown said. “They are kind of complex, so you do have to do the little things to get them down. I just studied for as long as I could until game time. I’m getting it down now, so it’s getting a little bit easier.”

Two for one

Balcomb said the nature of her approach to offense demands that virtually all of her players to learn two positions at once. For example, the shooting guards also must know how to play small forward and vise versa. Likewise, those in the two post positions have to know what is expected of each other.

In Brown’s case, she spent individual workouts, preseason training and the first few weeks of the season trying to understand shooting guard and small forward. In the last two weeks, she has been given a crash course in two other spots.

“We thought we would be able to make her more versatile,” Balcomb said. “She came in as a guard, so we always go with what a player’s strengths are. We thought that as she handled that, then we would move her over, but we never expected to do it now.”

She added that during her eight seasons as Vanderbilt coach only two players, Christina Wirth and Hillary Hager, had a handle on all four of those positions.

Wirth, who graduated last season as the program’s ninth all-time leading scorer, was the most adept at all four spots. She created matchup problems with her size and versatility and eventually became the Commodores’ first two-time, All-SEC first-team selection since Chantelle Anderson (2001-03).

The WNBA’s Indiana Fever drafted Wirth 19th overall this past spring.

“Coach Balcomb actually gave me one of (Wirth’s) game tapes,” Brown said. “She was more of a face-up post, and they would set screens for her to get outside shots and what-not. I think that’s kind of what they’re looking for me to do. They all have confidence in me, definitely. (Balcomb) has told me she thinks I can do most of the things that Tina did.”

Pain in the post

Injuries to post players have been almost a constant state of affairs for Vanderbilt since the start of last season.

Coleman missed the first five games of her freshman season because of a leg injury and remained a role player for most of the rest of the season.

Starting center Hannah Tuomi then missed the final seven games with a foot injury. Without her, the Commodores relied heavily on a four-guard lineup and still won the SEC tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

This season opened with 6-foot-4 freshman Stephanie Holzer, a three-time high school All-American out of Pennsylvania, on crutches with an ankle injury. She has yet to make her collegiate debut.

When Coleman got hurt, she was the VU’s second-leading rebounder, its leader in steals and its best free throw shooter (18-for-20).

“I kind of had to step up because Jordan went out with her knee and we were kind of on the short end with forwards,” Brown said. “They kind of talked to me at the beginning of the year that I might be playing some (post), but they just kind of threw me into it.”

Her rebound totals immediately went up — nine in her first two games at the new spot as opposed to 10 in the previous seven contests. Her scoring dropped, though, almost by half.

“She’s getting a lot of offensive rebounds, she’s keeping the ball alive and tipping it, and she’s playing smart defensively,” Balcomb said. “She’s just not in the flow yet on offense because she’s playing a totally different position. She’s getting wide-open looks and I’m sure she’ll start to hit those because she’s a great shooter as well.”

Stepping up

Brown was a four-year starter at Woodward Academy in Atlanta and finished her career with more than 1,000 points. Despite her size, she played mostly guard until her senior year when the school finally ran out of post players.

“I asked the team when Jordan went down, ‘Who’s willing to step up?’” Balcomb said. “Every person stepped up in the circle. So I knew whatever our staff came up with as a gameplan and however we would adjust they were willing to do. And Elan was more than willing to adjust and to step up for Jordan and the team.

“Not all teams are like that. No one ever says that, but they aren’t.”

In Brown’s case, it’s more like she dove in headfirst.

The quick transition might not have gone smoothly, but it also meant the Commodores, who have been among the national rankings since the preseason, did not have to make any drastic changes to their basic approach.

Since Coleman won’t be coming back this season, it seems there no going back for Brown.

“I like what she’s giving us,” Balcomb said. “She’s stepped up and offered to play Jordan’s spot just overnight, and she’s been cramming like for a big test. …Those are the kind of kids you like. You recruit them here and you tell them they’re going to be a player, not a position.”