Look into the rafters at Wells Fargo Arena, amongst the retired jerseys and championship banners, and you will find a giant mural of Briann January.
“We always joke that I’ve been here forever,” said Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne, in her 21st season with the Sun Devils. “So with all of the picture of me around, there’s three times as many as Bri, which is as it should be as a star player, and it feels so great to have her home.”
January, the Indiana Fever’s All-Star guard, who played for Arizona State from 2005-2009, is experiencing her first season as an assistant coach for the program. “I’m having a blast, and we have a great group of girls,” January said after the Sun Devils demolished Arkansas 89-43 on December 21. “I’ve been learning a lot from our coaching staff every day. You have people who want to work and get better on both sides. Our coaching staff and our team, being able to work with them, that fuels you. It almost fuels me as if I were on the court myself, and that’s what I was hoping for with the coaching experience.”
With the win over the Razorbacks, the Sun Devils improved to 9-3 and the second team receiving votes in the final Top 25 poll before the Pacific-12 Conference schedule tips off. It was also a game in which ASU junior guard Courtney Ekmark, a transfer who won two national titles at UConn, equaled January’s school record with seven three pointers in one game. It is one of many records January owns or shares, highlighted with most career wins and assists.
“Throughout the entire team I feel like there are little pieces of me that come out here and there,” January said. “She (Ekmark) is a competitor, and she brings that kind of fight to our team. We need that, we have a very young team that needs a lot of experience, and she’s been there, she knows what it takes to be great. Coming here, she knows what fight she needs to stay in the game. We talk everyday on how we can maximize our talent on the floor and what each player needs to do in order to raise their level.”
The 30-year-old January tore her meniscus in the right knee in August as the Fever finished 9-25 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Despite her injury, she was still named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive Team for the sixth-consecutive season, as she became the face of the franchise in its first campaign following the retirement of Tamika Catchings. The team will select the second pick in the WNBA Draft this spring, a crop that includes A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Mitchell.
“She adds incredible value as a person, not just as a coach,” said Turner Thorne, who guided January to Elite Eight appearances in 2007 and 2009. “She’s one of the top point guards in the WNBA. The fact that she’s still playing is really….(pauses and asks for a word that is a more powerful adjective than incredible)…She’s so in tuned with the little nuances of everything. Of course we are as veterans, but for a first-year coach, she’s going to be an incredible coach. She IS an incredible coach. For the players, this is one of the best coaches in the world, and they’re getting coached by her.”
The Sun Devils do not have a senior on their roster and lost junior guard Sabrina Haines (10.2 points per game) last month to a season-ending ACL tear. Junior forward Kianna Ibis and sophomore Jamie Ruden lead the team with 12 and 10 points per game, while 6-foot-3 center Charnea Johnson-Chapman grabs 7.5 rebounds. The team’s trademark defense is holding opponents to only 53 points.
“We’ve had to really work on our offense a lot and focus to get easier shots around the rim and now that we can play inside out makes us better as a team,” said January, who in the past has played professionally in Turkey, Brazil and Israel during the winter. “We’re definitely not where we want to be, but it’s a step in the right direction. We get our hands out there, but then we stop moving our feet. For our young kids out there, it’s nice to get those steals, but those lunges are taking risks, and other teams are capitalizing off it. We need to play team, disciplined defense, and pressure the heck out of them. If our help side stays in front of them and contests all of the shots, we are going to be good shape headed into Pac-12 play, so that’s what we’re building upon.”
The first two conference games will be December 29 and 31 at Colorado and Utah.