Becky Burke’s to-do list has only grown since she was hired as UB’s 13th women’s basketball coach on April 6.
The former Louisville star has only one assistant coach on her staff and has to contend with a transfer portal that stands at five players and counting. When former head coach Felisha Legette-Jack accepted the same job at Syracuse, she took reigning Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year Georgia Woolley and freshman forward Saniaa Wilson with her — only adding to Burke’s difficult rebuilding task.
Faced with the challenge of addressing a depleted roster and establishing a strong recruiting pipeline in a new city, the former University of South Carolina Upstate head coach is going to have her work cut out for her these next few months.
“How much time do you have?” Burke joked, when asked to address the length of her to-do list after her introductory press conference.
While the offseason responsibilities that come with replacing a long-time coach can appear daunting, Burke says her “primary responsibility right now” is to attend to current UB players and implement a strong culture.
“Talking to them, forming relationships, making them feel comfortable, helping this transition,” Burke said, when talking about her current focus. “They’re 18 to 22-year-olds who need to understand and know that they’re going to be taken care of in the way that they need to be.”
Besides all her personnel challenges, Burke also has to get accustomed to a new city and a new school.
This is the closest the Scranton, PA native has ever been from home, but she’s by no means familiar with the Buffalo area.
This is also the highest-profile job Burke has ever held. After tenures at USC Upstate, Charleston and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, the 32-year-old will now face the challenges of leading a prominent mid-major program in a new setting.
“I don’t know anything about this place other than what you find out in the general process through the interviews and things like that,” Burke said. “So I have a lot to learn, a lot of people to meet and I’m just excited.”
Burke spoke with The Spectrum Friday to discuss her offseason objectives:
Retaining Dyaisha Fair and filling a depleted roster
While Burke is presumably looking to retain all the Bulls currently in the transfer portal, no player sticks out more than Dyaisha Fair.
That’s because the junior guard ranked fourth in the nation in scoring (23.4 points per game) last season and has quickly developed into one of the best players in all of college basketball.
Burke told The Spectrum Friday that she was set to have a conversation with Fair “early next week” regarding the Rochester native’s transfer status.
“Dyaisha and I have texted. We were speaking a lot throughout the day yesterday,” Burke told The Spectrum at the end of last week. “It’s just important for her to know that she’s wanted, she’ll be loved here and we need her.”
It’s unclear which schools have offered Fair since she entered the portal two weeks ago, but she has retweeted multiple tweets that suggest a possible reunion with Legette-Jack at Syracuse. Burke acknowledges the competitive market for Fair, but says, “I’m gonna go down swinging with that one.”
Retaining Fair would mark a major victory for Burke, who is also working on other players who have entered the portal in recent weeks.
On Saturday — one day after Burke’s introductory press conference — sophomore guard Cheyenne McEvans entered the transfer portal. McEvans averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game her freshman year before a leg injury caused her to miss more than half of her sophomore season.
With talented contributors like junior forward Loren Christie and senior forward Adebola Adeyeye still in the portal, Burke has some serious work to do. Whether it be retaining those players, adding new ones through the portal or hauling in an unusually large recruiting class, the 32-year-old is faced with considerable challenges from the get-go.
“We’ll be OK, we’ll be fine,” Burke said. “It is a little bit of a rebuild, and that’s probably not a word that they’ve used here a lot. But the reality is if we just have the roster of what it currently is right now, and you take the portal kids out and [the] kids that Coach Jack took, we have a lot of roster spots to fill. But I’m confident in our ability to recruit and bring people in here who’ll make an immediate impact.”
Play style and philosophy
The word timeline is a common phrase in sports, especially for a new coach.
Some think it’s important to map out realistic expectations following a substantial roster turnover.
But Burke says she isn’t a fan of that word. She says she expects to win early and often “right away.”
“I hate that word, I don’t believe in it. I don’t do moral victories,” Burke said. “Say every player in the portal leaves, which I would hate, I would hate, I would hate. We’re gonna go get players. My standards are through the roof. It’s championships every single year. Why can’t we do it?”
Most coaches would temper expectations, especially in a “rebuild” year. But Burke reiterated her desire to compete for MAC Championships as early as next season, even though she isn’t sure who’ll be on her roster come the fall.
“Why not? Why not us?” she asked rhetorically.
Burke’s confidence is well-founded. She was the catalyst behind major turnarounds at two programs — USC Upstate and Charleston — and was responsible for launching the women’s basketball program at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
With an emphasis on ball movement and shot efficiency, Burke’s teams are known for playing in a structured and organized manner. Her USC Upstate squad finished sixth in the nation in field goal percentage last season and her team at Charleston led the country in field goal percentage in 2018-19.
In addition to its offensive prowess, USC Upstate also ranked second in the Big South in points allowed last season. Burke’s teams have ranked in the top-half of their respective conferences in points allowed the last five years she’s been a head coach.
If her past performance as a coach is any guide, expect the Bulls to run designed plays to get open looks while pressuring the ball on defense.
“We’re going to be a team that people are like, ‘Man, they’re very detail-oriented, and they execute really well, they don’t take bad shots, they get great shots and they make them.’ And [we’re going to be] so efficient, detail-oriented, and just dogs on the defensive,” Burke said.
‘I’m not trying to be her’
In recent years, Legette-Jack has become synonymous with UB women’s basketball.
The winningest coach in program history, Legette-Jack led UB to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in history and left the Queen City with four NCAA Tournament appearances in 10 years.
But Legette-Jack is gone, and Burke was adamant in separating herself from her predecessor. While it will be a hard act to follow, the 2022 Big South Coach of the Year certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to take over a program of UB’s size.
“I love a challenge, I love it. I’m not trying to be her [Legette-Jack]. I’m not trying to recreate what she did here,” Burke said. “She’s phenomenal. She’s incredible, but I’m not her. We’re gonna do it our way and we’re gonna do the best job we can every day. We’re workers, we put in the hours, we can recruit. But it’s just gonna be different and I welcome the challenge.”
As expected, Burke has already shaken up the Bulls’ coaching staff with the addition of her “right-hand man.”
Candyce Wheeler, who played with Burke at Louisville and coached alongside her for two seasons at USC Upstate, will serve as Burke’s lead assistant at UB. Burke will still have to assemble the rest of her staff, but bringing Wheeler to Buffalo was a key first step in achieving that goal.
“[She’s] just somebody who’s loyal to the end of the earth for you. Her and I go way back and she just speaks my language,” Burke said of Wheeler. “She understands how I like things done and knows how I operate. So it’s important for me to get somebody who’s familiar with me and how our program will run.”
Burke didn’t rule out the possibility of retaining some members of Legette-Jack’s staff at UB. Assistant coach Kristen Sharkey, who spent seven years on Legette-Jack’s staff at UB, seems like a potential option — but she also seems like an obvious candidate to reunite with Legette-Jack at Syracuse.
Burke will also need to figure out if she wants to retain assistants Kyreed Carter and Blair Estarfaa. Carter, Estarfaa and Sharkey have all been removed from UB’s roster since Burke’s hire.
It’s unclear where these conversations will end up, but Burke says speaking to those assistants will be an important part of her offseason process.
“I definitely want to have conversations, whether it’s just to pick their brain about whatever has given them success, pointers, helpful hints, whatever the case may be,” Burke said. “But just in terms of staff and joining our staff, I haven’t gotten there yet. And that’s something that will just be kind of up in the air and we’ll make some decisions on those things in the next few days.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at anthony.decicco@ubspectrum.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor at The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.