By David Villavicencio
CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Freshmen make mistakes.
Newcomers to the college game, freshmen often make their teammates and coaches cringe at some of the ill-advised decisions they make on the floor.
Inexperienced and error-prone freshmen rarely are expected to play key roles on a team, but Caprice Dennis is not a typical freshman. The 5-foot-8 point guard has earned Miami coach Katie Meier's trust by playing a key role in the Hurricanes' early success this season.
"It means a lot because for freshmen, it's tough to come in and get a lot of minutes," Dennis said. "You have a lot of upperclassmen and coaches trust them because they've been around and the coaches know what they're going to do. To gain Coach Meier's trust in such a short period means so much to me. I love that she trusts me."
While Meier has been impressed with Dennis' performance on the court, it's the 18-year-old's hard work off the court that has helped her become a key member of Miami's rotation.
"I really enjoy when we're in film, whether it's one-on-one or with the guards or the entire team, she has the answer," Meier said. "I will rewind something and ask what they see and she knows it and has a solution for it. Players are going to make mistakes. They may dribble the ball off their foot sometimes, but I haven't seen her make a lot of choice mistakes or a lot of thought mistakes. For a freshman, that's a big deal."
Making the right choice is something Dennis has been trying to do for much of her life. Growing up in Detroit, Mich., Dennis honed her on-court decision-making skills on a daily basis.
"Detroit is a wonderful city," Dennis said. "A lot of people have different opinions on it, but being in the city day-in and day-out, I love it. It's always basketball there. Everybody is playing basketball and ever since I was a little kid, I always had a ball dribbling up and down the street. Wherever you go, you see someone playing basketball and I was one of those people."
While her daughter made great decisions on the court, Gwendolyn Gray wrestled with a difficult decision off the court. Following Dennis' freshman year at Detroit Pershing High, Gray allowed her daughter to move in with assistant girls' basketball coach Shawn Hill.
"My freshman year after high school, I moved in with my assistant coach at the time," Dennis said. "For the rest of my years, he was my head coach and he had nine children. I consider them my family so I consider myself to have 11 siblings. I moved in with him and stayed there until I came to college."
Dennis has a special relationship with Hill, whom she calls "Dad." The two speak often and she credits Hill for helping get her to where she is today, both as a basketball player and as a person.
"We still have a connection," Dennis said. "He really helped me out a lot as far as getting focused on school. I really appreciate that. My mom had a lot to do with it, too. She made the decision to let me go. That was a big decision and I'm grateful for that."
Dennis made her first big decision during her senior year at Pershing. An all-state guard, Dennis was recruited by major programs like Kentucky, Texas and Kansas. She ultimately committed to the Jayhawks, but her strong decision-making skills led her to re-evaluate her choice to be sure it was the right one.
"When I was committed to Kansas, the reason I de-committed wasn't because I didn't want to go to Kansas. It was because I wanted to be sure that I made the right decision. I came out of it with the idea that I was still going to Kansas. That was my No. 1 school."
Everything changed when Dennis visited Miami. While Dennis was a Jayhawk coming into her visit, she left Coral Gables a Hurricane.
"I came on a visit here and I immediately had a great connection with Coach Meier," Dennis said. "I connected with the players, too, but the connection I had with Coach Meier so quickly was overwhelming. I was like 'wow, this is where I really want to be.' I talked to my family about it and they agreed that they loved the school and the program and we all made the decision that I should come here."
Meier noticed something special about Dennis during the guard's official visit. While the two shared time at practice and at a team function at Meier's home, Miami's coach feels the strongest bond between the two was formed over breakfast the next morning.
"We had the kids over to my house and I saw her observe the team," Meier said. "She didn't get really involved and she wasn't completely outgoing, but I definitely was watching her watch my team. I could see her smile at really quaint moments that meant a lot to me but some kids missed. Maybe it was Morgan Stroman just being silly with Suriya McGuire or having a player patting a coach on the head messing around, just that casualness that we have and I saw her see that stuff. "
"So the next day at breakfast I said 'I want to talk to you about some stuff I saw yesterday because people miss what's special down here.' They miss this relationship. I asked her what she saw in practice and her observations were that we build confidence and give our players a lot of power. She said she saw that we trusted them. She saw things that weren't just obvious. I thought she was a high-level thinker. She's very wise. So we talked on a higher level than our normal talks with a recruit. I wasn't selling myself or the program or the school. I was very interested in her and what made her tick and what was important to her. I think that is what started it."
That same morning, Dennis noticed Meier's genuine interest in her as a person. The young guard felt a connection similar to the relationship she had with Hill. That is when she knew she was going to be a Hurricane.
"She made me feel like I could trust her," Dennis said. "That is a big thing with me being able to trust somebody completely. She is such a wonderful person and if you're around her you know that she has this burst of enthusiasm at all times. No matter how her day is going, you won't know because she is always presenting herself with a lot of enthusiasm. From the beginning, I really liked her personality and since then, our relationship has grown a lot. I've gotten to know her better and I am always trying to pick her brain on and off the court to make our relationship better every day."
Along with her outstanding basketball talent, Dennis' strong decision-making skills have traveled with her to Coral Gables. She leads Miami's freshmen in minutes played and has made key contributions in the team's victories over No. 6 Penn State and Alcorn State.
"In our games against Penn State and Alcorn State, Caprice made huge plays for us," Meier said. "Unfortunately, we needed those plays against Alcorn - which shouldn't have happened but we needed them - and she was in the lineup and withstood the run and answered it. In those two games, I have put her in to answer those runs and that shows a lot of confidence in a freshman."
Despite her early success, Dennis recognizes that there is room for improvement in her game and she has decided to be proactive in her efforts to mature as a player.
"There is always room to improve," Dennis said. "My shooting can get a lot better. I don't know my shooting percentage, but I know it's not the best. I'd like to get that up and I really want to focus on my ball handling. I think I can work on that a lot too."
Dennis also hopes to add muscle to make her more of an offensive force around the basket. At just 134 lbs, Dennis has struggled at times this season to get to the rim. But the freshman guard is confident her work with strength coach Alex Parr will help her finish strong in traffic going forward.
"I also definitely have to get a lot stronger," Dennis said. "You'll see some of my finishes where I get to the basket and I should be able to finish but I'm not capable because I'm not strong enough. I definitely want to get a lot stronger."
While physical strength is something Dennis lacks, her mental toughness is off the charts. Meier marvels at her ability to remain calm and composed in the most pressure-filled situations.
"She is very calm and steady Eddie," Meier said. "I remember right before Tennessee I said, 'Caprice, are you excited?' And she said, 'they play ball just like I do.' It was a straight pulse with no spiking. It has not been a roller coaster with her at all. It's just a matter of her understanding her role and playing. If you give her some freedom, she is going to make the right choices."Relaxed under pressure, Caprice Dennis is avoiding the typical freshman mistakes and helping the Hurricanes make the right decisions on and off the court.