I'm not a newcomer to the Illini women's basketball beat, but it it has been 14 years since I last covered that program for The News-Gazette. If you regard four years as a generation in college athletics, that's more than three generations away from the beat. Or, to put this another way, when I covered the Illini in the mid-to-late 1990s, their home games were played at Huff Hall.
Yep, it's been a while.
In late October, N-G sports editor Jim Rossow needed to do some rearranging of the available personnel in the sports department, so I was among those assigned different duties for the winter after previously focusing on the local large-school boys' basketball scene.
Got to be honest. That was a good gig. Got to cover a state champion, a third-place state finisher, and a fourth-place state trophy winner. Got to regularly see the likes of Rayvonte Rice, Verdell Jones III, James Kinney and Trent Meacham, among others, before they took their games to the NCAA Division I level. Even covered a couple of guys whose main claim to fame was football, but who also hit the hardwood in high school. Referring to Mikel Leshoure and J Leman.
But change can be good, so we're eager to see what a UI women's basketball program under new leadership can accomplish. We're referring, of course, to first-year Illini head coach Matt Bollant.
I don't think I'd get much argument by saying that Bollant arrived with, by far, the most impressive resume among the "Big Three" coaching hirings at the start of athletic director Mike Thomas' tenure. Some will contend that Bollant's remarkable record at Wisconsin-Green Bay -- 148-19 -- was inflated by the conference to which the Phoenix belonged: the Horizon League. To that, I would answer that Bollant's Phoenix teams won seven straight games against Big Ten schools. I'd counter, too, with the fact that UWGB reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2011. I doubt that the Phoenix played a cupcake schedule en route to that tier of the tournament.
This background suggests, at the least, that Bollant will steer Illinois in a good direction and at some point -- possibly soon -- again make it relevant on the national scene. It's been a while. The UI women's program last participated in the NCAA tournament in 2003. It last won an NCAA tournament game in 2000. And it last played in a Sweet 16 game in 1998.
In fact, that 1998 NCAA regional semifinal game in Nashville, Tenn., was the last one I covered as the N-G's beat writer for UI women's basketball before this season.
That same month, the Illini opened the NCAA tournament with a victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay. No, Bollant wasn't the head coach of the Phoenix then. However, he was 1-0 against the Illini while at Green Bay.
Like we said, Bollant knows how to beat Big Ten opponents.
In his new job, he'll get plenty of chances to do so again. His first Illini team opens its 16-game conference schedule on Jan. 2 against Purdue.
As we have been since the start of this season, we'll be there to chronicle what happens along the way. I've finally gotten in the habit of steering my car to the Assembly Hall and not Combes Gym.
And if you happen to bump into Ashley Berggren, tell her I said hi. Doubt that the greatest player in UI women's basketball history will remember me, however. After all, it has been 14 years.