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Ask beat writer Jeff Huth about the Illini's performance Wednesday night against Michigan State.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini women's basketball. For those of you located in east central Illinois, I hope you're staying safe following the Tuesday/Wednesday snowstorm. It's been a tough, tough winter, and as a lifelong Midwest resident, I bring some history to that statement. One of the most difficult ones I can remember. But the topic at hand is Matt Bollant's team, so we'll get to that in a few minutes.
-- Jeff Huth
Note the similarities between Matt Bollant and John Groce. Getting technical fouls, forcing players off the team and holding down the bottom slot in the conference. What's next, chastising the home fans? Come on Matt, leave the childish behavior to Groce. You're better than that.
There's not a question in your chat submission, but I suspect you'd like me to comment, so here goes:
I don't see the similarity on technical fouls; Bollant has received one T this season, in the Jan. 30 loss at Ohio State, and it had no impact on the outcome of a 90-64 Illini loss. Didn't turn into a game-turning moment or anything like that.
Regarding forcing players off the team, I suspect you're referring to Leah Bolton and Mckenzie Piper. Bolton was unable to meet UI academic requirements for entry to the school. Piper's situation relates to playing time. I don't claim to know all that happened in that case, but a breaking point apparently came after the Illini defeated Northwestern on Jan. 15. It was a celebratory Illini locker room, but Piper wasn't among those enjoying and participating in the moment after not getting into the game. She was unhappy about that, and it showed. But Bollant also was unhappy with how Piper reacted, focusing on not getting off the bench instead of being happy about a rare team victory.
They had several meetings or conversations, presumably to air things out. It's possible Bollant told Piper that he couldn't guarantee more playing time in the future and that if she was unhappy about that, she had the option of transferring. Is that pushing a player off the team? I don't view it that way.
You are right about the similarities between where the two coaches' teams are in the standings. That is irrefutable.
I knew the team would take a loss with Penn & GodBold graduating, but I did not expect to drop to dead last in the Big10. What do you think is going so wrong with this team?
I agree. I did not see this level of decline coming. Figured there would be a step back this season without Penn and GodBold, but not to this degree. Even wrote in either the paper or in this chat that my expectation was for a finish in lower-middle of the pack of the Big Ten.
When a team is 2-8 in its conference and has lost nine of its last 11 games, typically there are widespread reasons, and that's the case with Illinois.
Without Penn and GodBold, this team has struggled mightily on the boards and, at times, with interior defense. Last season's team also had rebounding issues -- it ranked last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin -- but was able to compensate by forcing tons of turnovers and then coverting those possessions more easily into points than this team does. The current team is still terrific at forcing turnovers but it's not getting the payoff at the other end often enough.
The current team, especially since the start of the Big Ten season, has been a bad shooting team. It entered last night's game against Michigan State last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage and 11th in three-point shooting percentage. In Big Ten-only games, the Illini are 11th in both of those categories.
And the Illini have little scoring punch off a thin bench. If the starting five isn't producing points at its normal clip, it can't count on the reserves to pick them up.
Of course, with Bollant shaking up his lineup last night and sounding like he plans to stick with three freshmen -- who had never started a college game between the Michigan State game -- for the time being, the bench now has some firepower. Problem is, the revamped starting lineup can be expected to struggle to score points. Freshman Taylor Gleason did produce eight points against the Spartans, but her classmates, Sarah Livingston and Ashley McConnell (0 of 8 from the field), combined for only five points while each playing 36 minutes.
I think, too, that since this is Bollant's second go-round in the Big Ten, opposing coaches know better what to expect from his Illini teams and are more prepared to counter it. But that would be true of any program with a second-year coach.
My last thought is that Big Ten women's basketball has taken a significant leap in quality last season and this. And when programs make coaching changes, as Ohio State did after last season, they're making smart and high-impact hires -- just as the UI did in landing Bollant. He did not arrive at an easy time in which to rebuild the Illini program. If a Big Ten team has weaknesses, the conference will expose them. We're seeing that this season in Champaign.
We're out of questions so we'll wrap this up. Appreciate the interest and talk to you next week.