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Ask staff writer Jeff Huth about the Illini's performance at Iowa Thursday night.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini women's basketball from a snowy Champaign-Urbana. Will this winter ever end? Will Matt Bollant's team snap its six-game losing streak on Sunday against Michigan? Those are my questions. Let's get to yours.
Sarah Hartwell started this season looking like she could be one of our better players, but her productivity --especially her scoring -- really fell off as the year went along. I understand that her recent benching, like all the recent lineup changes, has related to effort and attitude. But what do you think limited her impact before that? What will it take to get her back on track?
Like you, I anticipated that Hartwell would make more of an impact than she has.
In fairness, the redshirt sophomore guard did get off to a very good start offensively, scoring 18 points in the season opener and reaching double figures in her first four games. And she led the team in assists in seven of its first 10 games.
Since then, Hartwell has been very inconsistent. And you might have noticed that her role has changed in the offense, from a point guard or co-point guard to more of a wing. In that latter role, her shooting accuracy isn't meeting the requirements of the job. We're seeing her lofting shots from the corner baseline but not hitting very many.
Of the three former starters who now are coming off the bench, Hartwell is seeing by far the least floor time since that move. Following the first game after the lineup shakeup, Bollant mentioned that Hartwell hadn't responding to his push for more energy and that's why she played so little. She did play eight minutes against Iowa Thursday night, which was five more than the previous two games combined.
What will it take to get her back on track? I'm sure the coaches are wondering the same thing. It will be interesting to see how she responds in the remaining games when she does get on the court.
The ball, as they say, is in her court.
Is next year going to be a telling year on if the program Is headed in the right direction ?
similar to the men's team
I think that's a valid point. Illinois will be adding a high school McDonald's All-American (Chatrice White) and a transfer (Kyley Simmons from Missouri) with good college credentials. Both address needs: a big, strong post player and a guard who can both distribute and score.
With those additions and the return of all current players except senior Amber Moore, the roster has the makings for signficant improvement.
Illinois can't go another season, however, playing the kind of porous defense and shooting the low percentages it has this season. Those areas absolutely need to improve or it could be more of the same in 2014-15.
I would add that Bollant will be only two years into bringing in his own recruiting classes by next season, and it wouldn't be fair to judge him and his staff until they are further along with building their "own" roster. It would be fair, however, to judge the coaching staff on how much they've been able to develop their players from one season to the next -- regardless of whether those players were inherited or personally recruited.
What does this team do well? We are in last place in the conference. We are last in scoring margin, field goal defense, offensive rebounding, rebounding margin, assists, and attendance. We are next to last in many other categories. It isn't like we are playing top notch competition. There are no Big Ten teams in the top ten and only one in the top twenty.
There is one area in which this team excels: pressure defense that leads to turnovers. One year after breaking the Big Ten record for steals for a season and in conference-only games, Illinois continues to keep the pressure on opponents.
The Illini are averaging a Big Ten-leading 11.2 steals per game and also is No. 1 in turnover margin at plus-5.64 per game. Problem is, the shooting accuracy has not been good enough to take advantage more fully of those added possessions.
Speaking to your last point, I think the quality of the Big Ten deserves more credit than you are giving it. It's true that No. 11 Penn State is the lone league representative in the Associated Press Top 25. And I think most folks who follow women's basketball for a living would put the Big Ten behind the SEC, ACC and Big 12 on a ranking of conferences. But the Big Ten is deep in quality -- maybe not Top 10-caliber quality -- but a level of depth that I suspect you'll see when the NCAA tournament selections are announced.
There's no doubt Illinois has issues, but it definitely is not playing in a weak conference. And that conference has relentlessly exposed the Illini's deficiencies this season..
With Coach Bollant using Coach Groce strategy by playing the freshman do you think it should've done sooner
Actually, Matt Bollant was the first of the two Illini basketball coaches to shake up his lineup. He did so on Feb. 5 against Michigan State by giving three freshmen the first starts of their college careers.
John Groce moved two freshmen into his lineup on Feb. 9 against Penn State.
So I guess you could say Groce used the Bollant strategy, although that's not how I would put it. These were independent decisions that just happened to occur around the same time.
Should Bollant have done so earlier? I don't think so. Based on the track record in particular of Amber Moore and Alexis Smith, each is capable of making a big impact and clearly rank among the five most talented players on the active roster.
It had reached a point, however, the Bollant felt compelled to make a point in what he felt was the strongest terms possible: If you don't play with (to use his term) "great energy" and you aren't defending up to your capabilities, you don't start and your playing time is reduced.
The shakeup hasn't halted the Illini's losing streak, but a tangible benefit has been to give young players court experience that should prove beneficial next season.
And sometimes moves like this can yield pleasant surprises. The fact that walkon freshman guard Ashley McConnell scored 13 points against Iowa on Thursday certainly qualifies. That should do wonders for her confidence and prove to McConnell -- and to Bollant -- that she is capable of producing at that level.
Looks like we've run out of questions so we'll wrap this up. Terrific questions, too. It's obvious how closely and seriously you all follow this program.
Talk to you next week.
-- Jeff Huth