CHAMPAIGN — For the past two seasons, there’s little doubt Karisma Penn has been the best player on the Illinois women’s basketball team.
Now, first-year Illini coach Matt Bollant is prodding the All-Big Ten forward to be that same driven player on the practice court.
“If your best players aren’t your hardest workers, then you’re not going to overachieve,” Bollant said this week. “And I think you see that at a lot of college basketball (programs) where the best players aren’t ... their hardest workers, and the younger kids are just not inspired by that.
“When the younger kids come in and see Karisma busting her butt every day in practice, well, (they ask) ‘How do I get to be like her?’ Well, you practice that way.”
Among the many tasks on Bollant’s plate as he attempts to revive an Illini program that’s produced one winning season in the last four is to raise the bar on the practice floor.
Getting a player of Penn’s profile to fully buy in to that, as well as to accept demanding coaching, Bollant says, was a priority. So far, so good.
“She’s practiced really hard,” said the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach, who’ll be joined by Penn today at the Big Ten Basketball Media Day in suburban Chicago.
“If she allows us to coach her hard, the other kids see that as well. She’s not going to get treated like a prima donna and allowed to not practice hard or not do the right things. And she’s allowed us to coach her.”
According to Penn, it was an easy sell. Given Bollant’s resume at Green Bay — an .886 winning percentage in five years and four NCAA tournament appearances — Penn says the new Illini coach arrived with instant credibility.
“I think if Coach Bollant had told me that at Green Bay they had ran around campus every morning, I would have ran around campus every morning,” she said. “Whatever they said to do, it was going to be real easy to do because we want to win.”
The 6-foot-2 senior has led the Illini in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots each of the last two seasons following a debut year which rated Penn a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
“As soon as we do competition stuff, it brings out the best in her,” Bollant said. “When it’s on and the losing team’s going to have to run, then you see her go to another level. So she loves competition.”
The new staff apparently is providing plenty of it, too.
“Whenever I’m in a game situation or a 3 on 3 — we do a lot of competitive stuff in practice — I think (being a leader) really comes out because I’m a competitor,” Penn said. “In that aspect, it’s really easy to lead in practice.”
Penn’s competitive drive can have an unintended down side. Upon arriving at the UI, Bollant was informed that Penn can too easily show her displeasure in facial expressions or body language when things aren’t going well. The new coach has seen some of that in practice, too, and has challenged Shaker Heights, Ohio, native to “fix your face.”
After a heart-to-heart talk on the matter, Bollant says he has a better understanding of what activates Penn’s frown-o-meter.
“I think sometimes people misread when she’ll make a face like she’s really mad and it looks like she’s mad at a teammate or a coach, where a lot of times she’s mad at herself,” he said.
Still, such reactions won’t do in a new coaching regime.
“(If) our point guard throws you a pass and you give a face — even if you’re mad at yourself — what are you saying?” Bollant said. “And also to our staff — what if we say something or correct something, and your face or your body language isn’t great.
“Again, it’s not going to be perfect. It’s kind of a habit. ... but I think she’s gotten better with that.”
Penn is counting on Bollant and his staff to create some smile-inducing strategies to deal with the smothering defensive attention she too often faced the past two seasons. As the Illini’s top scoring threat on teams with few other reliable options, Penn was a frequent target of double- and even triple-teams.
Bollant indicated he intends to spread the floor, which will free up space for Penn inside.
“So we’re going to use her in a variety of ways,” Bollant said. “We’re not going to just ask her to score in one way ... I think giving her that flexibility is going to help her score more points.”
Penn, a career 13.9-point scorer, even can expect to take her shot long range more often. As a sophomore, she was 7 of 15 on three-pointers, but last season Penn attempted a career-low nine attempts from beyond the arc.
“She can shoot the three,” said Bollant, who cited a recent scrimmage against a men’s squad as encouraging proof. Leading by one point, the Illini ran a clear-out play for Penn, who knocked down a trey with about 30 seconds left.
“It’s catch and shoot, and she was really quick and looked really good,” Bollant said. “And she has got a guy guarding her at the time so it’s not she’s got a bad defender on her. If she can do that with him guarding her, just think about the kids that are slow trying to guard her on the perimeter.”