CHAMPAIGN — Matt Bollant has taken to calling his Illinois women’s basketball team the Road Warriors for its flawless record in Big Ten Conference away games.
The first-year Illini coach might also have reason to come up with a nickname for the mainstays of his roster. Perhaps something like the Sturdy Six.
Since forward Kersten Magrum was sidelined in early January by the latest in a series of concussions, Bollant’s already-compact seven-player rotation has become a band of six.
This is nothing new for the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach.
“At Green Bay there was a lot of games where we only played six,” he said Monday. “Or the seventh player played very limited minutes.”
As a five-season record of 148-19 — as well as four NCAA tournament appearances — at UWGB attests, Bollant has experienced success with a short-bench philosophy. And the same can be said of his approach in the absence of Magrum, whose career officially ended on Jan. 23 when she was medically disqualified by the UI.
In the seven games since Magrum last played, the Illini are 5-2 while primarily utilizing six players.
In addition to the starters, guard Taylor Tuck is the only other UI player who has logged significant time during that span. Beyond that, forward McKenzie Piper averaged 5.2 minutes in six appearances over the past seven games, while forward Nia Oden averaged 2.0 minutes in three games off the bench.
In Sunday’s 64-56 victory at Wisconsin, Tuck was the only reserve to see action, logging 24 minutes. Two starters, center Karisma Penn and guard Amber Moore, played all 40 minutes as Illinois (13-8) improved to 6-3 in the Big Ten while remaining perfect on the conference road at 5-0.
“In close games, I’ve always been a coach that I want my best players on the floor,” Bollant said. “In the Big Ten, you have a lot of close games. I’ve always done that and it’s always worked really well for me.”
One reason it’s workable, Bollant says, is the generous number of media timeouts — four per half — in collegiate basketball. That’s in addition to the five timeouts available to each team per game.
“I think with the media timeouts that you don’t always have to play eight, nine players,” Bollant said. “I think you can play six, seven in a game, depending on foul trouble.”
Also guiding Bollant’s distribution of minutes is his belief that playing time is earned, particularly when the game is being decided.
“Other coaches play extra players to keep them happy, and I’ve never believed that’s the right philosophy,” he said. “We’re always going to do what‘s best for the team and best for ... helping them win.
“I’ve just never been concerned about trying to keep everybody happy because we feel like we (already) do the right things in practice. We love our players, and if they’re ready to help the team, great, they’ll play. And if we’re concerned about that, they won’t.”
In the case of Piper, Bollant says, the freshman needs to make further strides on defense. With sophomore Oden, he says, “It’s growing in her feel for the game; making the right pass and understanding what we’re doing.”
The flip side of this approach is making sure the players doing most of the heavy lifting don’t get burned out. Illinois’ five starters are averaging between 31.5 and 37.1 minutes per game this season.
In response to that workload, Bollant takes a measured approach to practice. Last week, when Illinois played three games in seven days, “we didn’t really practice much at all,” he said.
And with physical recovery still in mind, the UI coach gave his team off on Monday and planned a light practice today in preparation for Thursday’s game at Michigan.
“So (it’s) just making adjustments with your time and making sure that kids that are playing a lot of minutes are staying fresh,” he said.
Gaining attention. Illinois, which went 3-0 last week, was named espnW’s National Team of the Week in women’s basketball on Monday. The Illini won twice on the road and defeated then-No. 24 Iowa at the Assembly Hall.