Illini women look for turnaround in Fahey's second season

Illini women look for turnaround in Fahey's second season

CHAMPAIGN — Goal No. 1 for Illinois women's basketball coach Nancy Fahey heading into her second season as coach was to find a personality for her team.

Find that something — perhaps rooted in competing — that could move the Illini forward after last year's 9-22 season and winless run through 16 Big Ten games.

"I wanted to compete," Fahey said, reflecting on her first season in Champaign. "I'm not happy with what happened. I'm not used to losing, and I don't want to lose. If you teach competition, that will show up on the basketball court. The goal is to compete today and compete tomorrow. The scoreboard will take care of itself."

The scoreboard — or rather what those final results showed at the end of most games last year — played a part in Illinois' search for an identity heading into this season. Improving on the offensive end was a clear focus this offseason.

Illinois ranked 260th in the country out of 349 Division I teams in scoring offense, averaging just 61.4 points per game. No Big Ten struggled more to score.

The Illini's potential answer is pace. As in more of it.

"I think we played way too much five-on-five last year, and we let teams set up (defensively)," Fahey said. "We're trying to change our tempo."

Senior guard Jaelyne Kirkpatrick liked the tempo Illinois has played with during its preseason practices. The emphasis to pushing the ball more is clear.

"Obviously, we have sets, but right now our first look is transition and just trying to flow into things at a quicker pace," Kirkpatrick said. "In the offseason, we really conditioned ourselves well for that, so that now we'll be prepared to do that substantially throughout the season."

Pace won't be a quick fix for the Illinois offense, though. Scoring wasn't the Illini's only struggle during its third straight nine-win season. They hamstrung themselves with negative rebounding and turnover margins and not enough trips to the free-throw line (324th in attempts) despite shooting 74 percent when they got there (71st nationally).

Illinois also ranked 328th in assists per game, 288th in field goal percentage and 215th in three-point percentage.

"Another big thing we've done all summer is shooting," Kirkpatrick said. "We can't deny the fact we didn't shoot the ball well last season. That's been a huge emphasis in our offseason getting in the gym."

Illinois' changing identity isn't all about uptempo offense, though. The way the Illini attack the game has been stressed just as much leading into Wednesday's 11 a.m. season opener against Alabama A&M at State Farm Center.

"Something we've wanted to be really specific about is we have brutal transition and tough defense," Illinois senior forward Alex Wittinger said. "Last year our theme was grit. We're kind of building off of that. We have a team-first mentality now. Just being tough — being a tough, scrappy team — and making people not want to play us because of that."

Kirkpatrick and Wittinger are in their final seasons at Illinois. They've won just nine games in each of those seasons across two coaching staffs.

"It takes time for the work you put in to actually pay off," Kirkpatrick said, while admitting to frustrations with losing season after losing season. "It's not going to be an overnight thing even with a new coach. Sometimes the expectation is that the program will flip right away."

Those back-to-back-to-back nine-win seasons, though, haven't limited the Illini's expectations for themselves.

Playing a second season under Fahey should help.

"We can only go up, which is awesome," Wittinger said. "We're not looking to repeat something like last year. Even though it may seem crazy, we're shooting for the top and shooting to play in the postseason. I want to go out with a bang. I'm searching for that postseason play.

"We've had Coach Fahey for a year. We know what she wants and we know what to expect. It's helped run things smoother. We got to work on more actual basketball things instead of culture things. We were able to focus on that more."

Kirkpatrick said instilling confidence in Illinois' younger players is key. So is the Illini getting to know each other beyond the surface level. It's something the Illinois veterans have stressed leading into this season.

One clear step Kirkpatrick wants to see the Illini make, though, as they try to improve on last year (and the years before) is borrowing from their volleyball counterparts on campus.

"It's so much fun to go watch our volleyball team play at Huff because they bring so much energy," Kirkpatrick said. "They're excited for each other, and I think the crowd feeds off of it. It's just a great environment. We have to first build that environment. I think that — small as it may seem because it's so intangible — is the first step."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

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