UI women's season in review

UI women's season in review

Who’s returning?
Nearly everyone. Fifth-year senior Amber Moore is the lone personnel loss. That doesn’t mean it’s status quo with the 2014-15 roster or the projected rotation. Far from it. Illinois will welcome a highly regarded three-player freshman class headlined by McDonald’s All-America center Chatrice White. The Illini also will gain the services of three others who redshirted this season. From that group, coach Matt Bollant is counting on Missouri transfer Kyley Simmons to seize the point guard spot and elevate the attack. Of the returnees, All-Big Ten honorable-mention guard Ivory Crawford and freshman center Jacqui Grant are proven starters, with White’s arrival allowing Grant to move to her more natural position of power forward. There should be plenty of competition for rotation spots, always a healthy development for a program.

Who are they playing?
Dates have yet to be set, but the Illini do know the breakdown of their 2014-15 Big Ten schedule, which expands from 16 to 18 games. Illinois will face five teams twice, including reigning co-champion Michigan State as well as third-place Nebraska. Purdue, which tied for fifth, also is on the Illini’s home-and-away docket. The singleton matchups include four at home and four on the road. The league trips are heavy on distance — with Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers as well as co-champion Penn State receiving visits from Illinois. The home-only opponents include the nemesis of all nemeses, Iowa, which has an all-time 52-17 series edge. The nonconference slate offers a Nov. 27-29 trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a loaded Paradise Jam tournament. Memphis comes to State Farm Center, and New York natives Nia Oden and Alexis Smith will return to their home region when the Illini visit Seton Hall.

What they’re saying

Stephanie White
BTN and ESPN analyst

Q: Why did Illinois experience a sharp decline this season?
A: “They graduated two very good players in Karisma Penn, who carried that team for four years, and Adrienne GodBold. The players that returned didn’t really have a lot of quality experience with the exception of Ivory Crawford, and they blended a lot of new players. I think when you look at the roster, it’s to be expected that this year would be somewhat of a transition year.”

Q: How do you assess Illinois’ prospects for the 2014-15 season?
A: “I think they have a chance to make some noise next season with the players that will return and the incoming recruiting class. You never know how much freshmen will truly impact a team, but I believe the future is bright. The key is to understand that it’s a process and to stay the course.”

CHARLIE CREME
ESPN bracketologist

Q: Why did Illinois experience a sharp decline this season?
A: “It’s always hard to replace a program mainstay, leader and scorer the quality of Karisma Penn. This is also a program in transition with Matt Bollant attempting to establish the Illini as his own. Last year, he had Penn to help bridge the gap. This year was the true transition season.”

Q: How do you assess Illinois’ prospects for the 2014-15 season?
A: “Bollant is a good coach and he will have two double-figure scorers back to build around next season, which will help. I would expect some improvement next season, but it’s still a transitional time. His style, his way of doing things and his recruits will need to have deeper acceptance and implementation. I would not expect Illinois to be ready to compete for a Big Ten title next season, but I would expect strides as a young team will have the experience of this season to build upon.”

What went wrong?

Minus two

It was the No. 1 question entering the season: How would the Illini make up for the loss of their two best players? The answer became apparent quickly enough. All-America center Karisma Penn and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Adrienne GodBold were irreplaceable. And their absence left a void Illinois did not come close to filling, either individually or by committee. Even with GodBold sitting out the first semester last season due to academic ineligibility, this dynamic duo accounted for 43.2 percent of the team’s points in 2012-13. As it turned out, Illinois’ shooting and scoring numbers this season actually were comparable to the previous campaign with one notable exception — the Illini averaged nearly six fewer points per game in the Big Ten. Instead, it was on defense and on the boards that Penn and GodBold were most acutely missed. Opponents averaged 6.1 points more this season, including 6.9 more in conference games, than during 2012-13. Meanwhile, the rebound differential rose from a minus-4.2 per game to minus-9.0. Penn’s sturdy presence in the paint and GodBold’s disruptive defense anywhere on the court made for a powerful combination. Their departure proved to be an equally powerful 1-2 punch to the team they left behind.

Caught short

Go to the Big Ten’s website and look at the statistics for conference games. It’s not a pretty sight. Of 21 categories, Illinois ranked 10th or lower in 17, including last in seven. Nearly across the board, the Illini lagged badly among their Big Ten peers in the measurables. Combined with Illinois’ 21-loss record, it’s difficult not to conclude that the Illini were at a serious disadvantage in talent. When Illini coach Matt Bollant’s predecessor, Jolette Law, landed the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation late last decade, it appeared Illinois had achieved a program-turning breakthrough. But with fifth-year senior Amber Moore now having completed her career, the last member of that talented group is gone. And of the classes that immediately followed, there were multiple instances of recruits who transferred, most in the wake of Law’s firing and a coaching change. It created gaps or low numbers in certain classes. Of those who remain, so far only junior guard Ivory Crawford has made what can be considered a significant impact. With Bollant’s first recruiting class now one season into its college careers and a second class headed for campus this fall, it will take at least a couple more years to fairly assess his roster-building progress. In the meantime, the 2013-14 season was an eye-opening indication that Illinois hasn’t kept up on the Big Ten talent front.

Getting to the point

Bollant has indicated that he is committed to signing a point guard in every recruiting class. That’s how much importance he places on the position. His second Illini team appeared well-stocked with Georgia Tech transfer Sarah Hartwell and returning starter Alexis Smith. Although Smith was sidelined for the first five games by an ankle injury, Hartwell got off to a strong start. But the redshirt sophomore couldn’t sustain that level and fell into erratic performances. Upon her return, Smith quickly earned a starting role, but she also had her ups and downs. Meanwhile, Hartwell eventually was taken off the point and utilized strictly as a shooting guard. And by early February, both were benched as part of a lineup shakeup and did not start again. At that point, Bollant reluctantly went with Crawford at point guard, knowing the position didn’t play to her strengths but that she was the best available option. The changes and uncertainty at point guard this season certainly had a negative impact, but Bollant is confident there won’t be a repeat in 2014-15 with the availability of Missouri transfer Kyley Simmons. The junior trained with the Illini all season while sitting out under NCAA rules, and Bollant frequently regarded her as the best point guard on the practice court.

Position-by-position grades

Backcourt

B All-Big Ten honorable mention picks Ivory Crawford and Amber Moore were the Illini’s two best players, but team suffered from lack of a dynamic point guard.

Frontcourt

D Freshman Jacqui Grant gave it her all, but Illini desperately needed a true post player. This roster segment lacked height, depth and production.

Bench

D- Lineup shakeup in early February meant stronger bench, but it was short-lived when Moore returned to lineup after three games. With rare exceptions, reserves contributed far too little.
Coaching

C- Bollant couldn’t pull Illini out of season-ending tailspin or coax more improvement. Benching three starters was a message-sending move that made expectations clear and should pay future dividends.
Overall

D With the loss of an All-American and a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a step back this season was expected. Instead, it turned into a free fall all the way to the Big Ten cellar.

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