Despite a 28-35 record through his first two seasons in charge of the Illinois women’s basketball program, Matt Bollant is wearing a smile regularly these days.
Why such optimism from the coach?
Well, he’s got a highly regarded recruiting class entering the program this summer, and he picked up a transfer from Ball State last week to go along with veterans already schooled in his system.
Renderings of the State Farm Center renovation and samples of the new Nike uniforms the Illini will sport this winter are on display in his office, which has been a destination this summer for hot-shot recruits who have been visiting Bollant and his staff to check out what Bollant is building. Staff writer Marcus Jackson sat down with the hopeful UI coach last week.
How is the offseason treating you so far?
It’s been good. I’m really excited. We’re going to be more talented, and the cultures are changing here. We practiced really hard last season; we just weren’t talented enough to win. But now we add Kyley (Simmons) and Chatrice (White) and Brittany Carter (transfer from Ball State). I feel like we’re going to be more talented this season.
How much has being able to work out in the summer like the men’s program can helped you all here?
Last year was the first year of that. It’s such an advantage to be in the gym with them, to see them every day and have everybody in the gym. We’re going to do Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but on Tuesday and Thursday, the captains will take over and do some stuff on their own that they carry over from those other days when we’re together.
Is it going to be a mix of team stuff and individual drills?
Yeah, we’ll do a lot of fundamentals. We’ll have 11 mini-clinics that we take them through, and we do that every year so our freshmen will get that and our older players have been through it for a couple years, so they’ll get better at it and get quicker. We’ll also put in our secondary break and start working some things in.
What do you want to accomplish with this group this summer?
I think building toward our identity defensively. We weren’t good defensively. We didn’t have an identity, and we’ve got to build toward that.
You probably don’t want to be reminded of this, but you lost more games last season (21) than you lost in five seasons total at Green Bay (19). How difficult was that for you?
It was hard. Nobody ever wants to get used to losing. I think I handled it pretty well. You just try to treat the kids well, be the same coach every day and not let it bother your confidence and who you are. I still feel like we’re doing the right things here, and we’re going to be great. We just didn’t get it done last year.
Would your wife (Kari) agree you handled it well?
I think she said it was really stressful; that’s how she put it. She knows we really tried and it was hard, and we’re not used to losing. It just didn’t go real well.
Are you getting closer to where you want to be?
We are. Even if you watched us practice last year, you’d never believe that team wasn’t successful with wins and losses because of how hard they worked and how intense they were. I think we’ve done that, we just didn’t have enough pieces talentwise to win. Adding Kyley Simmons as a point guard and adding a 5 (White), just adding those pieces alone, along with the transfer and two other really good freshmen coming in, we have Kennedy Cattenhead, our highest-rated recruit last year, who tore her ACL. We’ve got five or six new pieces who are really talented.
What does Kyley Simmons add?
She’s a really good point guard. She’s a really good leader. We’ve had good kids here, but they haven’t always known how to lead, and she’s a good leader. Now we can say, “Follow Kyley. When we’re not in the gym, do what Kyley tells you to do.” She’s a leader; she’s a go-getter. She believes in herself and has that self-belief that “I’m getting this done.” She just has so much energy. Every day she comes in with joy and is so excited to practice. She wants to be in the gym all the time.
You’ve had a lot of recruits visit this summer. What has the response on the recruiting trail been toward your program?
It’s gone really well. The recruiting part has probably been the best thing since being here. Our first year we had a Top 25 recruiting class. Last year’s class had two All-Americans in it. I’m really confident the 2015 class is going to be really good. We’re able to get good kids; we just have to stack a couple of good recruiting classes on top of each other to be great.
Adding a McDonald’s All-American in Chatrice White adds a lot on the court, but what does that do for the perception of your program?
She bought into our vision and where we’re going. A lot of people asked her why she was choosing us and not Notre Dame or Connecticut. She believed in us and what we were doing and knows we’re going to be great. With the 2015 kids, I’m asking them, “Who’s going to be our next McDonald’s All-American?” I was texting them and calling them asking if they were going to be our next one. I saw (UConn coach) Geno (Auriemma) last fall, and he said it took him six years to get his first McDonald’s All-American, so for us going into our third year to get one is really exciting.
Do you have a go-to player at this stage?
Kyley is one. We return Ivory (Crawford), and Jacqui (Grant) scored a lot for us last year. I think Chatrice is going to come in and score a lot right away. We’ll know once we get through the summer, but we’re going to have a lot more weapons. Amber (Moore) just didn’t have a whole lot to go with her, but we’re going to have more.
Has the support continued to be good?
It has. The administration has been great. They’ve been really understanding and really appreciative of the work we’ve done, and I really like them. I’m excited about bringing honor to them and this program.
Is women’s basketball, as a whole, in good shape?
I think so. I don’t think the game is broke at all. It’s just a different world we live in today. There’s so many more choices with entertainment that there’s going to be more of a battle getting fans. The Big Ten drew extremely well last year. We had crowds last year. We lost six straight, then we come home and we’ve got 3,000 people there. If we build this, they’ll come.
The gap between the UConns and Notre Dames of college basketball, is that closing some?
I think it can. I know the Big Ten is doing a great job recruiting. When you look at the 2015 and the top kids in the country, the Big Ten is getting a bunch of them, and that didn’t used to be the case. This year, we had two McDonald’s All-Americans in the league. Ohio State got one, and we got one. There’s a lot of top kids committing. Penn State just got the No. 7 kid in the country to commit. You’re going to see a little more balance, and I think it’ll be good for women’s basketball. No one wants to see Connecticut dominate like they have. It’s hard for people to get excited when they know who’s going to win. I don’t know if anyone will catch them next year, but it’s getting close. The Big Ten is getting better and adding Maryland, who was just in the Final Four, is really good for the league.