Coaches prep Illini women for first dance

Coaches prep Illini women for first dance

   CHAMPAIGN  Kathy McConnell can tell University of Illinois women''s basketball players all about the NCAA tournament.

   And she plans to.

   "They don''t know the routine for an NCAA tournament," the Illini assistant coach said. "It''s our job to prepare them for what''s about to happen."

   When 16th-ranked Illinois makes its first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years on Friday night, it will be a new experience for every one of the players. Not for three members of the coaching staff, though.

   When the fourth-seeded Illini take on 13th seed Drake in a Midwest subregional at Huff Hall, it will mark the 10th time head coach Theresa Grentz has taken a a team to the NCAA tournament. Before moving to the UI in the spring of 1995, she guided nine Rutgers teams to this tournament.

   McConnell experienced four NCAA tournaments as a player at Virginia from 1986-89 and coached in another as a Rutgers assistant. Another UI assistant, Renee Reed, also coached in one NCAA tournament while on Grentz''s Rutgers staff.

   "When I was a freshman, what was good was I had upperclassmen to help me prepare for the NCAA, which our (UI) freshmen don''t have," said McConnell. "It''s definitely a different game, a different intensity.

   "But they have us. They have Theresa Grentz, who has a wealth of NCAA experience. I have it as a player and as a coach."

   Perhaps the biggest challenge the UI staff faces, says McConnell, is making the players believe that they belong. That task isn''t made any easier when the players hear the opinion, as they did Sunday night on ESPN''s telecast of the pairings, that they are seeded too high.

   "Everybody thinks that a four seed was too high for us, so obviously we''re not viewed as that," McConnell said. "When you think of Tennessee, that''s an NCAA team. Or ODU (Old Dominion). Or North Carolina.

   "They (Illini players) don''t view themselves  and they haven''t all year  as an NCAA team. But we (the coaches) have. Our kids need to know that''s the way we perceive them. This is an NCAA team and they have to perform like an NCAA team."

   McConnell is confident Illini players will know what to expect of their opponents and what''s expected of them.

   "The Xs and Os  our kids pick things up so fast," she said. "That, we''re not worried about."

   What is murky, says McConnell, is how well the players can deal for the first time with the distractions that are an inevitable part of the NCAA tournament atmosphere.

   "The outside influences  the media, the kids in their dorms, their parents  they have to stay focused," the UI assistant said. "This could possibly be their last game of the season, so they have to learn to focus, they have to learn to concentrate."

   Because of Illinois'' tournament inexperience, says McConnell, being able to start out at home is especially important.   "That makes it easier," she said. "They''re not playing in a hostile environment where they have to deal with that right away. Having to deal with this new experience, having it at home will make it more comfortable."

   Being at home does not, however, give the Illini preferential treatment once the other three teams hit town. Practice times and access to Huff Hall are equal for all four schools.

   "It''s a neutral site in that regard," McConnell said.

   The setting at game time won''t be neutral, though, as Illini players and their fans share the excitement of this new experience. "Even though we''ve been through this, it''s new and exciting for the kids, so it''s new and exciting for us," McConnell said.

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