Illini women in position for No. 1 run

Illini women in position for No. 1 run

If she doesn't like it, Theresa Grentz will tell you. The University of Illinois women's basketball coach isn't much for subtlety.

"I hate polls," she says.

It is hard to argue her point when you see the UI's raggedy football program recognized in the preseason Associated Press poll. The Illini, coming off their worst season in years, incredibly received four votes in the rankings released Saturday, meaning a writer or two feels Ron Turner's first team belongs in the Top 25.

That's two more votes than wins in 1996. That's ludicrous.

Beat Southern Miss, Louisville and Washington State and the UI deserves recognition (and Turner deserves tenure). Not until then, though.

"I have no use for them whatsoever," says Grentz, referring to the rankings, not Turner's team. "They're not worth the paper they're on."

Here is the ironic twist:

Of all the teams on campus in 1997-98, Grentz's will be the most poll-friendly, no matter how many disparaging remarks she makes about the process.

Already No. 5 in one early poll, the Illini have a legitimate crack at ascending to No. 1. Which would make the alumni proud, the student body delirious and Huff Hall a fire code violation on game nights.

So can the UI pull it off? It's been a while since an Illini team has, Lou Henson's Final Four outfit last elevating to No. 1 in late 1988.

Plan of attack

The UI is in position thanks to a quality roster and some aggressive scheduling.

The 1997-98 lineup isn't official yet, but from what we know the Illini have lined up three of the four teams that competed in last spring's Final Four in Cincinnati (something for the men to shoot for).

They'll meet defending champ Tennessee on its home court. They'll play runner-up Old Dominion at the Assembly Hall. And they'll face semifinalist Notre Dame for the first time in 15 years.

A few years ago Illinois was in no position to ask a Final Four team for a date, much less three. But last year's made-for-television run – along with Grentz's many connections – made it possible.

"I may have overscheduled us," Grentz said. "But I'm not going to back down. I never do."

If by the time Colorado – another Sweet 16 team a year ago – leaves town in early January and the Illini are still unbeaten, they're No. 1.

Now, beating Tennessee in Knoxville will be a bit tricky. And Old Dominion is no slouch. Remember, too, how the UI lost to unheralded Illinois State and Arkansas State early last season.

So staying in the top 10, much less climbing the rankings, will require work.

"If we decide we're good and wonderful, we'll get killed," Grentz said. "We have to stay hungry."

Filled to the brim

Two byproducts of a program becoming popular: Every team wants to play you, and everybody wants to play with you.

Grentz could use a few more scholarships these days as the recruits and transfers continue to call.

"She's fun to play for because she recruits the right type of person, not just the right type of player," Susan Blauser said. "That's important."

Following Alicia Sheeler's lead, Blauser and Kylie Martin are transferring from Rutgers to the UI. Both players will sit out next season.

As of now, the UI has 18 players and 15 scholarships. The traffic jam won't clear until the current junior class departs.

At least Grentz is covered when Ashley Berggren graduates. She's landed potential replacements in Blauser, Dawn Vana and Allison Curtin, all forwards who like to mix it up near the basket.

Vana and Curtin are high school seniors who may need time to adjust to the college game. Blauser's been there but is recuperating from a second operation on her left knee, first injured during the 1996 Big East tournament.

"Sitting out a year is really, really good for me," she said. "It gives me a chance to get acquainted with the school and with my teammates."

Not Grentz. The two go back, Blauser committing to Rutgers in the fall of 1994 when Grentz still was coaching the Scarlet Knights.

She didn't like the polls then, either.

Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.