Dogged work expected from Illini women

Theresa Grentz loves dogs.

She keeps a book about them on her office desk at the Bielfeldt Building and knows enough about the furry four-legged pups to talk intelligently with a veterinarian.

So it's odd to hear all the anti-mutt chatter at a University of Illinois women's basketball practice.

"No dogs allowed," Grentz says frequently. "Can't have them in practice."

No need to warn the kennel: Grentz is referring to her team, not a terrier.

Grentz has borrowed this year's motto – "no dogs in practice" – from a couple of her East Coast coaching buddies, Jimmy Lynam and Hubie Brown. They used to bark the slogan when they saw a player going half-speed in a full-speed drill.

It is meant to address complacency.

And Illinois, ranked in everyone's top 10 after last year's head-turning run to the Big Ten title, is on complacency alert. No symptoms yet, Grentz reports, but she's seen promising programs get spoiled before.

"If we embrace success, that's the biggest problem we can have," she said. "It happens everywhere. CEOs, corporations, salespeople ... success has a nasty habit of ruining things. We cannot become comfortable."

So Grentz has made practice miserable.

The Illini, she says, will run like never before. They will lift more weights, shoot more free throws, elbow more teammates. They will sweat as if in a sauna.

Keep looking forward

Illinois will not become a brat.

"And you know what? I don't think we will," Grentz said. "You look back at what we did last year, and we still could have done more."

They hurt then.

The loss to No. 1 Connecticut in the NCAA tournament felt like a bee sting. The loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament championship game felt like a punch to the gut. The loss to Purdue at a packed Assembly Hall felt like, well, someone kicked Grentz's dog.

All big games. All big disappointments.

All for the better.

"I always play to win," Grentz said. "But maybe things worked out for the best. We all felt we should have beaten UConn. They had their hands full. If that happens, who knows?"

Maybe the Illini get lazy. Maybe they spend the summer at the beach, working on their tans instead of their jumpers. Maybe they go full circle, from last year's hard-working fan favorites to this year's All-Big Ten Underachievers.

Success is hard not to fumble, especially when it's so new and so slippery.

Getting to know you

As a pre-emptive strike, Grentz has extended a hand to her players. She plans to meet with them more often off the court, to talk basketball, boyfriends, books.

Anything goes.

It is Grentz's way of making sure her players are in the frame of mind a productive program requires. If someone's veering a different direction, she will know.

"When I was younger, it was easier to talk with your players," Grentz said. "They'd pop over to your house after school or after practice, but it's harder now. Now everybody's time is so limited.

"To have an effective leadership, you have to know your constituency, and our communication has never been better."

It must remain that way. Between players and coaches. Between coaches and the community.

A top-5 ranking does not give the UI the green light to become snobs, to become dogs.

So Grentz, as popular a banquet speaker as C-U ever has seen, will keep her routine. If there's a group that needs motivation, drop her a line. She'll try to make time.

"I hope I always do that," Grentz said. "If I don't, it's probably time to do something else."

Right now, she's coaching.

In less than five weeks, Old Dominion comes to town. Tennessee, Stanford, Colorado and the regular Big Ten toughies are standing in line, too.

No dogs in practice, no dogs on the schedule. Rough stuff.

"I've won big, and I've lost big," Grentz said. "I've learned from those lessons."

But have the Illini? They've already won big (good) and lost big (better).

Let's see how they react.

Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.

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