UI women marked
CHAMPAIGN – Raising the stakes.
That's the intent of a University of Illinois women's basketball team that anted up last season against the Big Ten's high rollers and came away with a share of the conference jackpot. Then, they anted up again in the NCAA tournament and were still in the game after 48 of the original 64 players folded.
Now, they're back with virtually a full deck. Every starter from a 24-8 team returns, including Naismith Player of the Year candidate Ashley Berggren. Of the top 10 players on last year's squad, one was lost to graduation. The newcomers include the most valuable player of the 1997 New Jersey state high school tournament, Lisa Guarneri.
Little wonder just about every magazine and preseason poll has Illinois ranked seventh in the nation and projects another Big Ten crown.
Little wonder, too, a tournament-tested Illini squad now views last year's Sweet Sixteen finish as a steppingstone to bigger things.
"We've kind of raised the stakes for ourselves," sophomore guard Katie Coleman said on the eve of the opening of practice on Saturday. "We expect to be better than last year."
At the same time, though, the Illini expect every team they face to raise the stakes similarly. A year ago, Illinois was coming off its ninth consecutive losing season and its ninth straight second-division finish in the Big Ten.
"We're not going to be able to catch people off guard like we did last season," sophomore forward Tauja Catchings said.
"I think they'll take Illinois more seriously," coach Theresa Grentz said.
Toward the end of last season, the Illini received a taste of what it's like to have a bull's-eye on their backs. Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin, which in the past took a victory over the UI virtually for granted, were going at the Illini with all their might.
"You're going to play differently if you know a team is the doormat of the Big Ten as opposed to Big Ten champions," said Berggren, a senior guard. "Maybe because we have such a high ranking, we might even have to up the intensity one notch higher in order to prove to everyone out there that we are a team to be reckoned with."
The new level of intensity likely will be needed every time Illinois takes the court this season, Coleman said. She expects every opponent – second-division conference rivals and Top Ten powers alike – to prepare more intently and to play harder than they ever have against the UI.
"And that's only natural," Coleman said. "If you're going to play against a better team, you always get up more. So I think this year is going to be a big challenge for us. Not only do we play a lot of higher-ranked teams than us, but the teams that are below us are going to get up for us."
Coleman and Catchings should know the feeling. During their four years at Lincolnshire Stevenson High School, the Patriots won 123 of 132 games and captured Class AA state titles in 1995 and 1996.
"Every team, regardless of how good or bad they were, they always had their best game against us," Catchings said. "You've just got to rise to the challenge."
For Illinois' seniors, being the hunted instead of the hunter is a new experience. During their first two collegiate seasons, the Illini were a cumulative 9-23 in the Big Ten and 23-32 overall.
"Things have taken just a 180-degree turn from where we started," senior guard Krista Reinking said. "Coach has said plenty of times that people came to Champaign, and it's just another game against Illinois – pregame, play the game and leave – and that's not the case anymore.
"Everyone knows Illinois is a team that has to be contended with this season, so I think we're going to have a lot more teams after us than we did last year."
After experiencing lean early years, senior forward Nicole Vasey said she relishes the new perception of the Illini.
"My freshman year, people came in and knew they were going to beat us," Vasey said. "Now, as a senior, I'm proud to say that people are afraid to come to our Huff (Hall) and play us because it's our little court. Last year has shown that people are starting to having to prepare themselves a little bit more for us."
At least one Illini, though, wonders if Illinois is viewed outside the Big Ten as a team opponents circle in red on their schedules.
"A lot of people might look at what we did last year as as fluke, as a one-year thing," junior forward Alicia Sheeler said. "It takes awhile for people's perceptions of some things to be changed."
If that's true, Sheeler's confident the change will happen this season.
"I think that we will prove to everyone how good we actually can be," she said.
Here's a look at how Theresa Grentz's Illinois women's basketball team stacks up, according to preseason publications:
THE SPORTING NEWS
Big Ten ranking: 1st
National ranking: 7th
Player rankings: Ashley Berggren on preseason All-America second team and a preseason All-Big Ten choice.
Comment: "The Big Ten will be Illinois and everyone else. Quickness is the only thing Illinois lacks, though all five starters return. The Illini are deep and can hammer inside all day. This team should score a ton of points again."
National ranking: 7th
Player rankings: Berggren a preseason All-America third-teamer.
Comment: "It didn't take long for coach Theresa Grentz to get the job done with the Illini after moving from Rutgers two years ago. ... Now it's time to build on that success. Grentz's squad will be tested early in the season by a rugged schedule. ... The strength of the squad is in the sophomore class with 6-1 F Tauja Catchings one of the notables."
STREET AND SMITH'S
National ranking: 7th.
Player rankings: Berggren on a 12-player preseason All-America team. "Berggren, a solid candidate for Naismith Player of the Year, is the Big Ten's best player."
Comment: "Coach Theresa Grentz has produced an impressive turnaround in two years ... and the best is yet to come. With five starters returning, including All-America guard Ashley Berggren, the Illini have the talent and experience to play with anyone in the country. ... The sophomore class is one of the nation's most balanced."