Matt Bollant’s ties to one of the first families of college basketball coaching date back more than 15 years.
In 1997, the current Illinois women’s basketball coach — then a young Wisconsin high school coach — made the leap to the college ranks and joined Kathi Bennett’s women’s staff at Evansville.
For the next five seasons, including a move with Bennett to Indiana University in 2000, Bollant assisted Dick Bennett’s daughter and came to know the rest of the Bennett family.
Visit Bollant’s office at the Ubben Basketball Complex these days and you’ll notice a framed picture of current Virginia men’s coach Tony Bennett from his playing career at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
As Bollant’s own career progressed to head coaching positions at Bryan College in Tennessee and at UWGB, he found Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Famer Dick Bennett to be generous with his time for Bollant-organized coaching clinics and fundraising golf outings.
Generous with his basketball knowledge, too. Bollant uses the word mentor to describe his relationship with the former UWGB, Wisconsin and Washington State men’s coach.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Bollant leaned on the advice of the patriarch of the Bennett coaching family entering his first season at the Illini helm last fall.
“I really like Dick Bennett’s line: ‘The first year is about the players,’ ” Bollant said last week during a break at his Illini girls’ basketball camp at the State Farm Center. “And so you’ve got to find a way for what’s best for those seniors.
“And that’s what we did. Every decision we made — what’s best for these seniors? What’s best for our first year?”
In this case, that meant scrapping a staple of Bollant’s system — the motion offense — in favor of a dribble-drive attack that optimized the skills of seniors Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold.
Bollant also held off on implementing his preferred version of the secondary fast break.
“We knew that would be the best thing to have success right away because it would have been too much information for them,” he said.
Less indeed proved to be more for Bollant’s first Illini team, which:
— finished 19-14 to improve its record by eight wins over the previous season;
— finished 9-7 in the Big Ten for its first winning conference record in 10 years;
— advanced to the WNIT quarterfinals, matching the program’s deepest postseason run ever;
— broke a 25-year-old Big Ten record for turnovers forced per game in conference play (24.8).
— broke a 12-year-old Big Ten record for steals in a season (417).
“I feel good about our first year,” Bollant said. “Honestly, you look back to last spring and think about where we were at ... and wondering how many good players do we have? How many players do we even have on the roster?”
Bollant had good reason to ask those questions back then.
On March 28, 2012, when he was officially named Illini head coach, the roster was well-stocked and appeared to have some promising talent.
Then the defections and injuries began.
Redshirt sophomore Centrese McGee (DePaul) and junior Alexis Burke (Rutgers) transferred.
Between them, the duo had appeared in 93 games for Illinois and started 44. Incoming freshman Nia Moore requested and was granted a release from her letter of intent in order to follow former Illini coach Jolette Law to Tennessee.
During the season, redshirt junior Kersten Magrum suffered the fourth concussion of her career and was medically disqualified, ending her career.
Later, sophomore Kierra Morris also was medically disqualified due to chronic pain from a knee injury that had kept her from playing all season.
“The team I thought we were going to coach when I got the job wasn’t the team that we got,” Bollant said. “I didn’t think we’d be as thin as we were when I first took the job.”
Still, the Illini somehow managed to overcome a skeletal roster and a playing rotation that rarely went deeper than seven players.
One major reason: Illinois received a major infusion in late December when GodBold, the 2011-12 Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, was cleared to play after sitting out the first semester due to academic ineligibility.
In the senior guard’s first game back, Illinois knocked off No. 6 and previously unbeaten Georgia 70-59.
In GodBold’s absence, the Illini had a 6-5 record. With the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Illinois was 13-9 and finished in a tie for fifth place in the conference.
Bollant nearly was forced to play without his best player, too.
Penn, who would cap a stellar career by nearly averaging a double-double (19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds), was teetering on the academic ledge after her spring 2012 semester.
The honorable mention All-American managed to retain eligibility, but ...
“It was scary,” Bollant said.
Somehow, Illinois overcame the obstacles that ate into its depth and talent, producing an improved team that caught the attention of a fan base previously eroded by five straight years of losing Big Ten records.
Average attendance for 18 home games last season was 1,926 — an increase of 856 per game. As word spread that it wasn’t business as usual with this program, the crowds grew further.
Eight Big Ten home games averaged 2,530 fans.
This is an area Bollant frequently addressed after home games.
He’s aware that Illinois still lags behind its Big Ten brethren, ranking 11th among the 12 conference teams in average home attendance last season.
“That has to keep growing,” he said. “If we want to build this program where we want it to go, we can’t stay at 2,000. We have to build this to 4,000 in a year or two and then to 5, 6, 7, 8 (thousand) in the years to come if we want to be a Final Four-type program.”
The product on the court, no doubt, will have much to say about whether that happens.
And next season, that product will miss its two best players from 2012-13.
Between them, seniors Penn and GodBold accounted for 43.2 percent of the Illini’s points and 40.5 percent of the rebounds.
“Obviously we lost two really good players,” Bollant said. “Very talented. Athletic. Good rebounders. And it will be interesting to see whether the culture’s growing will be enough to overcome losing two good players. I believe in my heart it probably will, but time will tell.”
What Bollant does know is that he’ll have a deeper team playing in the systems that worked so well for him in his previous Division I head coaching stop.
In five seasons at Green Bay, his Phoenix teams went 148-19 and appeared in four NCAA tournaments.
Bollant knows this, too:
“Our guard play is going to be better,” he said.
Bollant is confident of that because redshirt sophomore Sarah Hartwell won’t be restricted to the practice court as she was last season after transferring from Georgia Tech.
Rated the 29th-best prep guard in the nation in the Class of 2011, Hartwell joins a guard group that includes returning starters Alexis Smith and Ivory Crawford as well as incoming freshman Taylor Gleason, the runner-up for Michigan’s 2013 Miss Basketball Award.
“We’re going to shoot the ball better than we did last year,” said Bollant, whose first Illini team shot under 40 percent overall and under 30 percent from behind the arc. “At least we should. Our numbers as far as shooting in the spring were way better than they were last spring.”
Also returning is fifth-year senior Amber Moore, who set a UI record for three-pointers made in a season (86).
But in a guard-heavy lineup, the 5-foot-11 Moore is projected to play what Bollant calls a “stretch 4” or big forward with guard skills.
“We may play small,” the UI coach said. “This summer we’ll find out some more things, and next fall (too), and see where we’re at.”
If the Illini are regularly at a height disadvantage, Bollant will count on his defense to create possessions by forcing turnovers.
Last season, only four teams in the nation had more steals per game than Illinois.
“We’re not going to be very big, but we’ll be able to pressure the ball,” Bollant said. “We’ll play very much a full-court game and press and make teams have to handle the ball against pressure.”
Which leaves one last position: center.
The 6-2 Penn leaves a sizable void in multiple areas, but perhaps most critically on the boards and defensively.
The UI’s No. 2 career rebounder was a relentless force on the glass and ranked among the Big Ten’s top three in steals and blocked shots.
In her place, Bollant will draw upon an untested and inexperienced group.
Among the candidates are 6-foot sophomore Mckenzie Piper, who averaged eight minutes last season.
“A lot of times, the biggest step you see is from the freshman to sophomore year, and so we’re hoping to see that in Mckenzie,” Bollant said.
Two incoming freshmen — 6-3 Jacqui Grant of Maine South and 6-2 Sarah Livingston of Morton — also are in the mix.
“Both of them have potential,” Bollant said. “They’re a little bit raw, and the freshmen have a lot to learn, but we’ll see how that goes.”
Based on the growing attendance and increased media exposure, plenty of others will be interested, too, in seeing what Year 2 of the Bollant era brings.
Given the uncertainty surrounding how the Illini will fare without Penn and GodBold, any prediction might be an exercise in futility at this stage.
But ESPNw writer Graham Hays points out that Illinois isn’t the only Big Ten team to be hit hard by graduation.
“My sense is the Big Ten will be in flux next season, when you look at the caliber of seniors that teams like Penn State, Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska lost,” he said. “So if Illinois takes some time to figure out what it is, it may not be alone.”
In Illinois’ favor, Hays says, is the fact that the returning players will have a better sense of Bollant’s system and what he expects.
But if the UI does take a step back with its record next season, Hays says he would be surprised if it isn’t temporary.
“It’s going to be difficult for Illinois to match last season’s wins,” he said. “But this season will have a lot to do with laying the groundwork for what Bollant hopes is a program that regularly exceeds that (19-)win total in the future.”