Key questions for Matt Bollant's squad

Key questions for Matt Bollant's squad

1. Which players in the six-member freshman class are mostly likely to make a significant impact this season?
Look for shooting guard Taylor Gleason and center Sarah Livingston to seriously contend for starting spots, and for forward Jacqui Grant to be in the rotation mix.

“They’re learning quickly,” Bollant said. Gleason capped her career at Goodrich (Mich.) High School as runner-up for the state’s Miss Basketball award. A point guard for back-to-back state champions, Gleason is an impact player in multiple areas, as her senior statistics — 21.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.1 steals and 4.3 assists — reflect. “Eventually she may play some point (at Illinois) as well, but, really, she’s going to be more of a 2 for us,” Bollant said.

The 6-foot-2 Livingston (Morton) and 6-3 Grant (Maine South) provide much-needed height for a guard/wing-heavy roster.

The two other scholarship recruits — guard Kennedy Cattenhead (Bolingbrook) and guard-forward Mikaala Shackelford (Plymouth, Minn.) — are sidelined by knee injuries. Cattenhead suffered a season-ending ACL tear this summer. Shackelford had arthroscopic surgery Tuesday, and Bollant expects her to miss about four weeks. The sixth freshman is walk-on guard Ashley McConnell (Palatine Fremd). She’s a 2013 News-Gazette All-State first-teamer and two-time Mid-Suburban League Player of the Year.
2. Who will fill the scoring void created by the losses of Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold?

The Illini leaned heavily last season on this dynamic duo for offense, the pair combining to score 43.2 percent of the team’s 2,275 points. What’s truly remarkable about that percentage is the fact that GodBold missed the first 11 games while academically ineligible. Once GodBold got on the court, she and fellow senior Penn accounted for 52.7 percent of their team’s points during the final 22 games. That’s two players. More than half the points.

Now, Bollant is looking to a couple of veterans in particular — senior wing Amber Moore (12.5 ppg last season) and junior guard Ivory Crawford (11.8) — to become more assertive offensively. The sharp-shooting Moore set a program record for single-season three-pointers (86) last season and stepped up her production in the postseason, averaging 16.8 points in the team’s four WNIT games. And Crawford is capable of dominant offensive performances, scoring at least 25 points in three games as a sophomore.

“It’s a little early to tell those things yet, but those two will be two of our leading scorers,” he said. Bollant also expects production from the post. Certainly not Penn-like numbers — her 633 points last season ranked fourth in program history — but a healthy contribution nonetheless. “Whoever plays the 5 is going to score because of what we run,” the UI coach said. “They get touches inside, so even though our 5 will be young possibly, I think they’re going to score a lot of points.”

3. What role will Georgia Tech transfer Sarah Hartwell fill now that she is eligible?
Illini fans, meet your new No. 1 point guard. OK, it’s not yet official, but ... “If we’re starting (the season) tomorrow, she’d definitely be our starting point guard,” Bollant said.

Hartwell practiced with the team all last season while sitting out under NCAA transfer rules. During that time, Bollant learned that the Tacoma, Wash., native was a tireless worker, spending more time on the Ubben Basketball Complex court than anyone on the team. “A lot of redshirt kids, they get a little bit better,” he said. “She got a ton better. She got way stronger. She became a better shooter. She became a lot more skilled.”

The redshirt sophomore’s college resume doesn’t reveal much. As a true freshman in 2011-12, Hartwell saw limited action in 10 games. Coming out of high school, however, HoopGurlz rated her the No. 29 guard in her class. “She’s a kid that can score, she’s really athletic, and she’s going to be a really good player for us,” Bollant said.

4. Who will succeed All-American Penn in the post?
Talk about impossibly big shoes to fill. By the time this undersized-but-never outworked 6-2 center was done with her college career, Penn was the Illini’s all-time leading shot blocker, No. 2 rebounder and No. 4 scorer.

While Penn awaits the start of her season this month with an Italian pro team, Bollant continues to evaluate Livingston and 6-0 sophomore Mckenzie Piper as her successors in the post.

“We’re going to figure that out as we go through practice, and hopefully Sarah Livingston or Piper will step up,” he said. “They’ve learned a lot in the last week or two.” Given their modest statures, each can expect to go against bigger posts in the majority of games. Sometimes significantly taller posts. During his highly successful five-year tenure at Wisconsin-Green Bay, however, Bollant got the job done with similar-sized centers.

“If you’re good (at) using your body and you do your work before you get the catch, all you have to do is catch, turn and score,” he said. “If you’re good at sealing and keeping (your defender) on the side, you can be 5-10, 5-11, 6-foot and score in the post.” And on defense? Bollant typically has his centers front the post, but the real key to disrupting entry passes is putting intense perimeter pressure on the ball. “As long as we pressure the ball well, our post defense gets a big advantage,” he said.

5. After falling short of an at-large bid last season, will Illinois be playing in the NCAA tournament in March?

This question has become an annual preseason rite for Illini women’s basketball fans. The program hasn’t made it into the NCAA tournament since 2003, and then it was a one-and-done appearance.

While there’s no certain answer to this question, Bollant showed last season that he has the program pointed in that direction. In fact, if the Illini hadn’t stumbled against 11th-seeded Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Illinois fans might now be talking about a second straight NCAA trip.

“That game hurt us because we dropped in the RPI,” Bollant said. Although it’s impossible to know whether that particular defeat kept the Illini out of the field of 64, a resume that included wins against Georgia, Nebraska and Iowa presumably had Illinois in the discussion before the Badgers played spoilers. Now, once again, Illini fans want to know: Is this the year? “That’s the goal and that’s the plan where this program is headed,” Bollant said. “We came really close last year; probably should have made it last year. We’re very young this year so it’s a little early to be projecting things, but I know that’s where we’re headed.”