Bollant: Building momentum
Three things women’s college basketball beat writer JEFF HUTH learned at Wednesday's Media Day
Matt Bollant is impressed with the fitness level of his second Illini team.
Earlier Wednesday, the UI coach concluded practice with a 4-on-4 hybrid scrimmage that lasted 1 hour, 15 minutes. If a team scored, it kept the ball. If a team made a defensive stop, play transitioned to the other end. The first team to score seven points took a break while the other took off on a 35-second suicide run. Then, the contest began anew.
“It is a physically really taxing drill,” Bollant said. “It’s really hard to guard 4-on-4, especially in our system where we pressure the ball and get after it ... and they did it pretty well together.”
At this same time last year, Bollant doubts that Illini players would have been able to hold up physically for long in the same format. “Honestly, we probably could have done that drill for 15 minutes before we would have fallen apart because we just weren’t ready for that demand, that level of intensity, the level of detail of knowing how to play and what to do,” he said.
During his first season at the Illini helm, it was common for Bollant to bring up the topic of attendance in postgame press conferences at State Farm Center — typically in praise of the turnout.
One season after the program averaged 1,070 fans per game — fewest since the 1994-95 campaign — Illinois drew 1,926 in 2012-13. The average increase (856) was the third-largest in Division I women’s basketball last season behind Penn State (990) and UCLA (881). Bollant said Wednesday that season ticket sales are running 200 to 300 ahead of last year.
It’s clear that the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach views the task of elevating Illini attendance as a priority. “That’s what we came here to do and, honestly, that’s what we expected to do,” he said.
Bollant then cited the turnout of 7,061 on Sept. 27 for an Illini volleyball match at State Farm Center.
”That’s where we need to go, and the faster we go there, the better chance we’re going to get the top recruits to come play for us,” he said.
Bollant recalled an encouraging conversation he had with UI athletic director Mike Thomas on the subject:
“He said, ‘You build something special here, this community will support it. They love a winner. They love the Illini.’ ”
Bollant is entering his 17th season as a women’s college basketball coach and 12th as a head coach at this level. He said he’s never been less sure of the makeup of his starting lineup than now. “It’s a strange feeling for me because normally I’m pretty crystal clear and our staff is pretty crystal clear of who’s going to play and how much,” he said. “And we’re not.”
He indicated that senior Amber Moore and junior Ivory Crawford, both guards, are assured of starting roles. And redshirt sophomore Sarah Hartwell fit that category, too, before suffering a right hamstring injury during the first week of practice. Hartwell is expected to be sidelined for two weeks.
Bollant said he is utilizing fewer male practice players this preseason as he tries to sort out who can do what. “It’s exciting, really, not to know, but it’s a little nerve-racking, too, as a coach,” he said.
Hartwell’s injury is a reminder of how potentially thin Illinois is at point guard. Incumbent starter Alexis Smith is back, but besides Hartwell there is no other proven player at the point. Crawford could play the position in an emergency, Bollant said, with freshman Taylor Gleason next in line. “We need Alexis and Sarah to stay healthy,” he said. “Both can play a lot of minutes because they’re in great shape, but we need both those guys to stay healthy.”