Bollant: 'We can do this'
Entering the season, you indicated that the loss of All-American Karisma Penn and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Adrienne GodBold would make it difficult to match the success of your first Illini team, which won 19 games and reached the WNIT quarterfinals. Are you surprised, however, by how steep the decline ended up being?
I was a little bit surprised by that. We knew (Penn and GodBold) were really good defensively and rebounding-wise. You saw the other kids (last season) in supporting roles do fairly well and had hoped that they would step up and be a little better in different roles. And they did at times, but not to the degree we needed. And then just defensively, the rebounding and the ability to block shots and those things inside was drastically different, so we really missed that.
Before you took the Illini job, you experienced phenomenal success at Wisconsin-Green Bay, winning 148 of 167 games, guiding four teams to the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 one year. Given that background, what was it like for you personally to go through a 21-loss season?
It was taxing on me and our staff, but I think the recruiting part really helped us to have hope for the future. And to see our freshmen growing I think helped as well. But it’s definitely not as fun and definitely taxing. And I think every coach deals with it differently, but I’m not going to let it steal my joy or steal my belief that we can do this. And I’m off recruiting (Friday) and (Saturday), and (have) worked really hard at the recruiting piece to help change it. You have to have players to get this done. I feel really good about our system, but we’ve got to become more talented.
In early February you made a decision to shake up the lineup and replace three established starters with three true freshmen. What was your primary reason for doing so and how would you evaluate the results?
The primary reason was we didn’t want kids to take for granted that they were going to get to play. That you earn the starting spot and you do that by playing hard and playing with energy and giving to your team. And I thought that was effective. I thought that (freshmen) Taylor Gleason and Ashley (McConnell) did a really good job. Jacqui (Grant) when she was back (from mononucleosis), and Sarah Livingston as well with playing with energy. Giving those kids an opportunity. And then I thought Amber (Moore) did a good job (after being benched) of coming back. Overall, I think it was the right move and I still feel good about.
You arrived at Illinois at a time when the Big Ten is making significant strides on the national scene. And an influx this season of high-impact freshmen indicates the conference likely will be even stronger in the immediate future. Do you think your goal of elevating Illinois into the Big Ten’s upper tier will be more difficult to accomplish than you originally envisioned?
I think it is more difficult because of the recruiting of the other programs. I still believe it’s going to happen and we’re going to get it done, but it’s certainly going to be a difficult challenge. We’ve got to get better players. Most of those coaches have been at their places for a while and they’re doing a great job recruiting, and their success (on the court) is helping them have success in their recruiting. But I’m really thankful for the kids that made the decisions to come here and excited about the future. I know the way we practice, those kids are going to get a lot better, which is exciting. But the challenge is a great challenge, and to go from where we’re at to the top, it’s going to have to make some things happen.
With Maryland and Rutgers entering the Big Ten next season and the conference schedule expanding from 16 to 18 games, what impact will that have on how — and who — you schedule for the preconference?
Obviously, our schedule this year was too tough. In both years. We inherited quite a bit of that, and so we don’t want to go .500 in the nonconference. Not when you’re playing 18 conference games in maybe the best conference in the country. Especially when you’re really young, our nonconference schedule needs to be a little easier. But at the same time we’re still going to go to Virgin Islands next year and play two probably Top 25 teams there, so we’ll still have some teams that definitely challenge us. But overall I don’t want to play as tough a schedule (as this season). I think we played five or six teams in the nonconference that at one time were ranked in the Top 25, and that’s too many. I know on the men’s side they said Kansas played four (ranked teams in the nonconference). They said nobody’s played four Top 25 teams. Well, we had played six. Especially, you have to realize where your talent is and where your team’s at. Again, a lot of that (scheduling) is what we inherited so we couldn’t change that.
What was the biggest disappointment about this season?
I would say just the lack of growth in the knowledge of the game of basketball. I thought, yeah, we’re not going to be as talented, but they’ll have a year of being in the system and being smarter and having a better feel. And we still lack a feel for seeing what’s happening on the court and being a step ahead. That’s one of the reasons why we played our freshmen is because we feel like they’re going to grow. And Ashley (McConnell) and Taylor (Gleason) both have more of a feel for what’s going on. So that was probably the biggest disappointment is I thought we’d be farther along than we are defensively.
What was the best development this season?
I would say Ashley improved the most of any player on our team. Taylor Gleason showed a lot of growth late in the year. Obviously, Jacqui Grant, from where she came in last summer, showed a lot of improvement. The mono really hurt her late in the year, but until she got mono, I think Jacqui probably took the biggest steps from where she was last summer.
You have an incoming class that includes a McDonald’s All-American, a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association honorable-mention All-American and a sharpshooter who played for a team that finished the regular season 25-0 and was ranked No. 1 in its class in Nebraska. What impact do you project that class making next season?
I think there’ll be a good chance we’ll have two starters out of that group. I think Chatrice White has a great chance to start. I’d be shocked if she doesn’t at this point. And then I think there’s a good chance Amarah (Coleman) or Brooke (Kissinger) will break the starting lineup as well. The way Brooke shoots it, if Brooke can defend, she’s going to play because she’s maybe a better shooter than anybody we have right now. So we’ll see. Obviously, time will tell. But I really feel like two of those three kids are going to play a lot.
You’ve repeatedly stated that increasing attendance is a priority. With average home attendance this season again remaining below 2,000, is this aspect of your program-building going to be more challenging than you anticipated?
Yeah, but we had 3,000 at our second-to-last game and 2,000 (2,201 for the home finale). And we had 3,300 at the Pack the Hall game, so I think they’ll come. Obviously, we didn’t have the product we were hoping to have this year. I think when we get this going, we’re going to see our attendance grow. Obviously, you always want more as a coach, and that’s going to be an important factor, but our job is to control what we can control. We’re going to be in the community and doing lots of things, and then we’re going to bring in great players that can help our product get better.
Finally, what are you thoughts about next season and what can be expected from the 2014-15 Illini?
I think we’re going to be better. I think (with transfer) Kyley Simmons, having a great point guard will make a big difference for us. We’ll be able to move Ivory more to her true spot — being a 2 or a 3. Chatrice White coming in is going to make a difference in our rebounding and our ability to score on the block. And then all our young kids hopefully are going to get better. You don’t know how much better. Obviously, the Big Ten is going to be better, too — having Rutgers and Maryland, two Top 25 teams. So there’s no guarantees, but I do think we’re going to be a much better basketball team, and we’ll see where that takes us. Hopefully it will take us to where we want to go.