Illini ready for the 'marathon'

Illini ready for the 'marathon'

The first game against Fort Wayne is a month away. No way for first-year Illinois coach Nancy Fahey to know what kind of team she will have. But she is working on it.

"We've established our tone in practice in terms of how we want to play defensively," said Fahey, who won five national titles at Division III Washington University. "Offensviely, I think they know we're playing an up-tempo game, but with organization."

The Illini are coming off a nine-win season under former coach Matt Bollant. Fahey isn't spending much time dwelling on the past.

"It's time to move forward," she said.

Fahey has a to-do list between now and the opener.

"Check all the boxes," Fahey said. "You've got to get your system in, whether it's your presses, your press breakers, your zones, your zone offenses. All those things have to check the box as far as being prepared. It's the intangibles we're trying to develop now."

To enhance team chemistry, Fahey gave the players a book to read during the offseason: "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." It provided a lesson for the players.

"Basketball is a marathon," Fahey said. "You better be ready,"

A former Wisconsin player, Fahey has never coached in the Big Ten. Since the day she was hired, she has been watching film of conference teams.

"The reality of it is I think you have to step on the court and see these people in person," Fahey said. "I realize how tough the Big Ten is and we'll be prepared."

The team is finding its leaders.

"There are things that players have to handle within the locker room," Fahey said. "I think internal leadership is key. I've had meetings with our captains and I feel really confident we're heading in the right direction."

It is too early to know how Fahey will use her bench.

"The way we play, I told them one day, 'If you play really, really, really at the level you're supposed to play, it would be hard to play for 40 minutes,' " Fahey said. "I'm not saying no one will do that, I'm just saying that's how hard we should be playing."

It has been a long time since Fahey had a first game at a new school. Thirty-one years to be exact.

How is she feeling about the opener?

"I don't know if there's a word I can put on it," Fahey said. "I just want to put the best possible team on this court for Illinois. I take that really seriously. The hours that we're putting in, we're trying to help make that happen so you can be proud of us."

Fahey won't put a label on her first team. She won't call it a rebuild.

"I think that's confining your potential and I don't want to do that," she said. "We'll see where it takes us. We're going to try to do things the right way defensively and offensively. I let the wins take care of themselves after that."

Forward Lyric Robins is one of four freshmen on the roster. But none of the veterans have experience with Fahey's system.

"We're all in the same boat," Robins said. "It helps us build together more as a team because we're all going through the same thing together."

Sophomore guard Brandi Beasley said the biggest change is the pace of play.

"Everything has gotten a lot faster," Beasley said. "I wouldn't say it's hard. It's very different."

Beasley said the team has the talent to improve.

"I like our chances." Beasley said.

During the off-season, Beasley worked on her three-point shooting.

"That was very important to me," she said.

Alex Wittinger is the team's leading returning scorer and rebounder. She likes the new staff.

"It's been great," she said. "We've learned what she's about and it's been pretty easy to get behind what she's been telling us off the court and on the court."

Fahey's offensive style fits her, Wittinger said.

"It's a lot of motion off the ball, which is really going to be helpful," Wittinger said. "It's really good."

Wittinger said she is "really glad" Fahey is at Illinois.

"I have a lot of confidence in her," Wittinger said. "And a lot of respect for her."

Each player had long individual meetings with Fahey.

"I thought that was a really cool step," Wittinger said.