CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey was careful to point out all 351 Division I women’s basketball programs feel the same way before the new season tips off.
In other words, hope springs eternal when everyone’s record is 0-0. Then, reality sets in depending on how that first game goes.
For Fahey’s third Illinois team, the first chance to show progress the Illini have made this offseason arrives at 11 a.m. Tuesday when they host Chicago State at State Farm Center.
“To be honest, I think every team you talk to, every coach says (before the season), ‘We’re so excited. The energy’s high,’” Fahey quipped. “I think that’s the reality of being at the beginning of the year. It’s about sustaining that for the season. That’s our goal. Yes, we feel good at where we are right now, but it’s time to play a game and see where we are.”
Still, Fahey understands the importance of year three in rebuilding the program back into a winner. Illinois has missed the mark in each of the past two seasons under Fahey’s leadership, going 9-22 and 10-20 during her first two campaigns in Champaign. That includes a 2-32 mark in Big Ten play and two first-round Big Ten tournament losses.
“We’re ready for the next step,” Fahey said. “OK, let’s take this to another level. That’s what we’re doing because we understand what it takes and we have the support of our administration to do that. I have been asked, ‘What do you want your record to be (this season)?’ I know in my mind what I want it to be. But (focusing too much on that) can just put you in a spin. What I do is I state (the record to the team). They state it (back to me) and now we’re working on what we can do about it. That’s what you can control. We can control how hard we work today. We can control how hard we work tomorrow. If we hit some kind of adversity, we can control how we react to that. That leads to the scoreboard later, but if you keep looking at the scoreboard and you forget about everything else, it will mess you up.”
Fahey will lean heavily on her upperclassmen this season as the Illini shift from an offense centered around the now-graduated Alex Wittinger to one that takes a by-committee approach to scoring the ball.
Illinois will need experienced playmakers like Ali Andrews, Brandi Beasley and Petra Holesinska to mesh well with a younger core of three freshmen (Jeanae Terry, Jada Peebles and Kennedi Myles) and three sophomores (Mackenzie Blazek, J-Naya Ephraim and Carolyn Waleski).
“We’ve changed a little of what we’re doing offensively and just balancing the time of when to run and when to get a good shot in (the half-court offense) when we need to use clock,” Fahey said. “It’s just different when you put different personnel out there. It’s big for Brandi in not feeling like she has to score. That’s an awful feeling as a player is if you’re out there and going, ‘Man, if I don’t score.’ That’s the pressure that if you take off any player, it then becomes, ‘If you don’t (score), then I can.’ That’s a much-better feeling.”
Still, Beasley is the top returning scorer from last season after the 5-foot-6 senior guard out of Memphis, Tenn., averaged 11.6 points per game. That made her Illinois’ second leading scorer last season behind Wittinger (14.7 ppg).
Of the remaining returners, Andrews, a 6-2 senior forward, scored 7.4 ppg while fifth-year senior guard Cierra Rice was good for 7.3 ppg. Two season ago, when healthy, Holesinska, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, contributed 6.7 ppg.
In the case of players like Andrews, Beasley, Holesinska and Rice, whatever formula has been used offensively, it hasn’t added up to much in the way of on-court success. No one in that group has experienced a season in which Illinois has won more than 10 games.
“I think it’s a mentality,” Rice said when asked what’s allowed her to stick it out through tough times. “It’s not easy dealing with, whether it’s injuries, whether it’s losing (and) things aren’t going the way you want them to go. It’s not easy at all. I think it’s about finding a way to turn those negatives into positives and trying to aim for something after that. When you lose a game, you have to turn it around and say, ‘Maybe we need to work on this. Let’s work on this thing the next practice.’ It’s having the right mindset and turning it around so that you don’t think negatively because if you think negatively, you’re not going to be able to be successful or move forward.”
The bar may be set low for this season’s Illini, and rightfully so after all the Big Ten struggles under Fahey. But Rice said the challenge in front of Illinois is “exceeding the expectations of where people would put us.”
Inside the program, Fahey considers reaching some sort of postseason basketball tournament an achievable goal.
That would demand that the Illini post their first winning record since Matt Bollant’s 2012-13 team turned in a 19-14 mark before eventually losing in the NIT quarterfinals.
“We have seen steady improvements throughout the years, and I definitely think that we’re extremely confident that we’re at a really good level right now,” Rice said. “There’s always room to keep improving but we definitely think we’re ready to compete this year.”