CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey admitted Wednesday it wasn’t unusual last season to have key post players, especially in Big Ten play, next to her on the bench in street clothes.
In other words, they were unavailable to play because of injury. Mackenzie Blazek, a 6-foot-3 forward, missed 16 games last season with a litany of injuries. Nancy Panagiotopoulou, another 6-3 post option, was only healthy enough to play eight games for the Illini in 2019-20 after an injury-plagued two-plus seasons in Champaign.
Even last year’s leading rebounder, 6-2 forward Kennedi Myles missed a game while in concussion protocol.
And Illinois’ tallest player on the roster — 6-5 center Eva Rubin — sat out last season after transferring from Arizona State.
Seven months removed from finishing last season with an 11-19 record, the Illini began the first day of official practices Wednesday at Ubben Basketball Complex with depth and health among its frontcourt ranks.
In addition to Blazek, Myles and Panagiotopoulou, Illinois learned in August that Rubin had received a transfer waiver from the NCAA to play immediately this season. The Illini also added two transfer forwards (6-3 Geovana Lopes and 6-1 Solape Amusan) and a freshman forward (6-3 Erika Porter) this offseason.
“We changed our offense,” Fahey said via a Zoom call with local media Wednesday about what altering the roster makeup has done for her fourth Illinois team. “This year, now we have (players who are) 6-5, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. We have depth at that position. We can play more inside and out. The balance just changes the whole game.
“As much as you saw what Kofi (Cockburn) did for the men, you know we have Eva Rubin who has come in at 6-5 and in a sense, (it’s) just making people defend, getting easier rebounds. It’s just so much more balanced. It gives us a better scoring balance, a better attack.”
In offseason conversations Fahey had with Myles, the Cincinnati native expressed to Fahey how the long grind of an 18-game Big Ten season wore Myles down, especially late in games. Myles finished last season averaging 8.9 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Despite the additional options for Illinois at forward, the challenge within Big Ten play might be even more daunting this season given the coronavirus pandemic.
Fahey said the plan, as she understands it, is for an “expanded” Big Ten season. The Illini went 2-16 in league play last season.
While offering no specifics, Fahey said Illinois’ nonconference schedule will likely feature only home games at State Farm Center, involving regional opponents which would allow those teams to arrive a day before the game to be tested for COVID-19 before playing the following day.
The Illini have yet to announce any of the games on their 2020-21 schedule. Under NCAA guidelines developed in response to the pandemic, Division I women’s basketball teams are allowed to schedule up to 27 games if they play in a multi-team event and 25 games if they don’t play in an MTE.
Illinois — like every other Division I women’s program — was allowed from Wednesday onward to have up to 20 hours per week of on-court activity with the 2020-21 season set to begin no earlier than Nov. 25.
“I think the challenge is when you’re bringing all of the pieces together and you don’t have any scrimmages,” Fahey said. “You have a minimal nonconference schedule. The first time they step out it’s like ready, set, go. It’s like we’re moving. That is part of it. For me, it’s about keeping it simpler this year. Things can change so drastically every day on this. In a perfect world, I would love to have the scrimmages, I would love to have the 11 (nonconference) games to try to break into the Big Ten, but the bottom line is: I want to play. If that means more Big Ten games, let’s play.”
With the Illini preparing for a season unlike any other in some capacity ever since they stepped on the court for the first time this offseason on July 5, Fahey is pleased with the progress made.
Since her players reported back to campus in early July, Fahey said, as of Wednesday, the team had only one positive COVID-19 test, with that positive result happening in the summer.
It’s been an offseason of change for Illinois, with not only six new players coming in but major changes to the coaching staff. Longtime assistant and Matt Bollant-holdover LaKale Malone is no longer with the Illini while Tianna Kirkland — another Bollant holdover — has moved from her role as an assistant coach the past three seasons under Fahey to head coordinator of recruiting and director of student-athlete development.
In their places are two former Marquette assistants: Scott Merritt and Vernette Skeete.
Fahey said the transition has felt seamless.
“We just have a different look, from the staff down to the players,” said Fahey, who is 30-61 so far in her tenure at Illinois. “I think in the past I was trying to get the ball to certain players. No disrespect (to those players), we just had a little different look. ... I’ll be honest, the biggest difference is what we have inside.
“We can do what we want. ... A lot of times our half-court defense wasn’t as bad as our transition defense. That really hurt us a lot last year. Well, when you’re only getting one shot because you know the height advantage (other teams had), it’s really tough to keep crashing (the boards) when you’re like 5 inches smaller than anybody. And so, I think we’ll just be more solid defensively.”