Bollant’s teams should ultimately be judged by conference play

By Alex Roux

Success should be measured against the achievements of your peers. I don’t get too excited when our beloved Illini crushes Miami of Ohio in football, because we’re supposed to. They’re not on our level.

Illinois sports teams are generally evaluated on their performance in conference play. We play our Big Ten foes every year, so conference play is usually a good indicator of where a given Illini program stacks up over time.

Women’s basketball head coach Matt Bollant is in his second year at the helm, taking over a program that was subpar in conference play under the previous regime. Former head coach Jolette Law led her teams to a combined 7-25 conference record in her final two seasons in Champaign before being fired.

Bollant got off to a good start in his first season, going 9-7 in Big Ten play and leading the Illini to a berth in the 2013 WNIT. If not for three late-season losses, the Illini would have had a reasonable shot at making their first NCAA tournament in 10 years. Any realistic Illini fan chalked Bollant’s first season up as a resounding success.

Bollant’s second season has not been as positive up to this point. His team sits at 8-10 overall heading into Thursday’s matchup at Michigan State, including a 1-4 record against conference opponents. That’s good for last place in the Big Ten. And with six of the Illini’s final 11 games being played on the road, don’t expect it to get any easier the rest of the way.

The Illini have beaten up on inferior opponents this season but have struggled to compete with high-major teams. Victories over Seton Hall and Northwestern are the only two names that jump off the schedule as quality wins. The meat of the Illini’s schedule comes during conference play, where unlike the nonconference, there are no cupcakes sprinkled in. The Illini’s RPI sits at 143, and a second consecutive postseason berth seems like a pipe dream at this point in the season. After racking up eye-popping point totals in the beginning of the year, the Illini are now giving up large amounts of points to opponents. They’re ranked 253rd out of 343 Division I teams in points allowed.

In a December 2012 article, Bollant cited one of his main draws for taking the Illinois job: It would be possible to land top recruits. It’s much easier to land top talent at a high-major program like Illinois than it was at Bollant’s previous school, Wisconsin-Green Bay.

This being only his second season, we shouldn’t jump on Bollant for a lack of success yet. Much like his counterpart John Groce on the men’s side, Bollant’s team is struggling in its second year. Rebuilding programs to a level of sustained success takes time, and it is done through good recruiting and player development. If Bollant’s recruits come in and his teams struggle in years three and four and are unable to compete in the conference, then criticism is fair game.

Bollant is charged with the task of leading Illinois women’s basketball to consistent national relevance. I believe he can do it; however, if the Illini continue to sit at the bottom of the conference standings, fans will begin to get impatient. It’s the success against your peers, Big Ten opponents, that ultimately matters. 

For an NCAA bid to ever be realistic, Bollant will have to consistently field teams that are above-average in the Big Ten. Anything less, and this program starving for success will only get hungrier.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.