Bollant’s sophomore slump is forgivable

Illinois%27+head+coach+Matt+Bollant+during+the+game+against+Nebraska+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Sunday%2C+Jan.+12%2C+2014.+The+Illini+lost+75-56.
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Bollant’s sophomore slump is forgivable

Illinois' head coach Matt Bollant during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The Illini lost 75-56.

Illinois' head coach Matt Bollant during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The Illini lost 75-56.

Illinois' head coach Matt Bollant during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The Illini lost 75-56.

Illinois' head coach Matt Bollant during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The Illini lost 75-56.

By Alex Roux

Call Matt Bollant’s second season as the Illinois women’s basketball coach a sophomore slump.

His team is 9-20 overall and 2-14 in conference play heading into this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. They’ve lost 10 games in a row, and it won’t get any easier when they face Iowa on Thursday. The Hawkeyes drubbed the Illini 81-56 on Illinois’ senior day last Sunday.

Barring a miracle, the Illini will not be playing in any type of postseason tournament. And for a team with a coach in his second year with a total program rebuild on his hands, that’s OK.

I’m not saying last place in the Big Ten or 10 straight losses should be acceptable here at Illinois. It shouldn’t be. But struggles hit many second-year coaches, especially in basketball, when roster-imbalance can be common and detrimental to a team.

There’s no question former coach Jolette Law left the program in a sorry state when she was dismissed in 2012, but she left a handful of talented players behind as well. Adrienne GodBold and Karisma Penn were recruited by Law and excelled last season under Bollant. In Bollant’s first year, the Illini went 19-14 and made the quarterfinals of the WNIT. Much of this success can be attributed to Bollant’s coaching and rejuvenation of the program, but some credit has to be given to Law’s players as well.

Roster turnover has hurt the Illini this year. Penn and GodBold were lost to graduation, and the Illini simply don’t have the players this year to compete at a Big Ten level. This year’s roster includes six freshmen. 

One only has to glance at the team to notice an obvious lack of size. The team’s tallest player is 6-foot-3 freshman Jacqui Grant, and the roster only lists three players total standing six feet or taller.

In a coach’s first two years at the helm, it is difficult to keep up with other established coaches on the recruiting trail. Bollant was essentially at a two-year disadvantage when he arrived on campus, since college basketball recruiting of prospects begins in the prospect’s early high school years. When Bollant started at Illinois, he was already behind on the classes of 2012 and 2013.

Help is on the way, as Bollant will bring in the No. 23 ranked recruiting class next year. Forward Chatrice White out of Nebraska headlines Bollant’s 2014 class, and she will bring some much-needed size to the Illini frontcourt at 6-foot-3. It’s Bollant’s second top-25 class in as many years, and the development of these classes will be key to the Illini’s success going forward.

If you want another example of how roster turnover in a coach’s second year can hurt a team, look no further than Illinois’ men’s team. Both John Groce and Bollant have had to plug roster holes with transfers and inexperienced freshmen until their underclassmen develop and more recruits come in. Bollant’s 2013-14 squad only returned five players from the previous year’s active roster. As expected, the on-court product has suffered.

Bollant isn’t the first college basketball coach to struggle in his second year, and he won’t be the last. It’s common for the deck to be stacked against them. By the 2015-16 season, all of Law’s players will be gone, and Bollant’s recruits will be fully integrated into his system. If it comes to that point and the Illini’s struggles persist, then Bollant will have to answer for it.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.