Illinois’ rebound dependent on center Smith

Illinois junior forward Jenna Smith practices her jump shot at Ubben Basketball Complex on July 18. Wes Anderson

Illinois junior forward Jenna Smith practices her jump shot at Ubben Basketball Complex on July 18. Wes Anderson

By Meghan Montemurro

Despite spending her summer in Champaign, the Fourth of July weekend offered Illinois forward Jenna Smith the opportunity to return home to her native Bloomington, Minn., to see her family, show her friends her hometown and replay the DVR-ed, last-second loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament final countless times.

“I don’t think I still have gotten over it,” Smith said of the heart-breaking loss. “One of our guy workers that works with us in the lifting room, he wore Purdue shorts, and we were all like ‘Get out.’ He was like, ‘I’m wearing these just to motivate you.’

“I don’t think we all hate Purdue now; I think we are over it.” Smith said with a laugh. “We just want to play them again.”

And Smith has been working hard during the summer to improve her game and to motivate her teammates, especially the freshmen.

“You just gotta stay positive,” Smith said. “We try to tell (the freshmen) how fun Big Ten season is … You just need to think about all the positives that can come out of the season and keep your head up. It’s going to be so hard, but in the end the reward is the best thing.”

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Smith has been an avid participant in summer workouts and conditioning, molding her into an even leaner build, in hopes of leading the young Illini back to the Big Ten Tournament finals and to an NCAA Tournament appearance.

It won’t be easy.

Illinois signed five true freshmen and a junior college transfer, while redshirt freshman Lydia McCully is eligible this season after sitting last year out, meaning the Illini have only three players returning – including Smith – who saw major minutes last season. Smith, a junior, is aware of the challenges and uncertainty surrounding the team.

“We fell off a couple times last year, and we tell the freshmen every day, ‘We ain’t going through what we did last year,'” Smith said. “The main thing is just keeping everyone together and everybody positive.”

Illinois head coach Jolette Law has seen Smith begin to scratch the surface of her potential and talent and wants to see a more consistent body of work.

“I want her to build on what she is now,” Law said of Smith. “My main thing for her is to be that leader. My expectations are for her to be an All-American, not an Honorable Mention All-American, but an All-American, both on and off the court. I’m going to continue to push her.

“Jenna has stepped up for us, and I expect a lot more from her.”

The summer – at least when not lifting two times a week or running three times a week – has afforded Smith the chance to take classes and bond with teammates, seven of which are currently on campus including four freshmen, in her new role as an upperclassmen.

“It’s kind of weird because all the freshmen will text me, like, ‘Can you pick me up?’ or ‘Where do we go to get our IDs?'” Smith said. “It’s weird because the coaches will text us, like, ‘Send out a massive text message’ which is weird because I used to get the last message. I realize how much (the freshmen) look up to you and how much I looked up to my seniors when I was a freshman. I can’t believe I’m already a junior.”

As a focal point of the Illini offense last season, the pressure will only increase on Smith in the post, who expects to be double and triple teamed this season. Smith averaged 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season.

“I’ve been obviously working on my shooting and just being more versatile, like driving, dribble pull up and just be more active off the block,” the 6-foot-3 Smith said.

“I’ve been working with coach Patrick Klein and coach Tamika Louis on different moves and stepping out of the block so it’s harder for me to get double teamed. I have a lot of faith in my teammates, but I know I need to be in the gym and need to step my game up.”

Opposing defenses shouldn’t expect Smith to remain only in the post area.

Smith shot 42.3 percent behind the arc, converting 11 of 26, a skill her teammates have noticed and tried to compete with this summer.

“We were doing shooting competitions (Monday), and we were doing threes, and they were like, ‘(Jenna) is gonna beat you,'” Smith said. “It’s fun now.

“I’ll still try to shoot some threes (this season),” Smith added with a laugh.