Illinois women’s basketball seeing double

By Bret Greenberg

Big Ten media predictions are in, and Ohio State was picked to finish No. 1 for the fourth consecutive season with help from the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, center Jantel Lavender.

But Illinois head coach Jolette Law, whose team is ranked sixth in the same poll, has other ideas.

“I have the utmost respect for Ohio State, but we’re more concerned with Illinois,” Law said. “We’re not going to fear anyone. We’re chasing after what they have right now. It’s fuel for us. But really it’s about being in the No. 1 spot at the end of the season.”

Lavender, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, started all 31 games for the Buckeyes last season, averaging 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds. Ohio State’s head coach Jim Foster thinks she is going to be even better this year.

“I feel the biggest improvement an athlete makes is between their freshmen and sophomore years,” Foster said at the 2008 Big Ten Basketball Media Day in Chicago. “And in her case, because of the great year she had as a freshman, if that holds true, then that’s a very good thing for our basketball team.”

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    Foster said one big improvement he noticed during the offseason was Lavender’s three-point shot. Last season, she attempted five shots and only hit one. He said having a three-point threat will pose matchup problems for other team’s defenses.

    Although Lavender has been improving her all-around game, she isn’t satisfied just yet.

    “Being predicted Big Ten Player of the Year this year is something that makes me just work harder and work on getting better because there’s great players in the Big Ten that I’m competing against that are capable of winning it,” Lavender said at Media Day. “I have to continue to do the little things to get better to live up to that title.”

    Meanwhile, Illinois junior Jenna Smith was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team. Last season, Smith started all of Illinois’ 35 games at center and averaged 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds.

    Law said she saw many similarities between Smith and Lavender during their matchups last season.

    “Jantel is one of the finest post players in the country, and I’ll say in the same breath that Jenna Smith is one of the best post players in the country,” Law said. “They are truly the horses for their teams. Both players work extremely hard and had good seasons last year.”

    Smith and Lavender have a deep respect for one another, and Smith recognizes those same similarities.

    “We both like a lot of contact and we both have the same moves, just with opposite hands,” Smith said. “We both like to step out and shoot, too. I guess it’s just who’s going to come down and play better defense and grab more boards or play better help side (defense). I think it comes down to the little things with us.”

    When asked who she thought would win in a game of one-on-one, Smith smiled.

    “It would be a good game,” Smith said. “We know each other’s moves and weaknesses so it would be who’s going to push each other off the block or who’s going to get the quick rebound. But of course I’m always going to go with Illinois.”

    Anthony Zilis contributed to this report.