Big Ten defenses to focus on Illini’s reliable forward



By Anthony Zilis

Watching Jenna Smith practice, it’s almost difficult to know she’s even trying. Her fluid, effortless moves and almost unequaled strength make it seem as if the junior is floating through drills.

But in reality, it has taken countless hours at the gym and in the weight room to make what others couldn’t do in their dreams seem as if she’s doing them in her sleep.

If observers think Smith isn’t trying, they only need to talk to her teammates and coaches.

“Jenna’s been working 10 times harder than she did last year,” Illinois coach Jolette Law said. “I keep telling her: ‘Last year you were the hunter. Now you’re the hunted. You’re going to have to be that much more focused and your moves have to be that much quicker. Your ball handling skills and shot have to be that much more consistent.'”

That is because opposing teams know going into this season how big of a player Smith will be for Illinois.

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But Smith wasn’t always such a respected commodity.

Coming out of high school, she was rated the 69th best senior and the 24th best center in the nation by Blue Star Report, one of the most respected recruiting databases, and was named Minnesota’s Ms. Basketball.

She had a solid freshman campaign, garnering All-Big Ten Freshman team honors but entering her sophomore season as Illinois’ center, teams still didn’t know what to expect.

Smith broke out during her sophomore year in 2007-08 to finish second in the Big Ten in points with 18.3 per game and rebounding with 9.4 per game. She led the Big Ten in double-doubles and minutes played.

In 2008, teams know what to expect.

“It takes a team to stop Jenna Smith, it really does, you can’t do it one on one, and that kid is so talented that you better have a plan A, plan B, and maybe even a plan C to get her stopped,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said at Big Ten Media Day.

Coaches and players around the league agree. When the subject of Illinois basketball comes up, the first name that seems to arise is Smith’s.

And if the greatest compliment is emulation, Smith has been drawing rave reviews from numerous players around the league who want to be like her.

“She’s a great finisher, she’s aggressive, she’s very intense, and I hope I can incorporate that into my game this year,” said the Spartan’s Allyssa DeHaan, already one of the premier centers in the Big Ten at 6-foot-9.

It was this kind of respect that helped Smith garner preseason first team All-Big Ten honors, but Law still doesn’t think her star player is quite receiving the respect she deserves.

“I think she should’ve been a unanimous selection,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter what you do in predictions in the preseason, its what you do in the end.”

If opponents think that if they stop Smith, they stop the whole Illini team, well, they may be right.

The All-American center is surrounded by unproven talent at nearly every position on a team that lost its second, third and fourth leading scorers from last season.

While the team still has steadying forces in senior Chelsea Gordon and junior Lacey Simpson, last season’s fifth and sixth leading scorers, heads will turn to the incoming talent to produce.

Instant focus will be put on young sharpshooters Fabiola Josil and Macie Blinn to keep the Illini’s play balanced and opponents honest.

Smith thinks her young teammates will live up to the challenge.

“They’re the hardest working freshmen I’ve ever been around, just seeing how much they want to learn, and how much they want to work with the team, and learn from the upperclassmen, I’m excited.”

Josil averaged 27 points per game in high school, while Blinn shot 40 percent from beyond the three-point line. Their continued scoring prowess will be crucial for Smith, who will consistently be forced to pass out of double teams.

Another major factor that will come into play for Smith’s success will be the development of freshman Lana Rukavina in an extremely thin frontcourt. Rukavina stands as the only viable backup for Smith at center.

While the 6-foot-3 freshman has natural ability and size, she remains unpolished.

The only other post player in the Illinois lineup is Simpson, and even she is a more of a natural shooting guard than a power forward.

In short, Smith will be expected to play a lot of minutes and carry a lot of the load for the Illini, which is something she is used to. Last season, she played 37.3 minutes per game and led the team in points, rebounds, blocked shots and free throws made and attempted.

And the Illini won’t have to worry about their star player leaving the game early. She didn’t foul out all of last season and only committed four fouls twice. In short, if the Illini need Smith to play every minute of every game, it’s difficult to argue she couldn’t.

And she would gladly do it.

This is because Smith is a leader who always puts the team first. But she doesn’t put herself on a pedestal, even after all the accolades and respect from opposing players.

“It’s not about me, its about our team so, I mean, regardless of what I do my teammates have got my back,” Smith said. “I’m worried about more how the team’s doing, so all the words don’t matter as long as my teammates and I are successful.”