Recruits follow Law to Illinois basketball program on rise

A disappointing season came to a close last Friday for the Illinois women’s basketball team after it was eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament by Ohio State in embarrassing fashion.

The scene in the locker room after the game, however, wasn’t reminiscent of a team that had just had its dreams crushed.

Head coach Jolette Law seemed as if she’d bypass the scalding post-game speech that would normally follow a 17-point loss as players iced their knees and relaxed after a tough defeat to end a tough season.

Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson, along with a few other teammates, exploded in laughter at one point to add to the bizarre mood.

It’s not that they expected to lose or were happy to have a long season come to an end.

Rather, there was optimistic talk of the future.

“It’s disappointing,” Law said quietly, with a slight smile. “At the same time, I’m encouraged that they’re all going to be back next year.”

With no seniors playing last Friday, the team knew this season was just the beginning, and preparation for next season started when the final buzzer sounded against the Buckeyes.

What the team returns next year could help improve on the 10-21 record they posted this year, giving Illini fans several reasons to be excited for the 2009-10 season.

Reason 1 – Super Seniors

Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson will return next year for their senior seasons after combining for more than half of their team’s scoring, rebounds and steals and 80 percent of its blocks this season.

Smith was named first team All-Big Ten and posted the Illinois career blocks record. Simpson, who was named third team All-Big Ten, now owns the career steals record.

The two form a formidable front court duo – Smith is a 6-foot-3, skilled, left-handed post player who can score on the low block, and Simpson is a 6-foot-1, athletic slasher who can score in bunches but also dish out assists and grab rebounds.

It’s a team mentality, though, that teammates and coaches said makes the two special.

Simpson is the loud, emotional leader of the team, who claps her hands, pumps her fists and directs her teammates.

“She always has energy,” Smith said. “You feed off of it a lot. When she gets hyped, it gets all of us hyped. When she brings energy nobody can stop her, and the doors are wide open for Lacey.”

Smith brings a quieter style of leadership to the team, as the veteran who leads by example and never seems to get emotionally off track.

“It’s all about, ‘OK, what can I do for my teammates; what can I do for my team,'” Law said of Smith.

“If you can get someone that’s that talented that cares about the team as much as she does, you’ve got something special.”

Reason 2 – Star recruits

With the No. 3-rated recruiting class in the nation according to ESPN’s HoopGurlz, help is on the way for Law’s already-youthful squad.

6-foot-3 Destiny Williams, rated the eighth-best senior and top forward by HoopGurlz, headlines the group. No. 17 Karisma Penn, who’s rated the second-best forward by HoopGurlz, and No. 36 Adrienne GodBold, a guard who is rated as the top senior in Illinois, will accompany Williams.

Rounding out the class is 6-foot-1 forward Kersten Magrum, 6-foot-2 forward Briana Jones and 5-foot-10 guard Amber Moore.

Kelsey Bone, the No. 1 player by Blue Star Recruits and No. 2 by HoopGurlz, still has Illinois in her top four and is waiting until the spring signing period in April to announce her decision.

Reason 3 – Depth and continuity

A trio of freshman guards, Macie Blinn, Fabiola Josil and Lydia McCully, started the last 10 games of the season.

“The freshmen that are here now are going to be sophomores; they’re not going to be little girls anymore,” Law said. “They’re going to be like women.”

The incoming players, though, add a plethora of options for Law, who can choose to play Lacey Simpson almost anywhere on the floor.

It’s safe to say, then, that none of these guards are a lock to have spots in the starting lineup.

“I think Coach Law is just going to play the best player that she sees,” Blinn said. “You have to work hard every day. You just have to prove yourself.”

The added depth will give Law freedom to play at a faster pace like the one she was used to in her 12 years as an assistant at Rutgers.

“I want to be able to run an up-tempo style of game,” Law said. “I want to be able to press, I want to be able to run. I want to be able say … ‘When I take someone out, it won’t drop off.'”

Reason 4 – Jolette Law

Law has already made some incredibly bold statements in her young Illini career, predicting a national championship in her time at Illinois and the potential for Williams to someday play on the Olympic team.

Some may see this as needless optimism; others may see it as foolish or a recruiting ploy. But Law looks at her prophetic statements a little differently – she says what she means.

“If I don’t believe it, I’m not going to say it,” Law said. “I’ve made bold statements, and if I say it, that’s what I believe. I’m going to back it up.”

“‘But you think y’all gonna get players to even come for a National Championship game?'” she said in a tone mocking her disbelievers.

“I’m going to get players in here, and we’re going to win a Big Ten championship, and we’re going to win a National Championship,” she said in reply.

It’s this confidence, though, that has recruits like Magrum believing in Illinois’ potential.

“She’s such a high energetic coach, she’s so optimistic, she’s such a determined coach to have a successful program,” Magrum said.

“She’s the perfect coach. I’m just really blessed to be part of this program.”

If Law can successfully pitch the championship belief to Bone, the Illini could be a force in the Big Ten and maybe even in the NCAA Tournament.

But even without Bone, Magrum thinks the Illini will be all right.

“I think we’ll be unstoppable,” she said. “We’ll definitely be up there, contending for a Big Ten Championship.”