Women’s basketball sets high hopes for season

This year’s seniors, including Smith, Simpson and Whitney Toone, are hoping to lead a team of 14 to Illinois’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2002-03.

Jolette Law is usually known to have an upbeat personality. According to some players on the Illinois women’s basketball team, the head coach is even more excited than usual heading into this season.

“She’s a lot more enthusiastic,” sophomore Fabiola Josil said. “Her attitude is an example of how the team carries themselves.”

Law’s added enthusiasm marks one of many changes for this year’s team. Of those changes, one of the most obvious is in the number of players on the court during practice.

Last season, Illinois had a roster that was drained to eight healthy players while managing just a 10-21 record and ninth place finish in the Big Ten.

Now, seniors Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson are finally getting breaks during practice.

“Whenever coach is like, ‘Alright Jenna and Lacey get off the floor,’ we always laugh now,” Simpson said.

This year’s seniors, including Smith, Simpson and Whitney Toone, are hoping to lead a team of 14 to Illinois’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2002-03.

A tournament appearance is not out of the question for a team that famously acquired the No. 3-ranked freshman class in the nation. Now that those freshmen have been on the court practicing, the players are already seeing a different team than last year.

“(Illinois is) definitely a different team just in every aspect,” Simpson said. “I do believe this is the closest I’ve been with my teammates out of all the four years I’ve been here.”

While last year’s freshmen required a learning curve to adjust to college basketball, this year’s class could make an immediate impact.

When the freshmen are combined with the eight returning players, Law said Illinois will have a rotation — not just a roster — that goes 14 deep.

Law’s preferred style of play is up-tempo with an emphasis on the press. Now that her team has a solid amount of subs, she said she is given more freedom to coach how she likes. And according to her, that could sometimes mean subbing in four to five players at a time.

“If I can keep everybody playing at their peak for 20 to 25 minutes, it makes us a dangerous team,” Law said.

But while the outside attention this year has focused on the talented freshmen, Law will look to her eight returning players to act as leaders.

“Last year, most people look at the record, I just look at the maturity and growth and confidence in my sophomores,” Law said. “And now they’re being like little veterans, little coaches, so it’s not just all the pressure on my seniors.”

The play of the five-member sophomore class in particular will be key for an Illinois team hoping to make an NCAA Tournament appearance. And after last year’s trial-by-fire, Law believes her sophomore squad is much improved.

“I’m glad they went through what they went through last year,” she said. “Everybody looks at (the record) 10-21, I saw a team that played against the fourth toughest schedule in the country. Although we didn’t win ball games, we got better.”

While the improvement of the sophomores will be complimented by the skill that a No. 3-ranked class will bring, the freshmen have brought something that Law said last year’s freshmen class was lacking — strong personality.

And in the area of personality, several Illini agree that freshmen Brianna Jones and Adrienne Godbold — or “Krunch” and “NuNu” — take the prize.

“They always have so much energy,” Smith said. “You never see them down and they always make you laugh. They just bring so much laughter to the team, which we needed.”

With team competitiveness and chemistry as high as ever, Smith said the freshmen hope to send her off on a high note.

“The freshmen always tell Lacey, Whitney and I that they want to send us out with a bang and they’ll do anything in their power to help us win,” Smith said. “To go out our senior year with a great record and to leave a legacy … would be like the greatest present ever.”