Early ESPN rankings show tough road for Illini

Sophomore+Jeanae+Terry+high-fives+a+teammate+during+the+game+against+Ohio+State+on+Feb.+6.+Head+coach+Nancy+Fahey+and+the+Illini+did+not+make+ESPN%E2%80%99s+Way-Too-Early+rankings+for+the+2020-2021+season.

Ryan Ash

Sophomore Jeanae Terry high-fives a teammate during the game against Ohio State on Feb. 6. Head coach Nancy Fahey and the Illini did not make ESPN’s Way-Too-Early rankings for the 2020-2021 season.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

After an abrupt end last spring, women’s college basketball is around the corner, and ESPN released their Way-Too-Early rankings for the 2020-2021 season. Although head coach Nancy Fahey and her Illini didn’t crack the list, the ranking shows what could be in store for the fourth-year head coach. 

National Overview

After ending last season No. 1, South Carolina will begin this season at the same spot as they look to capture its first national championship since 2017. Despite losing Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris to the WNBA draft, a good recruiting class and returning talent should have them set. 

The Connecticut Huskies come in at No. 4 after a very successful 29-3 regular season. After going a perfect 139-0 against the American Athletic Conference, Geno Auriemma and co. will be going back home to the Big East for the first time since 2012. Although the Huskies will probably still win their conference by a mile, a bump up in competition might result in UConn’s first conference loss since 2013.

Despite not being in a Power Six conference for basketball, the Lady Bears of Missouri State are getting some preseason love. That’s what happens after landing 6-foot-3 Auburn transfer Abi Johnson as well as returning two of the top scorers. The Missouri Valley Conference crown looks like a runaway robbery. 

Big Ten Overview

Although the Big Ten doesn’t have a team currently ranked in the top 10, Illinois’ conference did place five teams in the Top 25, with Maryland, Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan all cracking the list. 

The Terrapins and Wildcats ran away with the conference last season, with both squads finishing 16-2 in conference play.

Maryland, under Brenda Frese, has done a fantastic job at reloading, not rebuilding. Despite losing a majority of last season’s production, the return of Ashley Owusu should have the Terps set for another run for the conference crown.

With a full season hopefully in store, look for the Wildcats to stay hungry and secure their second NCAA tournament berth since 1997. If the Wildcats can replicate their defensive power — third-ranked scoring defense — the Wildcats could claw their way to its first Sweet 16 in program history. 

Illinois Overview

Disappointment isn’t the right word for Illinois’ lack of success. Head coach Nancy Fahey inherited a mess after leaving Washington University, and the progress could look inadequate on paper. But this season, with Fahey’s recruits, baby steps could be made.

Losing guard Petra Holešínská to University of North Carolina is a big blow. Holešínská had the ability to get hot from three and could will the Illini to victory some nights, but her departure doesn’t doom Illinois.

What held back Illinois was size. Too often, Illinois would get embarrassed in the rebounding margin. Coach Fahey, though, noticed the problem and added 6-foot-5 redshirt junior center Eva Rubin and a pair of 6-foot-3 forwards in junior Geovana Lopes and freshman Erika Porter.

As for guard play, the Illini are young but experienced. Returning sophomores Jada Peebles and Jeanae Terry, the Illini will have a full season for the two to gel with one another and climb the Big Ten standings. 

Winning in the Big Ten conference will not be easy for the Illini. With five ranked teams, as well as solid programs such as Iowa and Michigan State on the schedule, the Illini will have their work cut out for them every night. But the key is improvement. Improving from only two conference wins last season should be an attainable goal, setting up the foundation for success in the near future.

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