Women’s basketball program looking up despite 2008 result

Rarely in sports has there been so much excitement surrounding a team that finished 11 games under .500 the previous season.

But that’s exactly the case for the Illinois women’s basketball team, which returns every starter who finished the 2008-09 season, including All-American candidate Jenna Smith and All-Big Ten defensive team member Lacey Simpson.

Head coach Jolette Law also added the third-ranked recruiting class to that group, according to ESPN’s Hoopgurlz.

The freshman class includes McDonald’s All-American forward Destiny Williams, guard Adrienne GodBold — regarded last season as one of the few top players in Illinois — and Karisma Penn, rated the No. 2 forward in the nation by Hoopgurlz.

In all, the Illini add six freshmen to nearly double their roster size, which totaled eight at the end of last season.

The freshmen will add depth and versatility to a lineup in need of both. Smith, Simpson and rising sophomore guard Lydia McCully all finished in the top five in the Big Ten in minutes per game last season.

Having two new post presences in Williams and Penn should allow Simpson to move from power forward to small forward, a position which seems a better fit for Illinois’ all-time leader in steals.

If the Illini want to go with an even bigger and more athletic lineup, Simpson could see time at shooting guard.

Add in a year of experience for sophomore guards Macie Blinn and Fabiola Josil — who had inconsistent seasons with moments of brilliance — and the Illini should see major improvements this season.

Blinn’s shooting will be crucial to the Illini’s success this season. Known as a sharpshooter in high school, Blinn shot just 30 percent from beyond the arc last season for a team that was last in points and 3-point field goal percentage in the Big Ten.

Improved outside shooting will be crucial in order to open up space for Smith, who was consistently double-teamed in the post last season.

The added depth will also allow the Illini to run Law’s “55” defense, a type of full-court press that she ran at Rutgers as an associate head coach under C. Vivian Stringer.

The defense requires high energy with multiple presses in the backcourt, and the 2008-09 squad wasn’t able to run it, in large part due to a rotation that only went six deep at the end of the season.

This season fans should also look for a much more explosive, high-scoring, inside-out offense.

Often denied the ball in the post last season, Smith should have more room to operate down low if GodBold and Blinn can knock down outside shots.

If all goes well, the Illini should be able to land Law’s first NCAA berth as head coach and maybe even a top 25 ranking.