New head coach expresses excitement about recruiting from larger platform

“Newly hired Illinois women’s basketball head coach”: Matt Bollant was familiar with his new employer before athletic director Mike Thomas contacted him about the open head coaching position.

Bollant’s former team, Green Bay, soundly defeated Illinois 82-62 at the San Juan Shootout in November.

While explaining his impressions of the new roster he has inherited at Illinois, Bollant posed a philosophical question referring to the game played in San Juan between his former team and new team.

“That recruiting class of juniors at Illinois was ranked third in the country a couple years ago,” Bollant said. “Well how does Green Bay, where the best we’ve ever had is 55th, how do they beat (Illinois) by 20 points?”

Bollant wasted little time answering his own question.

“We do that by practicing right and playing right.”

Bollant built Green Bay into a top women’s basketball program, losing just 19 games in the five seasons with the team. But even though the Phoenix’s success translated into victories on the court, Bollant said that recruiting victories were not as frequent.

“A lot of players have said to me ‘Nobody has called me, nobody has emailed me, nobody has Facebooked me, nobody has built a relationship like you,’” Bollant said. “And then you still lose them.

“At Green Bay, we still struggled to beat out the Big Ten. We can beat them on the basketball court, but still because of academics and all those other things, it was a challenge recruiting.”

Bollant’s recruiting battles could become significantly easier at Illinois, especially with the prospects of the Assembly Hall renovations. His move to the Big Ten has already been noted on the recruiting trail, too.

Minnesota-based AAU coach Bill Larson contacted Bollant last night after he accepted the position at Illinois. Larson runs the North Tartan AAU team that has seen over 350 women’s basketball players receive college scholarships, including reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Rachel Banham of Minnesota. Four Gophers’ starters last season had previously played for Larson.

He said his program’s presence extends all over the Big Ten — except at Illinois. Larson expects that to change in the future with Bollant as the Illinois head coach.

“It gives me a reason to send one of my to kids to Illinois,” Larson said. “That’s one Big Ten school that we haven’t. We’ve even sent kids to Penn State. The kids that we’ve had at his program before have excelled and it’s going to carry on now to Illinois.”

Before any of his recruits make it onto campus, though, Bollant will have the larger task of turning around a team that went 11-19 last season. He has already identified the current roster’s shortcomings — the same flaw he exposed in his matchup against Illinois last season.

“They were very athletic, but they weren’t a very good passing team,” Bollant said. “There were times when (Karisma) Penn was open inside and they couldn’t get her the ball. It doesn’t matter what offense you run, it’s only as good as your ability to pass and shoot.”

Bollant admitted that he does not expect Illinois to have immediate success but believes that changing the culture in the program will lead to success on the court and, eventually, in recruiting.

“If we can become the 10th-ranked team in the country here, where we can go recruiting-wise is pretty exciting.”