Women’s basketball season gets underway with first practice Monday

The Illinois women’s basketball team held its first practice of the 2013-14 season Monday, and head coach Matt Bollant said his team is far and away better than it was at this time a year ago.

“We’re just so much better with the little things than we were last year at this time,” Bollant said in a news conference Monday. “Our ability to handle the ball and pass and shoot is just night-and-day better.”

The Illini will have to replace seniors Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold — both of whom graduated last spring — and junior Kersten Magrum, who was forced to give up basketball midway through last season after suffering too many concussions.

Bollant knows it won’t be easy to replace their leadership, but he is optimistic about the freshman talent coming into his program. He said freshman guard Taylor Gleason and freshmen forwards Sarah Livingston and Jacqui Grant will see playing time immediately.

“Last year was almost like coaching all freshmen,” said Bollant, who is in his second year at the helm in Champaign. “With putting in a new system — and getting their feel for what to do when and how to play — it was a lot.”

But the leadership is harder to replace than the talent. Bollant said the vocal leader of this year’s squad appears to be transfer guard Kyley Simmons, who comes to Illinois after two years at Missouri and will have to sit out this season.

Bollant wants to see more leadership from Illinois’ lone senior, Amber Moore. He said he doesn’t doubt she has the basketball ability to lead the team, but she might not necessarily be as vocal a leader as he would like.

The Illini expect to play fast and aggressive this year. With so many players back from last season, the coaching staff feels like the team has a better understanding of the game.

In terms of competing, Bollant doesn’t think his team has the skills to battle for a Big Ten championship quite yet.

“It’s a little early to say that,” he said. “Talent-wise, we’re not quite there yet. This system is the best there is. I’m not so sure that our system can’t overcome us not being as talented.”

The women’s basketball team did not get to participate in the men’s team’s Street Jam on Saturday night at the corner of Wright and Green streets. Per NCAA rules, women’s teams could not start practice until Monday.

Though the team did attend the event, Bollant and his staff were out on the recruiting trail and were not able to attend.

“It’s a hard situation for our players,” Bollant said. “I saw the picture of the crowd. We’d have loved to be there as a staff.”

But after hearing about the 7,000 fans who attended Illinois volleyball’s match against Iowa at State Farm Center on Friday, Bollant hopes to see similar excitement for the women’s basketball team.

“We’re really hoping this community will get behind this program,” Bollant said, “and come and support this program and be a part of it early — be a part of where we’re going.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.