Women’s basketball integrating new players for new year

After a 2013 season that saw the team earn a 19-14 record and a berth in the WNIT, the Illinois women’s basketball team is almost entirely new this season.

The Illini return six players from last year’s squad, four of whom saw significant playing time, but the biggest losses will be the production left behind with the graduation of Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold.

Penn nearly averaged a double-double last season with 19.2 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per contest to go along with a team-high 50.6 percent shooting from the field — 9.2 percent higher than GodBold, who was second.

If Penn was Illinois’ go-to scorer, GodBold was the team’s shutdown defender, earning the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. GodBold also contributed 15.9 points per game and led the team averaging 2.95 steals a game.

With the voids left by key contributors, head coach Matt Bollant said even he didn’t know how his team’s playing time will stack up.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been at this point and not known,” Bollant said. “Coaches don’t say it … but you in your mind, you really have a pretty good idea, and we really don’t. It’s a strange feeling for me because normally I’m pretty crystal clear of who’s going to play and how much, and we’re not right now.”

One aspect in which new players will be called upon to improve is the Illinois defense and rebounding. While the Illini led the Big Ten in steals per game, they ranked last in the conference in points allowed (66.2), field goal defense (41.6 percent) and rebounding defense (39.6 allowed per game).

Losing three of the team’s top five rebounders will be a challenge, but Bollant pointed to 6-foot-2 freshman Sarah Livingston as a player who can contribute down low.

“When she came in this summer, I thought she was the third post,” Bollant said. “But if we played tomorrow, she’d be starting at the five.”

Hartwell out with injury

Bollant also announced that point guard Sarah Hartwell is out for two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Hartwell, a sophomore, is another one of the newcomers for the Illini, as she sat out the 2013 season while she transferred from Georgia Tech; although, Bollant said she would be the team’s starting point guard if not for the injury.

“In scrimmages last year, she was our third leading scorer, even though she couldn’t play,” Bollant said. “She’s as fast with the basketball as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Bollant lobbies for NCAA rule change

With all of the fresh faces in the lineup, Bollant said one rule change could make recruiting easier for teams and save money. Bollant lobbied to have recruits to be able to practice with the team while on visits, with the advantage being that coaches can see how well players are able to learn and pick up a new system.

The usage of camps to coach players often doesn’t get utilized because top-100 players don’t attend the camps with regularity, according to Bollant.

“When you’re watching them on the court, it’s hard to tell if they can learn,” Bollant said. “If we could coach them, and we bring in a recruit and they play or practice with the team, it would save so much money out of our recruiting budget.

“We want kids that can learn.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.