Women’s team important for Illinois basketball culture

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llinois considers itself a basketball school, and students are proud of that title, but that term isn’t gender specific. 

No one says they go to a “men’s basketball school,” so where is the love for the women’s team?

Yes, watching women’s basketball is different. Dunks are few and far between and seven-foot power forwards are pretty much nonexistent, but the passion for the game is the same.

Huff Hall served as the home to the women’s basketball team until the late ‘90s, when it made the permanent move to State Farm Center. Huff holds roughly 4,500 people, State Farm Center approximately 16,000 — a bigger arena for a bigger program.

But attendance has been lacking.

On average, the Illini filled 1,900 seats per game last season. That’s a disappointing number, especially for a team that did surprisingly well under first-year head coach Matt Bollant.

If Illinois has as strong a basketball culture as it claims, and I think it does, the women should get more support. Fan support. Bodies at games. Students going hoarse screaming for new and promising players like freshmen Taylor Gleason and Sarah Livingston.

A girl can hope.

This year will be different. The star players of past years have moved on. Fans won’t see Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold running up and down the court though the two had been a staple of Illinois basketball for years. It’s an adjustment. There are new faces galore, and sometimes that makes fans lose interest.

But they shouldn’t. The program is changing for the better. It’s growing. Bollant is revamping a team that lost its star power.

The good thing about sports is the constant surprise. Stars are made every season. A year ago, had any of us heard of Jameis Winston, Florida State’s phenomenal freshman quarterback? How about Jeremy Lin before his breakout season for the Knicks in early 2012? They were essentially invisible to the sports world.

Not anymore.

Maybe a year from now Illinois women’s basketball will be that breakout team that everyone is so keen to talk about.

Think about being a part of that newfound success. As fans, students have the luxury of buying season tickets for a mere $25. That’s less than a tank of gas, lunch at your favorite restaurant or one ticket to a single men’s basketball game.  

Bollant admits his team is young and they might not be ready to compete for conference and national titles, but that doesn’t mean they can’t try.

The Big Ten isn’t the strongest of conferences for women’s basketball. In ESPN’s preseason rankings only Purdue, Nebraska and Penn State made the top 25. Last season only six Big Ten squads made the NCAA tournament field, none making it past the Sweet 16.

But that was last year. Preseason rankings aren’t set in stone, and don’t have any bearing on how a team will actually perform. This past weekend I watched eight top-25 college football teams go down to “lesser” opponents, No. 3 Clemson and No. 6 LSU among them.

So buy in. This year’s women’s basketball team has something to prove. They might be young, but they’re hungry.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.