Excitement building from within Illinois women’s basketball program

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Excitement building from within Illinois women’s basketball program

Illinois' Ivory Crawford (22) drives the ball during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Ivory Crawford (22) drives the ball during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Ivory Crawford (22) drives the ball during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Ivory Crawford (22) drives the ball during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Sunday, March 2, 2014.


Head coach Matt Bollant had a rough second season with Illinois women’s basketball. His team finished 9-21 overall, 2-14 in the Big Ten.

Combine that losing record with the Big Ten’s addition of Maryland and Rutgers, two national powerhouse programs, and not many people have high expectations of Illinois this season.

That’s far from the case within the Illini program.

Buzz is slowly but surely building because of Bollant’s ability to address the issues the team faced last season.

Illinois was dead last in the Big Ten last season in rebounding margin. Jacqui Grant, now a sophomore, was the only true post player the team had on its roster. Bollant changed that in a dramatic way.

In only his second year at the helm, he landed Chatrice White, one of the premier forward recruits in the country.

Bollant can’t speak highly enough of the 6-foot-3 freshman early in the season.

“So you’ve got to get players; it’s about bringing in the right kids and bringing in talented players and Chatrice White is a program-changer for our program,” Bollant said.

White immediately adds an element that Illinois didn’t have last year, but the squad’s influx of talent didn’t stop with White.

Bollant also used his proven recruiting skills to corner the transfer market. The Illini nabbed Brittany Carter, an experienced 6-foot guard from Ball State. The senior is another player Bollant simply can’t seem to get enough of early on.

“Adding Brittany Carter was a great pickup for us,” Bollant said. “She will come in as a senior, has a great chance to be our starting two, passes the ball, really skilled.”

Another transfer Illinois snagged is also expected to make an immediate impact in the backcourt. Kyley Simmons, a point guard who transferred from Missouri, sat out last season with the Illini and watched them struggle through the season from the bench.

“The biggest part for me sitting out was just realizing how much I missed competing in games,” Simmons said. “I got to compete in practice and be a part of all that, but being in a game is a completely different story. Watching us last year, not having as much part as I would like, I think that was a big eye opener to me.”

The redshirt junior will see the court early and often as Bollant has said he expects her to be one of the best point guards in the conference this season.

Between two immediate impact transfers, two top-100 recruits in White and guard Amarah Coleman, Bollant has turned Illinois’ depth into one of its strong suits.

The other thing that is giving Illinois confidence heading into the season is what the team already had on the roster. Players like Grant and senior guard Ivory Crawford should still be largely involved on both sides of the ball.

Crawford led the team in scoring last year but may be able to make an even bigger impact this season with the talent around her.

“Now that we have a post player, we’ve got more shooters. I think there’s less pressure on me to score but then also we’re all a threat,” Crawford said. “I feel like when I go to the basket, it’s either me or them, but regardless Illinois is going to score.”

With the Big Ten expected by many to be the best conference in the country this season, the Illini seem to be quietly lurking in the background. The jump from their 2-14 record to a contender in the conference will be tough in only one season, but Bollant and his players sound excited.

The added depth and overall talent almost makes Illinois seem like a whole new team.

“We challenge and stretch the kids every day. And I know I felt like at Green Bay, when we were close to even, talent-wise, we won those games, and we beat those teams,” Bollant said. “When we are at that in the Big Ten we’ll do extremely well, as we did the first year. And I think we’ve closed that margin and talent this year. And it will be exciting to see where we’re at.”

Brett can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Blerner10.