It’s often referred to as “Catching Lightning in a Bottle.” A program gets a new coach who has a ton of promise, perhaps yields a big recruiting class at the onset, but finds long-term it can’t keep up with the giants of the sport. What starts out as a can’t-miss upward trend slowly (or sometimes quickly) fizzles, forcing the program to essentially start over.
But for every 20 or 30 of those that fall as fast as they climb trying to break through into that elite group, there are those that have become what I like to call paradigm shifters, ones that provide a don’t-look-back change on the landscape.
That’s what Dawn Staley has done at South Carolina and that’s what I see in Illinois with coach Matt Bollant. The 43-year old is building the foundation of a program that won’t teeter when put to the test from the current elite or the future up-and-comers.
There are a couple of things that I have discovered about those programs that are able to upset the status quo. First, instead of filling the air with empty promises, they create their own identity, something fans, alumni, and most importantly, potential recruits can hang their hats on, win or lose. The second important aspect of these programs is that they are committed to recruiting quality players, both in terms of talent and character, and ones that aren’t afraid to work hard to be successful. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to win now, but it may mean grinding it out at the beginning to achieve lasting results.
This was especially true of Illinois volleyball in the early years with Kevin and Mary Hambly as assistants. Instead of settling for second-tier players early, they built with the class of future All-Americans Ashley Edinger, Hillary Haen, Johannah Bangert and Laura DeBruler. Illinois went three straight years without an NCAA tournament bid, but in seven years since has established itself as a perennial top-10 team.
In an era that demands immediate success, it’s nice to see Illinois women’s basketball using a similar model. It’s way too early to see just how much of a dent the Illini, mired for more than a decade without an NCAA Tournament bid, can make in year three of the current regime.
No doubt that Bollant and his staff have a giant task. Taking a program, which has lived in the bottom-third of the Big Ten for as long has his recruits have been playing basketball (last making the NCAA Tournament in 2003), and moving it to a season of consistent success isn’t an overnight exercise. Penn State and Purdue have long been leaders of the pack in the conference in terms of being able to play on the national stage while Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa have experienced consistent regional success.
This season the conference welcomes, Maryland, who has reached the pinnacle of a national championship under Brenda Frese (in 2006), and Rutgers, a consistent challenger to Connecticut and Notre Dame in the Big East and who also has also reached the national championship game.
Bollant and associate head coach Mike Divilbiss have brought the proven “buzz” defense to Illinois. His teams have traditionally been deep enough, quick enough, tough enough, and disciplined enough to cause havoc to opposing teams. Just ask Iowa State, who had to feel the pressure of a Bollant-led Green Bay team in the 2012 NCAA Tournament in a home loss to the Phoenix.
They understand just how important it is to build a culture, to be your own marketing team. They have appeared to big crowds at the Esquire as guests on the News-Gazette Sports Page. They have helped the Courtsiders booster club rejuvenate fundraising efforts. They have raised the team GPA to above a 3.0 and are building a culture of intense practices and accountability surrounded by a loving, caring community.
They have tapped into some familiar and developed some new pipelines for players, the talent-rich Bolingbrook program and Chicago’s western suburbs, for example. They have used connections from assistant Tianna Kirkland to secure some of the top talent out of Michigan and the turf of former Nebraska assistant and current Illinois recruiting coordinator LaKale Maloneto lure 6-3 McDonald’s All-American Chatrice White and AAU running mate Brooke Kissinger from the state to Champaign.
The question isn’t if, but how quickly, Illinois can see results on the floor. In the freshman class, the Illini have a post player in White that can move without the basketball. She is not a prototypical back-to-the-basket post player. She can square and drive and has good hands. She has the potential to be one of best post players in the country by the end of her career, if not sooner.
The Illini have a future star in 5-11 Amarah Coleman, who has as quick a first step as anybody her age and the wingspan to defend the perimeter. She can get to the rim and distribute with the best of them. In 6-3 sophomore Jacqui Grant, they have a big player that can step out and hit the jump shot and play a compliment role opposite White. Those three players are clearly building blocks. In Taylor Gleason, Kennedy Cattenhead, Ashley McConnell and Kissinger, they have a bevy of young and versatile guards.
To take the pressure off the young players and help the program become competitive quicker, the staff has brought in a pair of transfers – a solid point guard in junior Kyley Simmons (from Missouri), an instant leader who has a positive assist-turnover ratio on the young season, and 6-0 guard Brittany Carter (from Ball State), a box score stuffer and team assist leader who can fill a lot of roles. The depth is proving beneficial to senior guard Ivory Crawford, who has shown the potential to be able to take over a game at any time.
For those doubting my assessment, let’s use last week’s Paradise Jam as exhibit A. The ledger will show just a 1-2 mark in three games in St. Thomas, but the tournament proved to the women’s basketball world, and more importantly to this group of young players, that it can compete at a high-level.
The Illini didn’t back down from a seasoned and ninth-ranked Kentucky team poised to make a run at the Final Four this year. They controlled the second half with White (23 points, 10-13 FG, 3 blocks) dominating the post en route to a stunning 77-71 victory over a Matthew Mitchell-coached squad that had downed No. 8 Baylor a week before. Despite letting second-half leads slip away the next two games, Illinois competed toe-to-toe with NCAA teams South Florida and Oklahoma. The Illini got an incredible effort from Crawford, who combined for 73 points, 21 rebounds, and 13 steals in the tournament, with she and her teammates forcing 74 turnovers in the trio of games.
No doubt building a program the right way is a process, one that will could mean taking some lumps along the way from a schedule that this year includes a conference with six teams in the preseason top 25. However, if Illinois can get that type of performance consistently from Crawford, don’t be surprised if they make a serious run at an NCAA berth.
A few factors will determine just how serious that run could be. Can the Illini avoid the type of foul trouble that has seen Grant (4), White (3), and Carter (3) foul out of half the games so far? Can they get consistent play from another player or two off the bench? Which shooting team is the norm and which is the exception, the one that made 6 of 65 three-pointers in the first four games or the one that canned 17 treys in 47 attempts in the final two games of the Paradise Jam?
If those factors can be answered positively, the impressive results will come sooner. Either way, Illini fans will be assured of a much different brand of basketball, one that will eventually result in Bollant’s team not just waiting to find out if their name will be called on Selection Sunday, but regularly hosting NCAA first- and second-round games, which now like volleyball is reserved for the top 16 teams in the tournament.
While the State Farm Center’s construction is providing a foundation that promises to stand the test of time, so too Illinois women’s basketball is providing the building blocks that could shift the paradigm in the Big Ten.