The Fighting Illini women’s basketball program is not one of the better programs at Illinois. It has been middling at best for most of its history, but a series of scandals in the mid-2010s ripped the program to shreds.
Athletics Director Josh Whitman tabbed former coworker at Washington University and Hall of Fame coach Nancy Fahey to rebuild the program. It hasn’t gone swimmingly as Coach Fahey has amassed a total of 20 wins over three seasons, 4 of which have come in conference play. The good news is the team has no longer the doormat of the Big Ten (thanks Penn State!), and considering the state of the program when she came to Champaign and the general amount of patience Whitman has shown with his coaches, Fahey has plenty of time to build a respectable program.
Last year was another rough year. The Illini got off to a 9-2 start mostly due to a weak nonconference slate, but they did beat rival Mizzou in Columbia. Conference play went really badly, with the team winning only 2 out of 18. Those two were a nailbiter on the road against a dismal Penn State squad and a solid home win against a depleted Minnesota team. A 16-point loss to Wisconsin in Indy finished the season.
This coming season will come down to how this team answers four main questions.
1. Where will the scoring come from?
Last season, the Illini went as senior guard Petra Holesinska went. The Illini won all 5 games where the Czech guard scored 20+ points. The Illini lost 12 of the 14 games where she scored less than 10 (the two wins were close calls against low majors Holy Cross and Merrimack). She was also the only Illini who averaged over 10 points per game with 12.6.
But she’s spending her graduate year at North Carolina, and sharpshooting forward Ali Andrews and shifty point guard Brandi Beasley, the third- and fourth-leading scorers on the squad with 8.9 and 8.5 ppg respectively, have graduated, leaving a massive hole in an already paltry offense.
From the guard perspective, the clearest fix is sophomore tandem Janae Terry and Jada Peebles. Terry is possibly the most fun basketball player at Illinois. Something is going to happen when the ball is in her hands, and as she gets more experience, that something is even more likely going to be good. She’s a creator who can overpower smaller guards and outfox any forwards who may get her assignment. She averaged 6.2 ppg, led the team in assists by a fair margin, and had…17 blocks as a guard? Only 4 away from the team leader? What? Anyway, she’s a blast to watch.
The guard most likely to be finishing those assists is Jada Peebles. The shooting guard has almost an identical game to Holesinska. She’s a 3-and-D guard who isn’t great at creating her own shot. She was second on the team in steals despite playing fewer minutes with Holesinska in front of her and shot 3s at a 35% clip.
Junior J-Naya Ephraim should be the point guard in the lineup and directing traffic, but after putting in 3 ppg and 1.3 apg last season, I don’t expect her to be the main cog in the machine. The freshmen Aaliyahs from Michigan, Aaliyah Nye and Aaliyah McQueen could also add some production this year as well.
Of course, we haven’t talked about production from the post, but that’s the next question.
2. Have they shored up the posts?
Now you may be saying, “But Alex, Kennedi Myles was a revelation for the Illini down low! How is this a question?”
Well, fair point. Myles blew up at the start of the season, but her game was all about motor. When she went up against bigger and better Big Ten post players, the 6-1 Myles was stymied a bit (this is what scientists call the “Olewole Betiku Effect”). She is a very good forward, but she needs to play alongside a true post to really produce, which the Illini didn’t really have. Mackenzie Blazek only played 14 games, Nancy Panagiotopoulou-Andritsopoulou played only 8, and Ali Andrews is not a true center.
Enter Eva Rubin. The 6-foot-5 true center from Homewood-Flossmoor transferred in from Arizona State last year and is eligible this year. Just that size should allow the Illini to match up better with Big Ten opponents, particularly with clearing the glass on the defensive end. If she has any sort of back-to-the-basket post game, that will allow the guards much more space and truly help with Fahey’s inside-out offense.
(Also she’s diabetic, which is awesome because I’m diabetic and we both use Omnipod which is cool and also diabetes is part of the reason why she transferred into Illinois and also it feels like FOR ONCE the diabetes gods (which all have the face of Wilford Brimley) smiled upon me and my sporting interests, but I digress.)
Rubin’s not all that’s new. The roster now has depth in the post. Geovana Lopes is a 6-3 JUCO transfer, and Erika Porter is a 6-3 freshman from New Jersey. Are they any good? We’ll find out, but they are tall, which is something that is desperately needed on this squad.
Myles also has some backup in JUCO transfer Solape Amusan. The 6-1 JUCO transfer from Minnesota hit 31% of her 3s last season at Iowa Western, so she could provide both size and a bit of a presence from behind the arc.
Let’s look at the big picture of this season.
3. What can this team do in late January/early February?
Here’s this season’s schedule:
It starts off with a Missouri Valley tour against Indiana State, SIU, and Valpo. All 3 were in the bottom half of the conference, but Valpo was the closest to the top. The matchup with the Crusaders should be a bellwether. If the Illini have issues dispatching them, it could spell trouble for the rest of the year.
The Big Ten schedule is a turd sandwich if the turds were the bread. There’s a semblance of a chance that we could pick off Nebraska in Lincoln on Dec. 10, but that’s about it until mid-January. Really, the month starting Jan. 14 and ending on Valentine’s Day is where I’d expect the Illini to perform the best. Seven of the 9 games in that stretch are against teams that finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten last season. There’s also a home matchup against Indiana where we strangely seem to perform well year after year. If the Illini are getting conference wins, it will be in this stretch I’ll call Jabruary.
I’ll make a prediction, and I’ll assume everything goes well and there’s no COVID cancellations. I think this team will go 8-16 by sweeping the nonconference, beating Penn State at home, beating Minnesota on Senior Day, finally nipping Indiana at home, and then picking up one more somewhere (if I had to guess, it’d be at home against Nebraska). It feels a bit optimistic, an interior threat should make a world of a difference.
Now, let’s look at the even bigger picture.
4. How good were Fahey’s hires over the offseason?
In her playing days, Fahey was a point guard. She also started at WashU with a record of 16-5 in her first season. She’s very good at coaching ball, but she probably isn’t a complete expert on how to develop a post player, and she doesn’t have experience at building a program from the ground up.
In response to this, she hired 2 assistant coaches over the offseason, both from Marquette. One is Scott Merritt, a former center for a Golden Eagles squad that made the Final Four. He spent a few years playing professionally overseas and eventually became an assistant coach at his alma mater. If anyone knows the intricacies of playing the post, it’s Coach Merritt.
While Merritt was coaching at Marquette, the Golden Eagles found their most success. Another assistant coach at the program at that time was Vernette Skeete, who was an assistant coach at Miami (FL) when they reached the peak of their success. If anyone knows how to recruit and build a program, it’s Coach Skeete, which is why Fahey somehow hired her away from Marquette.
Now, you may ask how Merritt and Skeete left Marquette when they were having so much success. Part of it may be a slightly bigger paycheck, or part of it may be a slightly bigger stage, but I think it’s something else. I have a lot of issues with women’s basketball recruiting coverage (or the lack thereof), but looking at rankings and lists of prospects, I have no clue how Illini women’s basketball isn’t successful, let alone a national power. The state of Illinois is one of the most reliable recruiting areas for women’s basketball in the country, but all of that talent left for elsewhere. One of those places the past few years was Marquette University, and Illinois talent was a big reason for their success.
The potential is there, but it takes the right staff to take advantage of it. There’s a chance that Fahey hit paydirt with hiring Merritt and Skeete. We’ll be able to see Merritt’s effect a little more clearly this year by watching the post players. Skeete’s work might be more difficult to discern this season, but recruiting classes might be the ultimate tell. Next year’s class is pretty solid, and if she can keep improving on that and build a program, we’ll see her effect.
So the short answers to these questions are 1) don’t know, but there are some intriguing options 2) the size is better, we’ll see about the skill 3) hopefully something because there’s not much opportunity elsewhere for conference wins and 4) I think yes. Based on these answers, this season isn’t going to look too different from the past few.
I know we’ve been told to be patient for years now with Illini Women’s Basketball. Fahey has been building something out of the smoldering crater she started with. With the hires of Merritt and Skeete, that building process should be quickened, even if results don’t show up this season again.