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Illinois women’s basketball is no longer an afterthought

The Illini remind me of another team that burst onto the scene ahead of schedule.

The Illinois Fighting Illini women’s basketball team has been one of the best stories of the 2022-23 college hoops season. First-year head coach Shauna Green has helped lead the Illini to a 21-win regular season and an 11-7 mark in Big Ten action. Most notbaly, the Orange & Blue will be competing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in TWENTY YEARS. It’s been a truly remarkable turnaround to witness, an eye-popping season for a program that was in tumult for nearly a decade.

For some context, then-Athletic Director “Mid-Major Mike” Thomas hired former UW-Green Bay women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant to take over the Illini in 2012. Bollant was coming off an excellent five-season stint with the Phoenix, winning 88.6% of his games, including an 85-5 record in the Horizon League. Illinois tallied 19 wins and reached the WNIT in 2013, but Bollant finished just 61-94 overall (22-62 Big Ten) in five seasons.

New AD Josh Whitman fired Bollant in 2017, nearly two years after former players had sued the University of Illinois, Thomas and Bollant, alleging misconduct, physical and psychological abuse by the coaching staff.

Whitman decided to turn to a familiar face to lead the Illini, hiring Nancy Fahey as the program’s next women’s basketball coach. Whitman worked with Fahey while he served as AD at Division III Washington University in St. Louis.

At Wash-U, Fahey compiled a stellar Hall of Fame resume, winning 737 games, 23 conference titles, and five national championships in 31 seasons.

Despite Fahey’s many accomplishments, her small-school success didn’t translate to wins on the bigger stage. The Illini never finished higher than 13th in the Big Ten standings during her tenure. Fahey finished 42-99 at Illinois — including an abysmal 7-77 in conference play — and she announced her retirement at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season.

With the Fighting Illini seemingly at rock bottom, Whitman needed to connect on his next hire. After whiffing on his first hand-picked football coach, Lovie Smith, Whitman found early success with Bret Bielema. Like Lovie, Fahey was a credible hire at face-value, but the results were lacking. This decision had to be the right one.

Before I continue on this trip down memory lane I’d like to take a slight detour and make a pit stop on the North side of Chicago...

The Chicago Cubs had a brief stint atop the National League Central in the late 2000s, winning division titles in 2007 and 2008 under manager Lou Piniella. Those teams boasted veteran All-Stars like Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Kerry Wood, and promising youngsters like Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Theriot, Geovany Soto & Kosuke Fukudome. Those teams also combined to win a grand total of ZERO postseason games; the Cubbies were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks & Los Angeles Dodgers in consecutive seasons.

Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals
Cubs catcher Geovany Soto won NL Rookie of the Year in 2008, batting .285 with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the franchise to revert back to its familiar position of “lovable losers” in the seasons that followed — after an 83-win campaign in 2009, the Cubs’ record dipped to 75-87 in 2010 and 71-91 in 2011.

During the 2011 offseason, the fledgling franchise named Theo Epstein as its new president of baseball operations. Epstein was instrumental in turning around another “cursed” MLB franchise, the Boston Red Sox. Under Epstein’s stewardship the Red Sox made several key acquisitions, eventually leading to a 2004 World Series crown, the team’s first championship since 1918.

Theo’s first few years in Chicago centered around rebuilding — sacrificing the club’s short-term success in order to establish long-term stability and competitiveness. The Cubs lost 101 games in 2012, the franchise’s worst record since 1966. A 96-loss season followed in 2013.

The Northsiders finished the 2014 season 73-89 under first-year skipper Rick Renteria — a modest improvement from the two seasons prior, but still not enough to emerge from the NL Central cellar. Epstein had a manager he felt was up to the task of turning around his moribund franchise — it just wasn’t this manager. Renteria was fired, and the Cubs turned to Joe Maddon, who had recently opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Maddon was the most-successful manager in Rays history, going 754-705 in nine seasons, including four playoff appearances, two AL East titles, and a trip to the 2008 World Series. If Maddon could turn Tampa Bay — a franchise with minimal fan support and one of the lowest payrolls in MLB — into a winner, imagine what he could do with the resources and infrastructure of an organization like the Cubs. Epstein got his guy. Now it was time to put the roster together.

The Cubs had previously signed, drafted, or traded for up-and-coming young talent including Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Kyle Hendricks & Carl Edwards Jr. — Javy Baez was also a “core” prospect, but he was already in the Cubs’ system prior to Epstein joining the organization.

Heading into the 2015 season the Cubs began surrounding that young core with established veteran talent, trading for catcher Miguel Montero & outfielder Dexter Fowler, and using free agency — or the “transfer portal,” if you like — to bring in David Ross & Jon Lester, a duo that had won a World Series together in Boston with Epstein.

Jon Lester may well be the most impactful free agent signing in Chicago Cubs history.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Cubs ended the regular season with a 97-65 record, a 24-win improvement from the previous year, and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Chicago would go on to defeat the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates & St. Louis Cardinals in the postseason before losing to the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series.

The 2016 Cubs added Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward and All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman, as well as former World Series winners John Lackey & Ben Zobrist. Each of these acquisitions — along with the team’s existing core — were vital parts of the Cubs’ success, which culminated with the franchise’s first World Series win in 108 years.

Now...let’s travel back south to Champaign-Urbana.

The Fighting Illini had seemingly hit rock bottom, so Whitman had to find his Maddon.

Shauna Green was hired in March 2022. The Clinton, Iowa, native had cut her teeth as an assistant at Providence, Dayton, and Northwestern before returning to Dayton as head coach in 2016. The Flyers flourished under Green, capturing five Atlantic 10 regular season titles and reaching the NCAA Tournament on four occasions. Green may hot have been a proven commodity like Joe Maddon, but she was certainly a rising star in the sport.

With the coach in place, it was time to reconstruct Illinois’ roster.

The Fighting Illini did retain several key contributors from last year’s group. Jayla Oden, Jada Peebles, Adalia McKenzie & Kendall Bostic each averaged at least 18 minutes per game in 2021-22. But obviously more offensive firepower was needed. Coach Green turned to the transfer portal to recruit two of her former Dayton players — Makira Cook & Brynn Shoup-Hill — to Champaign, along with former NC State guard Genesis Bryant.

Makira Cook (#3) has led the Illini in points, assists, and minutes played this season.

Cook leads Illinois with 17.9 points per game and earlier this week was named First Team All-Big Ten. Shoup-Hill, a 6-foot-3 forward, has recorded 5.6 rebounds per game and shot 40.5% from beyond the arc. Bryant has averaged 14.8 ppg, 3.8 apg, 42% from three, and 89% from the line, earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors.

This trio of transfers has been instrumental in Illinois’ 14-win improvement this season. Moreover, the Illini were a whopping 10 wins better in conference play (11-7) and tied for fifth in the Big Ten standings, the program’s best finish in a decade.

Offensively, the Illini are also demonstrably better at scoring the basketball — their 76.4 points per game is a full 12 points better than last season; their FG percentage is up from 39.8% to 45.8%; their three-point percentage (37.5%) is an increase of nearly six percent (31.8%); and the team’s free throw percentage (76.2%) is up from 66% last year.

Reminiscent of the 2015 Cubs, the 2022-23 Illini arrived on the scene ahead of schedule, exceeding all reasonable expectations and instantly morphing from a doormat into a contender. I’m certainly not saying that Shauna Green will lead the Fighting Illini to a national championship in 2024 — that would be silly. But I am saying that this program is finally in position to make some noise in the Big Ten for years to come. Illinois is no longer an afterthought.

Winning is hard. Continuing to win is even harder. But with the right coach, proper roster management, scouting/recruiting, and the support of leadership, a team can be set up for success for the long haul.

As Illinois women’s basketball makes the trek to Minneapolis for the Big Ten Tournament, it looks like Josh Whitman may have found his Maddon, after all.