Oct. 25, 2012
Illinois coach Matt Bollant, senior Karisma Penn and juniors Kersten Magrum and Amber Moore were in Chicago on Thursday for the annual Big Ten Basketball Media Day at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Below is video and a transcript of Bollant's press conference.
Matt Bollant: Really excited to be here, excited to be in the Big Ten, and just so fortunate to have an amazing staff and a staff that is so together and so talented. We have inherited a team that was really open and trusting. If you want to sum up our spring and fall, look at the transformation in Karisma Penn. From when we got there, with her work ethic, her drive, her desire to lead and do things the right way. When we got there compared to now is just an absolute worlds apart.
We've had about 14-15 practices, and she's been our best defender, our hardest worker in just about every one of those practices. We challenged her to do that. When your best players are your hardest workers, you've got a chance to overachieve, and that's what we're believing is going to happen this year.
I am really excited to get back to practice tonight and get better, and we're taking it one day at a time. We have a system that will fit our athleticism, and we're going to play very quickly, very aggressively and play similar to what we did at Green Bay, but even a little bit faster and more aggressively. Thank you.
Q. You mentioned overachieving. Isn't it possible that you do have a good bit of talent and that you could really have a pretty good season?
Matt Bollant: Certainly that's one of the things I looked at in the job is what's the returning talent and how does it figure in the system. We're a switching team. We switch 1 through 5. We want to play quick, run, and dribble motion. We inherited some very talented players, some players that have a high level of athleticism and just need to be taught how to be fundamentally sound, how to play some triple threat, how to pass with their feet on the floor, so we're certainly excited. Certainly something that drew me to the job over some other possibilities was the returning talent.
Q. What are the biggest adjustments you've found so far moving from Green Bay up to Illinois, and what's your challenge in recruiting for a program that hasn't been as successful in recent years?
Matt Bollant: It's been kind of what we had hoped for in the recruiting. Honestly, the class that we'll sign here in November is every bit and probably more talented than any of the classes we ever had at Green Bay, and that's kind of why coaches leave the mid major level. I get that question a lot. Why would you leave a program that's ranked in the top 15 in the country three years in a row, and really it's about the recruiting. If we're ranked in the top 10 in the country at Illinois, which we believe that's where we're headed, we can go after any recruit in the country. Here at Green Bay we still had to wait to see what the Big Ten schools I think we beat a Big Ten school one time on a player in my five years there, and a lot of times we beat them on the court, but we couldn't beat them in recruiting. So that's why you leave, and the recruiting has gone extremely well.
We have a transfer, Sarah Hartwell, from Georgia Tech I believe is going to be a star in our program. She has to sit out this year, but is a four star kid coming out of high school. At Green Bay we don't get Sarah Hartwell. We go to Illinois and her AAU coach calls me and tells me this is the most athletic kid he has ever coached and he's had 50 Division I players, so it's pretty exciting.
The biggest adjustment would just be a different team, in teaching from the beginning. The cultures at Green Bay were so strong. If anybody watched us practice, they'd say you practice as hard as any team in the country, day in and day out, and teaching those cultures at Illinois. But our kids have bought in; they've given us hearts and their trust and they've done extremely well trying to build those cultures.
Q. When you look at the names of the players, the top players in the conference, to me one is obviously missing and that's Karisma and maybe that's because she's underperformed. Do you feel like at the end of this season she's going to be right there with the Player of the Year just with her rebounding numbers and her scoring and her field goal percentage ability?
Matt Bollant: Yeah, absolutely. Where she was at this spring, she may not have been deserving of being on that top eight. Where she's at right now, she's one of the best players in our league. There's absolutely no reason why she can't be a First Team All Big Ten player and lead our team offensively, defensively. I believe she's a WNBA prospect and I think she'll lead us and be extremely good, in every aspect of the game. If you watch her, she can guard point guards. We'll switch and she'll guard our quickest point guards, and she might be our second best on ball defender and then she can block shots and rebound, run the floor and do everything.
She wasn't on that list, and I'm disappointed for her. But I think what matters is who's on the end of the year list, and that's where I believe she'll be.
Q. Aside from Karisma, are there any other players that maybe you were surprised about or going to show a lot of improvement this year?
Matt Bollant: When I got there, the point guard position was a concern. They graduated Lydia McCully and didn't really have much for a backup point guard last year. When Lydia rotated out on the tapes I watched, they really struggled at the point. But Alexis Smith has come in and gotten in great shape. She'll be our starting point guard and she'll be a really good point guard in the Big Ten.
If you look at a reason why this team is going to be transformed and be night and day better than what they were last year, I think Karisma Penn buying in and then also the point guard play. Alexis is as fast and as strong as probably any point guard in the country, and I think the combination of her speed and strength there's a lot of point guards that are really, really quick, but there are very, very few that have her strength and ability to finish at the rim. She's going to be able to get the rim; we're going to run our dribble motion and play really fast, and she's going to be a big part of that.
Probably part of her adjustment, I think our fans she didn't play much last year and she wasn't very effective. She's going to go from not playing to being one of the best sophomore point guards in the conference, and we believe one of the best point guards around.
Q. How will you define success this year in your first season?
Matt Bollant: We're talking about getting better every day. For us we want to be a different basketball team at the end of this week than we were last week. We've done that the first three weeks of practice. We've been a much better basketball team at the end of the week, and hopefully at the end of each day.
We were a better basketball team yesterday at the end of practice than we were the start, and just growing each and every day.
John Wooden said the worst thing you can think about in basketball is losing; the next worst thing you can think about is winning. We didn't want to get caught up in the end result; we want to get caught up in getting better every day, learning to play as hard as any team in the country, learning to play as together as anybody and learning to play as smart as anybody. When we do that, success will follow.
Q. Big picture, where do you think this Illinois program can go, and what's sort of your timetable? I want to be in the top 3 NCAAs? Is all this something that you think is doable?
Matt Bollant: Absolutely. I had some other opportunities, great opportunities, and obviously Green Bay is returning five seniors to this year's team and probably should be the most talented they've ever been, so you don't leave that unless you believe it can happen at Illinois and happen fast.
Our depth is a concern this year, but besides that, we believe we can be great this year and have a great first year, play in the postseason and go from there.
But obviously there are challenges ahead. We've got to get better every day. But we really believe this is going to happen fast for us.
Q. As an outsider before this year, just your impressions of the league, and now obviously with Nebraska in, but kind of your thoughts on where the Big Ten is at right now and where maybe it needs to go.
Matt Bollant: We played six Big Ten teams in the last two years at Green Bay and had great success. But at the same time I really feel like the league is going to take a jump. The men's conference is number one in the country; the volleyball is number one in the country. I don't see any reason why women's basketball can't take a jump. I don't think we're going to be the Big 12 this year, but why can't we challenge to be the No. 2 conference. The coaches are very good, the talent is good, and it's going to get better. The Big Ten Network is a huge plus for our conference, and to get seven teams in the league in the tournament last year is a great success. Now we need to win in the NCAA tournaments and have teams advance to the Final Four, and hopefully that's where the league is going. But it's a very bright future for women's basketball in the Big Ten.