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2023-24 Big Ten Women's Basketball Preview: Illinois
Can the Illini keep the momentum going after Shauna Green's electric year one?
Apologies for not saying I would be taking a week break from the previews, it was unplanned and, as it turned out, I preferred to use my Labor Day weekend as actual time off. Leaving a dramatic pause for the top five also felt a little fitting.
If you told me when I wrote my previews last year that we would be getting to this team in mid-September, I would have thought it was an extremely niche, made-for-me joke and I would have appreciated it.
Heading into last year, Illinois was where it has been for much of the past decade: sputtering. The Illini, heading into 2022-23, had seven wins compared to 77 losses in Big Ten play over the past five seasons. They had not finished with a winning record in any season since 2012-13, and had not been to the NCAA Tournament in any capacity since 2002-03.
The hiring of Dayton’s Shauna Green as the new head coach seemed like a positive move. But even with that, there’s usually there’s a pretty significant adjustment period, even in the best of rebuilds. Green’s only Division I head coaching experience ever had been at Dayton, so I didn’t expect her to come into a program that had won 8.3 percent of its Big Ten games since 2017-18 and make a contender.
From last year’s preview:
Illinois is starting over with a new coach and a whole lot of new players. It is likely not going to all come together for a miracle season in year one, but this is more promising than it has felt in awhile for the program.
Illinois won more Big Ten games last year than it had over the past six seasons combined. It won 22 games, the most in a single season since 2000. It went from having a scoring margin of minus-10 or lower in two straight seasons to having a margin over plus-10.
A 15-win increase. A 20.2-point-per-game turnaround. In one season. These are numbers that should only be possible in a video game MyCareer mode.
And yet, Shauna Green did that. Illinois came out of the gates red hot, beat Iowa on New Years’ Day and did enough down the stretch to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. There, the Illini got some misfortune: they (undeservedly, IMO) were put in the First Four, where they got a tough matchup against Mississippi State and lost handedly.
It would be a disappointing end if not for just how unbelievable everything that came before it truly was.
How did Green do it? She formed one of the most efficient offenses in the country, a team that was able to avoid turnovers and score at all three levels with a variety of different players doing the damage. The defense made significant leaps from Illini teams of the past, with opponents shooting 27.5 percent from deep against them.
Maybe most impressively, Green did not feel the pressure of keeping up with the Big Ten’s frantic pace. Illinois was, pretty handedly, the slowest moving team in the conference, and clearly it worked.
But can it work again? This was a roster that was, largely, Frankensteined together. Will Green have to find more lightning in a bottle with a lot of new faces?
In short? No.
Here’s last year’s Illinois roster, sorted by Her Hoop Stats win shares:
A total of 1.4 win shares leave this 22-win team. Less than one win share left through the transfer portal. I think Green has won over the roster, if I were to guess.
Jayla Oden is the largest loss, and was a solid bench scorer who Illinois will be seeing again in a different uniform during conference play. Outside of Oden, Illinois also lost some forward depth with Geovana Lopes and Liisa Taponen.
Returnees and Transfers
Illinois had six players finish with at least two win shares last season, and all six of those players return. These six each played at least 24.9 minutes per game, and will again be relied on for much of what Green wants to do.
Who’s the main star? That’s hard to pick. Makira Cook and Genesis Bryant led the way in win shares and were the top two scorers, and this dynamic guard duo gave Big Ten opponents fits all season long. Both Cook and Bryant stand at just 5-6, but each give Illinois something unique that drives the offense.
Cook’s ability to drive inside despite her size is crucial for Illinois, and she’s also a tremendous at finding an open teammate and has a three-point shot when it’s required. Bryant, on the other hand, took over half her shots from deep and hits them at an exceptional rate. She is also more than capable of being an extra facilitator for the offense.
This duo is great on its own, but they were joined by two other players with four-plus win shares. Kendall Bostic had shown her prowess as a rebounder two seasons ago, but she developed into much more of a well-rounded threat in her first season with Green. Bostic was automatic inside, and emerged as an elite rim protector on defense, a skillset that gives Illinois a chance against the Mackenzie Holmes’ of this world.
Bostic and Adalia McKenzie were two of the nine best offensive rebounders in the Big Ten, and were a big reason for Illinois’ terrific rebound rate last year. McKenzie is also doing this as a 5-10 guard. She doesn’t bring the perimeter threat the other key guards do, but her interior scoring and rebounding cannot be overstated.
That quartet all scored in double figures and made up for 113 starts, but don’t forget about the fifth starter, Brynn Shoup-Hill. Shoup-Hill, like Cook, followed Green from Dayton to Illinois when she was announced as head coach. After just 6.1 minutes per game for the Flyers as a freshmen, Shoup-Hill started all 28 games she played for the Illini, hit 40 percent of her threes and was also a terrific rebounder in her own right. If she’s the fifth option for this team once again, there aren’t many better fifth options in the country.
The final member of this returning sinister six is Jada Peebles, yet another knockdown shooter if Green didn’t have enough already. Peebles’ 45.2 rate from three was 28th best in the nation, and her decision to come back for an extra season gives the Illini another excellent scoring option.
Four more players return from last year’s team: Two veterans and two underclassmen. Aicha Ndour could see more usage with some forward departures, but will have to fight off some new transfers (more on them shortly), as well as second-year Samantha Dewey to do so. Kam’Ren Rhodes hit half of her 10 three attempts in limited action last year, so maybe Illinois has *yet another* shooter waiting in the wings.
If there was any weakness with what players are gone from the 2022-23 team, it was depth at forward. So, Illinois went out and got Camille Hobby, a center from a powerhouse program with over 100 games of collegiate experience, including 32 starts last season.
Hobby joins Bryant as another NC State transfer for the Illini to utilize, and she should be a terrific add to use either in tandem with, or as a substitute for Bostic. Illinois also got Shay Bollin, who didn’t make much of an impact as a freshman at Duke, but is a former top-35 prospect that, and you won’t believe this, may or may not have been lauded for her ability to shoot the deep ball.
Illinois is in such an excellent spot with returning talent this season that we may not get to see much of what these first-year players can do until next season.
Cori Allen put up strong numbers in Tennessee before transferring to the powerhouse that is Montverde Academy, so she has some of the most translatable experience you’ll get from the high school level. On the other end, Gretchen Dolan struck fear in every opponent she faced with some truly outrageous numbers.
I think Allen is more likely to see time right away than Dolan, but both have clear potential, especially in their sophomore years as Illinois’ roster will likely see significant changes after this season.
G - Makira Cook
G - Genesis Bryant
G - Adalia McKenzie
F - Brynn Shoup-Hill
F - Kendall Bostic
Projected Big Ten Finish: 5th
Illinois made a historic turnaround last season to get to the NCAA Tournament in year one of the Shauna Green era. Sometimes, there are one-season wonders, but the amount of returning talent makes it feel like this was simply the start of what’s to come.
This roster is filled to the brim with talent and experience, so much so that I am choosing to project Hobby, who just started every game at NC State, as a player coming off the bench. That might be incorrect, but this starting five was so good last year I have a hard time making an adjustment to it.
Cook and Bryant are as fun a guard tandem as you’ll see, and Bostic’s rise as an interior stalwart makes her a tough player to project losing a starting gig. Bostic and Hobby will likely see time on the court together, but their skillsets are too similar for me to project them both starting.
This roster proved so much last year about just how talented it is, and then 10 of them decided to return and do it all again. That level of returning production is rare, and it makes me feel like something special is happening in Champaign.
Illinois had no business winning 22 games last season based on “history” and all that crap, but the Illini did it anyway. Now, no one will be surprised by this team, and I simply don’t think it matters. This team is built to do incredible things, and it’s hard to find a real flaw outside of some sort of assumption that regression is likely to happen.
Shauna Green didn’t care about my assumptions last season, and I’m not going to care about them now. Illinois hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1998, but I really think it could be possible for this group.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Illinois Athletics
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