BY CHAD DARE
HOFFMAN ESTATES —
At this time of the season, a lot of college basketball coaches start to sound like politicians before an election.
Illinois first-year women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant is doing his best grassroots campaigning as his Fighting Illini prepare for the Big Ten Tournament.
The Fighting Illini, who are 16-12 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten Conference, are fighting for the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003.
Ironically, that was the last time Illinois was over .500 in the Big Ten Conference, but the Illini have suffered back-to-back losses to Ohio State and at Purdue heading into the league tournament. That doesn’t deter Bollant’s belief that his team is a tournament ready.
“I’m excited about how we played against Purdue,’’ said Bollant as the Boilermakers defeated the Illini 76-65. “I felt like it was a high-level game. Right from the start, you could see it was an NCAA Tournament level type of game.
“The NCAA committee talks about the eye test, whether a team looks like they deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. I can’t believe that anyone that watched that game, would look at the level of play and not think that both teams deserved to be in the tournament.’’
And Bollant believes the numbers are on his side.
“We have six wins against teams in the top-50 of the RPI. There is no one that has wins over Georgia and Nebraska, two top-15 teams,’’ Bollant said. “If you look at quality wins and the last 10, we are 6-4. I feel like we are in, but you are always want to improve your résumé.’’
The Illini can solidify their hopes at the Big Ten Tournament, starting with today’s first-round contest against the Wisconsin Badgers (11-18, 3-13).
“Regardless of the other stuff, our focus is on Wisconsin,’’ Bollant said. “They are playing really well down the stretch, they lost by 2 to Nebraska, who finished second in the Big Ten, and they lost by six at Michigan State, who finished tied for third.’’
If Illinois is able to beat Wisconsin for the third time this season, the Illini would advance to the quarterfinals to play the Purdue Boilermakers.
“We want to end on a good note,’’ Bollant said. “We want to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament.’’
And the first-year coach would welcome that opportunity to play the Boilermakers (21-8 overall, 10-6 in the Big Ten) for a third time this year after losing to them 67-66 in overtime in Champaign and last Sunday’s setback.
“I felt really good about how hard we played, and how together we were,’’ he said. “It was a high level basketball game.’’
Illinois senior guard Adrienne GodBold was voted the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, while senior forward Karisma Penn was a first-team all-conference selection.