December 21, 2022
Underestimate Shauna Green’s Illinois at your own risk
'Everyone's gonna think we suck'
Five returners, four freshmen and four transfers walked into a bar.
Well – a pizzeria, actually. Jupiter’s in Champaign, Illinois to be exact.
It was the first time this hodgepodge of players had all been together, nearly two-thirds of whom were new to a program that had been nothing more than a punchline in the world of women’s college basketball for a long, long time.
Shauna Green, just a couple of months removed from taking Dayton to its fourth NCAA tournament in six years, told her new team what everyone who wasn’t in that room probably thought.
“Everyone’s gonna think we suck,” she said. “That’s good. Let ‘em think that.”
There was little reason to think otherwise. Last season, Illinois went 7-20. Since the start of 2015-16, the Illini won more than two conference games just once. In 2017-18, they went 0-17 in the Big Ten and ended that season on an 18-game losing streak. The program hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2003. The list goes on. It doesn’t get much prettier.
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But Green, who experienced incredible success at Dayton – the Flyers were 127-50 over her six-year tenure – knew she had a system that worked. Standing in the pizzeria on a steamy Midwest June day, she outlined her vision, and that meant lighting a little fire under her new players: Everyone’s gonna think we suck.
“Last year, it was really hard hearing all the negative things people would say about us,” said sophomore Adalia McKenzie, one of the five returners, in early December. “I hate losing, and I hate hearing people talk trash about us, so this year that has been the focus, just to rebuild the program and be different. We don’t ever worry about last year. That’s not us. We’re new.”
Added junior Kendall Bostic, another returner: “Some of the teams we play sometimes are just like, ‘Oh, we’re playing Illinois again. Whatever.’ Like, no, we’re a completely different team this year. We added a bunch of people, we have a new philosophy, we have a new identity. … It was pretty cool to hear (Coach) say that and the amount of passion that she has for this program and the belief that she had in us that we would be able to take this program to where it needed to be.”
Through 12 games, it’s been far from perfect, but it’s probably gone as well or better than anyone could’ve expected. At 10-2, the Illini have already won more games than last season. On Dec. 4, they took No. 5 Indiana right down the wire on the road; two days later, they bounced back with a convincing win over Rutgers at home; and this past Sunday, they took down an 11-1 Missouri team by double digits in Columbia.
The 2022-23 iteration of Illini women’s basketball might not lead to an NCAA tournament appearance. Maybe it will. But that’s not the point. In just six months, Green has injected a belief and a confidence and a swagger into a program that for so long lacked anything remotely resembling those attributes.
“Everyone has just taken a step up and has really bought in and done what we’ve asked,” Green said. “I’m just really impressed with everyone and the growth. We’re not where we wanna be obviously, but we’re trending in the right direction.”
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When Green first arrived in Champaign, she gave Bostic a lofty goal: She should be averaging a double-double.
“Oh…you really think I could do this?” Bostic remembers replying.
At Michigan State in 2020-21, she averaged 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. Last year with Illinois, she was strong on the glass, with 11.4 rebounds, but only averaged 6.7 points.
“I believe that she’s capable of doing it, and I think that’s where it starts,” Green said. “There has to be the belief.”
So far this season, she’s not quite averaging a double-double, but she’s closer than she’s ever been before, averaging 8.8 points and 9.7 rebounds.
“This is probably the most confidence I’ve had in my college basketball career, playing for these coaches,” Bostic said. “They’re really good about coaching us and telling us what we need to do, but there’s always a positive aspect (to) it.”
Spend five minutes talking with Green, and you’d probably feel motivated to lace up your shoes and run onto the basketball court, too. Everything she says has a reason behind it. Everything she asks you to do will make you better.
But beyond her motivational speaking abilities, her success in cultivating deep and meaningful relationships with her players has gone a long way in laying the program’s foundation. She makes sure to meet with each player on the team individually every couple of weeks, and it’s through those honest and impassioned conversations that’s allowed the players to understand Green’s visions for what they could become both on and off the court.
“It’s more than basketball,” she said. “And nowadays, it’s different. When I was playing, your head coach was your head coach, and you listened to ‘em no matter what because it was your head coach. Now, it’s not like that. If you want them to give you everything that they’ve got, then I truly believe that they have to understand and know and really feel that I care about them as people and our staff cares about them as people.”
We Can Do This
Inside Assembly Hall in early December against No. 5 Indiana, it appeared all the early progress wouldn’t translate to much success in a challenging Big Ten conference.
The Illini trailed 16-5 at the first media timeout. They looked out of sorts.
“We have got to get back to doing what we do: playing really, really hard. Playing really solid defense. We gotta rebound better. We just gotta give more and more energy, all those things that we talk about every single day,” Green remembers telling her team. “And I told them, I’m like, ‘If we don’t, we’re gonna get blown out.’ I flat out told ‘em that.”
By halftime, Illinois had pulled to within two points. Less than two minutes into the third quarter, a Makira Cook free throw gave the Illini their first lead. Though they ultimately lost, 65-61, it was a much different feeling in the locker room.
“That was not the outcome we wanted at all, but I really think that was a big statement game for us,” Bostic said. “They’re a great team. They’re a top-5 team, and it was really cool to see the poise and the confidence that everyone on this team had, especially from a lot of us not being in those kinds of situations, those high-pressure, close-game situations.”
A week later, after picking up their first Big Ten win of the year against Rutgers, the Illini flirted with disaster on the road against Butler. What was a 45-30 lead late in the third quarter had shrunk to 48-47 early in the fourth. But they dug in and held off the Bulldogs for a gritty road win.
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Between the narrow Indiana loss and narrow win over Butler, it’s been a breath of fresh air for a program that’s been accustomed to letting that 11-point deficit spiral out of control or letting that 15-point lead evaporating result in an embarrassing collapse.
“I think just instilling in our kids the belief and the confidence, ‘Hey, we can do this. This is the standard.’ The expectation level has been high from the start,” Green said. “The confidence keeps growing and growing and growing, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The confidence is surely even higher following their latest triumph, a double-digit road victory against 11-1 Missouri made all the more impressive by the fact that Cook, their leading scorer averaging 17.9 points per game, didn’t play.
Bostic notched her third double-double of the year with 14 points and 10 rebounds. McKenzie had 21 points and NC State-transfer Genesis Bryant added 20 points with six rebounds and five assists.
While the overall offensive numbers for the Illini this season have surely been astounding – the team is shooting 41.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging nearly 81 points per game – the focus when Green first arrived was on something she didn’t exactly love when she played at Canisius: defense.
“I hated defense, and I got pulled out of the game for not playing defense,” Green said, thinking back to her playing career. “I tell them, ‘Hey, it’s not really that much fun right? But I can guarantee, if you want to win games – which is fun – we gotta defend.’”
So far, the defensive metrics aren’t as eye-popping as the offensive numbers, but the Illini still rank in the top third in the country in terms of defensive rating, per Her Hoop Stats. In a Big Ten conference that features vaunted defenses like those of Indiana, Michigan and Maryland, the ability to make opponents grind for points will surely play a huge factor in determining how successful Illinois is in conference play.
“I want our team to be tough, to be disciplined, to play really, really hard, just all of those gritty, blue-collar attributes,” Green said. “That’s what I want this team and this program to be about.”
It’s Something Beautiful
Even Green admitted that she’s surprised at how quickly her team, composed of players from all over the country, has gelled.
Having several players, especially Cook, follow her from Dayton has certainly helped in several areas: Cook has been a go-to scorer for the offense, and she’s also brought a familiarity with Green’s system that’s allowed her to lead the way.
So far, things have clicked for her at a higher level than they did at Dayton.
“When we recruited her at Dayton, we knew we were getting a really special player,” Green said. “She’s a special player. She can score against anyone at any time. Not all the players in women’s basketball at the college level can you say, ‘Hey, here’s the ball, go get a shot on your own without a screen.’ She can do that.”
And for Cook, the early success from her team comes as no surprise. After all, she just spent the last two years on Flyers’ teams that went a combined 40-11.
“It just shows you what a coach can really do for a program,” Cook said. “And then of course, we have the girls. We have all the pieces that we need. The only thing that the returning five and all of us new transfers needed to do was buy into the system and mesh, and we’ve just been going from there.”
Bryant, another transfer, didn’t have the same luxury Cook did in seeing firsthand how Green ran her basketball program. But it didn’t take her long to make Illinois her desired destination after she decided to transfer from NC State.
“I believe in Coach Green’s vision,” she said a few weeks ago. “I believe in everything she was telling me when I was talking to her before I actually committed here. We kinda both saw it before it’s actually happened. To see it actually happen, it’s a great feeling.”
Of course hindsight is 20/20, and there’s still a long way to go in the season before Green’s first year at the helm of Illinois women’s basketball can be characterized as an unmitigated success, but the fact that this group of players has come together the way it has is undoubtedly a massive accomplishment in its own right.
In recent years, Illinois was lifeless, often non-competitive in Big Ten play. Last year, they lost 13 of their 16 conference games by double figures. But now, there’s a renewed faith and excitement around what this program can be.
“It’s just been amazing,” Cook said. “It’s something beautiful to see girls from all over, literally, come together and within a summer make something like this. I think this is a very special team. This feeling is something that you just have to be here to feel. We have a lot left, and we’re gonna keep working.”
And for Green, her quest to turn around one of the worst Power Five programs in women’s college basketball continues. She’s embraced the challenge so far, and there’s no reason to think that the program won’t see more success in the future, if the first 12 games are any indication.
“Illinois basketball is a place that, now, we expect to win. The standard’s high,” she said. “The challenge of resurrecting this program has been fun for me, and it’s been refreshing to, every day, wake up and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long, long time here.”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.