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Friday, July 19, 2019

The Big Ten: As I See It

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Photo Caption: Head Coach Jolette Law has brought her considerable recruiting skills with her from Rutgers, where she served as an assistant to C. Vivian Stringer, to Illinois, where she landed one of the top recruiting classes in the country last season. But her path to a sought-after NCAA Tournament bid has hit two major speed bumps with the loss of Amber Moore to an ACL injury and the “indefinite leave of absence” of high school All-American Destiny Williams, who was tossed out of practices early on.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Illinois Sports Information

By Sharon Crowson

Editor’s Note: In a new weekly column, “The Big Ten: As I See It,” veteran Full Court correspondent Sharon Crowson will share her thoughts on Big Ten and midwestern women’s basketball.

Last season, Illinois second-year coach Jolette Law got the attention of the women’s basketball world when she signed one of the nation’s very best recruiting classes.  Law had been highly successful as a recruiter for Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer and she planned to use her contacts to build her program at Illinois.  The class, which was ranked as high as number two nationally, contained six players, four of whom were ranked in the top 45 by one recruiting service or another.  But within a month of starting practice, Law’s dream may well be crumbling.

First, 5-11 freshman guard Amber Moore out of Detroit Country Day School, who quickly became one of only two outside scoring threats on the Illini, tore her ACL during overtime of Illinois’s season opener at Temple. Moore is scheduled for surgery in the coming weeks and will miss the season.

“I really feel for Amber and her family,” said Law of Moore’s injury. “She worked so hard leading up to the season and was coming into her own as a player. We are still expecting big things from Amber here at Illinois, we’ll just have to wait a little longer to see what she can do. Her attitude has been very positive about this so far and I’m confident she’ll come back stronger than before.”

The second, and potentially much more devastating, blow came when Law’s highest ranked recruit, 6-3 forward Destiny Williams, was placed on an “indefinite leave of absence” from the squad. “Destiny Williams is on an indefinite leave of absence from the Illinois women’s basketball team,” said Law. “She is still attending classes and is a part of the Illini family; however, she won’t be participating in team activities while dealing with some personal issues. Right now, my main focus is on the team as a whole and on moving forward with the games that we have in front of us.”

Williams, a McDonald’s (the first ever to play at Illinois) and WBCA All-American who helped lead USA Basketball’s U19 team to the gold medal in Thailand this summer, is the highest ranked recruit in school history and was expected by many to win an immediate spot in the Illini starting line-up.

While, on its face, Williams departure seems shocking, rumors coming out of Champaign made it clear that there were problems early on. Tony Bleill, who covers the Illini and frequently attends practice, reports that Williams had been thrown out of several practices and, when there, rarely interacted with her teammates.  Interestingly, he says that he has never seen her smile.  At Big Ten media day, Law was clearly reluctant to talk about Williams.  When asked about her expectations for the freshman, she quickly changed the topic to her fellow frosh Karisma Penn, who will start at the power forward spot that many had already given to Williams.  Law acknowledges that Williams is unlikely to play this season and, given how quickly and how badly the situation deteriorated, it is hard to imagine Williams ever taking the floor for the Illini.

The apparently erroneous assumption by many that the starting slot at power forward was Williams’s for the taking may have played some role in the breakdown. Penn, one of the top-ranked forwards in the country coming out of Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, was a WBCA All-American Honorable Mention, and according to a team spokesman, excelled from the get-go and was likely to have won the starting spot regardless of Williams’s departure. Penn won Big Ten Freshman-of-the-Week honors yesterday (the first time ever that an Illini player has captured the award) after following an 18-point, nine-board, five-assist and five-block outing to lead the Illini to a 77-59 win over Central Michigan, with another huge game in Sunday’s 67-45 victory over Bradley, in which Penn scored a game- and career-high 21 points to which she added four rebounds, three assists and two steals. The talented freshman averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 44 percent from the field and 82 percent from the line last week.

Photo Caption: Freshman Karisma Penn, pictured right, has fit in well into Coach Jolette Law’s system at Illinois, becoming the first Illini ever to win the Big Ten’s Freshman-of-the-Week honors. Fellow frosh and high school All American Destiny Williams, currently on an “indefinite leave of absence” from the team—not so much.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Illinois Sports Information

The Illini are 3-1 to start the season, but despite Penn’s prowess, the loss of Williams will hurt in several ways.  Penn has started strongly at the power forward spot, but any team would benefit from having a McDonald’s All American on the roster.  More important will be the long-term impact the situation could have on recruiting.  Law came to Illinois as a highly regarded assistant at one of the nation’s top programs, but she is as yet unproven as a head coach. She engineered Illinois’s first 20-win season since 1999-2000 in her first season as head coach, but fell to 10-21 with a young squad last season and has yet to earn an NCAA post-season tournament bid.

As with her mentor, Hall-of-Famer C. Vivian Stringer, Law has a reputation for toughness. Three-hour long team practices start at 6:30 in the morning on weekdays throughout the fall and winter terms, and Law is a stern taskmaster. She tends to be a “my way or the highway” type of person and this does not necessarily play well with today’s teenagers. She will be asked about Destiny Williams in numerous living rooms over the next few years. She will have to come up with an explanation that satisfies potential recruits and she may well have to soften her approach to her players.  Neither will be easy. 

Originally published Tue, November 24, 2009

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
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11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
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19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.