Vozzelli | WBIT title shows what Illini's ceiling looks like

Apr. 5—CHAMPAIGN — After the confetti flew, the trophy was lifted and the nets were cut down, Illinois women's basketball coach Shauna Green relayed a message she gave to her players before Wednesday night's WBIT championship game tipped off against Villanova.

Win this game, and never intend to come back to this tournament.

With all deference to the Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament — Green made clear afterward her players enjoyed the experience and commended the NCAA for a well-run tournament in its first year of existence — the Illini have bigger goals in mind.

Like consistently playing in the NCAA tournament. And the WBIT is at best a second-tier postseason tournament.

Still, Illinois got what it needed out of five WBIT games. Five straight wins led to a historic moment for the program with a 71-57 win in the title game against the Wildcats in front of a partisan Illini crowd at Hinkle Fieldhouse sealing Illinois' first postseason tournament championship.

"I don't mean any offense to (the WBIT), but I want this to propel us into making NCAA tournaments, which is what I think this tournament really should be for," Green said. "Hopefully, I want to cut down nets at some point for a Big Ten championship. You can call me crazy and that's OK, eventually, for a national championship. That's our goals. That's our vision."

Those are lofty aspirations for a program without much sustained success. Starting with the 2000-01 season, Illinois has only two NCAA tournament appearances in the last 25 years, with the 2002-03 team and Green's first team last season going to the Big Dance. The Illini's best three Big Ten finishes during that span: fourth in 2006-07 in Hall of Fame coach Theresa Grentz's final season and tied for fifth in Matt Bollant's first year (2012-13) and again in 2022-23 in Green's inaugural season as Illinois' coach.

That's what Green is up against as the former Dayton coach aims to lead Illinois toward a more prominent place in the Big Ten — and on the national scene.

A banner at Ubben Basketball Complex commemorating the Illini's 2024 WBIT win is a start. And Green also will have the benefit of a roster that looks to have the kind of veteran players who could help turn the tide.

Makira Cook announced she was returning for a fifth college season — and third at Illinois — before the WBIT started last month, with the senior point guard taking advantage of her bonus COVID year. Fewer than 24 hours after the Illini's WBIT title, the same news arrived on Thursday that senior forward Kendall Bostic would also make use of her COVID season to play another year at Illinois.

Cook had a tournament to remember in the WBIT, with the 5-foot-6 Cincinnati native averaging 21.0 points and shooting 52.9 percent from the field in the five wins. Her 27-point performance on Wednesday night to help the Illini put a second-half beatdown on Villanova was the best one of the bunch. Bostic, meanwhile, was arguably Illinois' most consistent player throughout the season with a career-high 12.1 points per game to go with averaging 10.9 rebounds.

What it means is if guard Genesis Bryant also runs it back with Illinois — she, too, has an extra COVID season — the Illini will return its top-four scorers next season. Adalia McKenzie — who will be a senior next season — Bostic, Bryant and Cook accounted for 72.1 percent of Illinois' offense as the Illini finished with a 19-15 record.

Illinois could find itself mining the transfer portal for a second straight season with starting center Camille Hobby exhausting her eligibility and sixth player Jada Peebles doing the same. The Illini made it work with Hobby and Bostic in the starting five, although there were some growing pains early with Hobby adjusting to a new team. Still, Illinois finished the season with 11 wins in its final 16 games.

The pieces are in place for the Illini to take the leap many expected the program would make in Green's second year.

Gretchen Dolan feels like a player whose stock is rising after the Buffalo, N.Y., native was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. The 5-foot-11 guard tallied 4.8 points per game in 17.5 minutes while shooting 39.9 percent off the bench. Berry Wallace, a top-25, five-star recruit, is coming aboard for Illinois after the 6-1 wing played in Tuesday night's McDonald's All-American Game in Houston.

The Big Ten will look a lot different next season with Iowa star guard Caitlin Clark and Indiana standout forward Mackenzie Holmes no longer around. But JuJu Watkins and Southern California, fresh off an Elite Eight loss to Connecticut, are making the move to the Big Ten. The Trojans will be serious Big Ten title contenders in their first year alongside Ohio State, this past season's regular-season champions.

Closer to home, the Illini should be a borderline Associated Press Top 25 team heading into the preseason after Green and Co. started the 2023-24 season in that position. Getting back to the NCAA tournament — and winning a game or two — should be a clear goal. As should be joining the upper third of the Big Ten.

Illinois showed what its ceiling looks like in the WBIT with consistently strong guard play, a potential lockdown defender in McKenzie (her work on Villanova leading scorer Lucy Olsen was key on Wednesday night, with Olsen taking 25 shot attempts to reach 22 points) and a skilled big in Bostic.

That gives the Illini hope, and more importantly momentum and confidence, going into an important offseason for the program.