Ask beat writer Jeff Huth about Kevin Hambly's contract, Matt Bollant's recruiting and which sport is a better fit for the Assembly Hall. He's chatting at 11 a.m. Friday but submit questions any time.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini volleyball and women's basketball. Still attempting to get up to speed on the latter, which is a new beat for me, but we'll give your questions our best shot and vow to become more knowledgeable as the season progresses.
-- Jeff Huth
Jeff: Enjoy your coverage of the VB, but a BB question.
When the AD hired the three new HC's, I like most fans looked at their resumes, and Coach Bollant's appeared to me as the most outstanding as far as moving up to the BT. I am dumbfounded that Wisconsin passed on him the year before, but Madison being the home of the progressive movement, maybe he didn't have the right plumbing....?
In Women's BB, I have always felt that the HC and coaching was so much more important than over with the men. There are not the number of super stars on the ladies side, and team play, fundamentals, motivation and overall coaching gets the W's. With his recruiting and floor coaching, I see him having the ILLINI competitive this year, in the conference top 5 next year in the NCAA, and then being ranked the years after. Too optimistic? Thanks for your insight.
Love your chat name. Did you make it down to San Antonio for the volleyball Final four last December. My visit to the Alamo was a real treat.
On to your questions/comments: I don't have any special insight into Wisconsin passing over Bollant when it had an opening, but you are definitely not alone in being surprised by that move. It also was puzzling from this perspective: for Badger basketball, there was precedent in hiring a coach from an in-state sister school. Bo Ryan came directly from my alma mater, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That certainly turned out well.
Given Bollant's resume, I think you have reason for optimism. I'm most curious to see how soon his team's have success and make an impact within the Big Ten. For me, that's the first measure of any program -- how they fare in their own conference. Some teams then graduate to raising the bar by becoming NCAA tournament regulars and making a splash in the postseason. It will be interesting to see whether Bollant can accomplish that at Illinois. As I said, his resume strongly suggests he can.
I have one question: what happened this season? With so much talent, why has the team consistently faltered? One answer: they make too many unforced errors, both serving and hitting. But why does this happen? Why hasn't this improved as the season moved forward? Also, they seem prone to the same problems when playing at home. (They don't seem to draw energy from home support.)
It's mystifying. Birks has emerged as a real star, even though she makes mistakes (way too many serving errors). Stark's play has been solid in many areas. This is why I don't think "it's a young team" is the right explanation.
Coach Hambly has often said: they are not playing aggressive enough. Still the question remains: why is this?? Also, they have improved on this (somewhat) without making that much difference to the final result. They don't close sets, and they have a hard time closing matches.
You made some great points earlier this season with the article on five weaknesses they needed to address.
Any insights now on this crucial question: what happened overall? How do they go forward from here? Thanks.
A co-worker recently asked the same question, and I told him I really didn't have an answer. All along, it's been pointed out that losing two All-American outside hitters off last year's team would not be easy to overcome. But I don't think anyone -- certainly Hambly and his players -- expected anywhere near the record they now have. Or expected them to be so up and down in their performances this deep into the season.
I do wonder whether those three consecutive five-set losses in late September and early October really did a number on the players' confidence. Then again, Illinois did win two straight five-setters in mid-October. Like I said, very puzzling. And I don't have any answers.
Given the returning talent, this is a team that should be playing better and should have more wins. Yes, it's a young team. But both middle blockers started for a team that finished one win from a national title. The setter who directed that historic NCAA run was back. The right-side hitter was back. The libero -- someone who already can be regarded as the best libero in program history -- was back.
Where do they go from here? I think the 2013 spring training session will be extremely important. Somehow, Hambly needs to address the problem areas we addressed in that article while trying to restore the players' confidence, which surely has been shaken.
I think you learn the most about a coach when his team is going through tough times and how he (or she) responds going forward. This is that type of moment for Hambly.
So have women volleyballers exhausted their chances to be invited to NCAA tourney yet after last night's still another loss? Has to be close to the the door slamming shut on them. I saw some good signs last night but unfortunately even more bad signs. At times the team looked so helpless and disorganized out there as PSU ran off strings of points. Birks and McMahon both had more errors than kills I believe. Just sad state of the team this year, far cry from last year's.
On the other hand, Bollant's lady hoopers look a far cry from Law's teams and it is very exciting to watch them play. Love how much fight, fire and cohesiveness they are showing. I look for great things from them this year. If not B1G championship contenders yet, they will surprise people and make a good run at it.
In my opinion, to salvage any hope of an NCAA at-large bid, Illinois needed to make a statement on its current trip. With No. 2 Penn State and No. 15 Ohio State, there was an opportunity to put a new spin on its season and catch the eye of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
After Thursday night's performance, I can't believe any member of that committee who happened to watch the match would view Illinois as a tournament team.
Your point about the errors is an important one. Too often, the Illini are shooting themselves in the foot. It's one thing to make the other team beat you, quite another to beat yourself.
Let me take this opportunity to clarify something, since it was questioned by a reader in one of my recent stories posted on IlliniHQ.com: the minimum record needed to be considered for an NCAA at-large bid is .500. I confirmed that a while back with the NCAA office. It's in the manual for NCAA tournament selection.
Regarding women's basketball, I suspect you are among a growing legion who are optimistic about the future -- immediate and long-term -- for the program. I'm not sure how much those two exhibition results proved, since the opponents clearly were so overmatched, but it was apparent this team plays very hard and is aggressive on both halves of the court.
This season is officially a disaster, so why is Luhrsen still starting at setter? Neither Annie nor Alexis is going to turn things around this year, so why not start and play Viliunas pretty much exclusively the rest of the way to give her experience. Her redshirt year is blown, so let her play to develop for next year. Any idea whether Coach H. might have the same idea? I see he put Alexis in at the conclusion of last night's humiliation at Penn State.
When Hambly returned to Luhrsen as the starting setter, I think you saw the competitor in Kevin Hambly. As much as he talks about the process of coaching -- making players better and building a team that can execute at a high level -- and how that's where he derives the most satisfaction from the job, I have to believe all the losing and the poor performances are tearing him up inside.
It will be interesting to see how he handles the decision on setter the rest of the way. It could continue the way it has gone recently, with Hambly looking for the setter doing the best job on that particular night. Or, with so few matches remaining, he could decide -- as you suggest -- to play Viliunas the rest of the way with an eye toward her development for next season.
If I can play armchair coach for a minute, I would do the latter if Illinois loses at Ohio State on Saturday night.
How does Hambly motivate this team? Is all the losses wearing this team down? Are they now preparing for next year since they will not be making the tournament?Erin Johnson played great last night - have to wonder why we haven't seen more of that this year...doesn't seem like they've chosen to set her much. Do the coaches call the sets from the bench, or do they give complete control to the setter?
Kevin Hambly is in a tough spot when it comes to motivation. I suspect he has tried all manner of ways to keep his team thinking positive and playing hard. But when you lose as much as this team has -- particularly come off the best season in program history -- it has to wear on everyone.
Offensively, Erin Johnson was the lone bright spot against Penn State on an otherwise miserable night for the Illini attack. Keep in mind that passing is crucial to utilizing your middle attack. When the passing breaks down -- or an opponent is serving so tough (Penn State's Micha Hancock is the best female server I have ever seen) it keeps an attack out of system -- it can be difficult to impossible to feed the middles for quality attempts.
One of the reasons Viliunas did not remain the starting setter was that she too often didn't look to the middle when making decisions on where to feed the ball. You need to be committed to that to make use of an Erin Johnson.
Coaches can repeatedly urge their setters to spread the ball around, but in the heat of a match, it's not uncommon to see younger, less-experienced setters, to struggle with that.
Looks like we've run out of questions/comments, so we'll wrap this up.
Thanks for your interest, and talk to you next week.