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Ask beat writer Jeff Huth about the Illini trip to Michigan State.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini women's basketball. We'll get started in a few minutes. The Illini (8-10, 1-4 Big Ten) play at Michigan State (12-6, 4-1) tonight, when they'll try to snap out of a skid that has seen them lose five of their last six games.
-- Jeff Huth
Is it still ok to ask Volleyball questions here? If so:
1. What does Coach Hambly have to do to help elevate the team's play still further. I think he did a superb job last year getting the Illini to fight and play with more intensity. But the move from Sweet 16 to Final 4 is a *big* step. How will we take it? Will he try to introduce a more complex set of offensive plays? How will he help the team improve its hitting percentage?
2. I was amazed at your report that Palmer is coming in as a walk-on. She sounds like a super player. How do scholarships work in Volleyball at our level? Does every NCAA Div I team have the same number? Do players often not get a full four years?
3. Will you get to have an in-depth interview with Coach Hambly sometime during the Spring?
Absolutely it's OK to ask about volleyball.
1.) One thing to keep in mind in looking forward to next season is that virtually every player returns. The one loss certainly is a big one. Statistically, Jennifer Beltran was the best libero in program history and would rank, at least in my book, as one of the top two overall along with Ashley Edinger. Two players with different strengths, but each great players in that role.
I would agree with your statement about reaching the Final Four, but I'd put getting to the Elite Eight as a huge step as well. The caliber of women's collegiate volleyball currently being played has never been higher or more competitive. Once you get to the Sweet 16, it really becomes a battle royal. How a team is positioned in the bracket also is a big factor in moving that deep into the tournament. I think back to the regional last year that included three of the top 10 seeds: No. 2 Penn State, No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Minnesota. Brutal! Had Stanford or Minnesota been positioned in a regional other than the one that included eventual champion Penn State, either might have been good enough to reach the Final Four.
I think Hambly has faith in his basic coaching concepts, so I don't see any major offensive changes. What you would expect is that players who were first-time starters last season -- setter Alexis Viliunas, outside hitter Morganne Criswell, middle blocker Maddie Mayers, defensive specialist Danielle Davis -- will benefit from that experience and take a leap in 2014.
2.) In NCAA Division I volleyball, there is an limit of 12 scholarships. This is a "head count" sport, meaning that scholarships cannot be divided up, as they are in some sports. Thus, in any given season, only as many as 12 volleyball players can be on scholarship. Scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, although typically most recruits are promised four years. However, coaches and players also can reach agreements before the student-athlete enters the program about how many years the player will be on scholarship and for which specific years. This is more common with the ball-control players -- the defensive specialists -- and there are current examples of this arrangement on the Illini roster, such as DSes Julia Conard and Brandi Donnelly.
3. Like your idea. Will keep it in mind and pitch it to my sports editor.
One bright spot this year is the play of Jacqui Grant. Project her development over the next year or two. With her agility and shooting range, do you see her playing in the frontcourt at the 4 alongside next year's high-rated post player Chatrice White?
Freshman Grant definitely has been a bright spot. Her offensive range has been a revelation, and she's been one of the more consistent scorers for Illinois.
She does give up height, weight and strength in some defensive matchups so her future, as you suggest, likely is at the 4. If White is as good as she is projected, the 6-foot-3 center from Shelby, Neb., could be ready -- as Grant was -- to step right into the starting lineup as a freshman.
In the Big Ten especially, I don't think you can get away with 6-foot or shorter 4s, but that's the roster hand Illinois has been dealt the last couple of seasons .
I'm sure the Illini staff also is hopeful that current 6-2 freshman Sarah Livingston can make progress and be more of a contributor next season. Illinois needs an upgrade in quality and depth at the post and power forward spots or it's going to continue to struggle on the boards and with interior defense against the better teams on its schedule.
Re: volleyball, I know you haven't seen Palmer play yet, but do you have thoughts about whether she's more likely to play setter or libero (since coach says she'll compete at both positions)? The need seems greater at libero. Also, is a 6-2 system a good possibility?
I don't think anyone, including Kevin Hambly, can answer that question until Palmer begins to train with the Illini this winter. Certainly, her arrival gives Illinois more options.
My take is that Palmer provides competition for incumbent setter Alexis Viliunas, and that can only help the team. It will push Viliunas, and Palmer surely will be hungry to return to the starter role she had as a true freshman in 2012 at Arizona State.
Libero will be a big hole to fill with the loss of senior Jennifer Beltran. If Palmer is the best available player for that spot, she'll play there if she hasn't won the setter's job or Hambly hasn't changed to a 6-2 attack.
From his track record at Illinois, Hambly seems to prefer a one-setter offense, but perhaps he's yet to have two setters of a caliber where it make sense. Perhaps Palmer's arrival changes that. It certainly will be something worth monitoring by the time preseason practice starts in August.
Since we've run out of questions, we'll end the chat now. Appreciate your interest, try to stay warm, and we'll talk to you next week.