CHAMPAIGN — Kevin Hambly didn't set out to turn the next State Farm Illini Classic into a two-team argument.
It just happened that way.
For the first time in its history, the 29th annual volleyball tournament will be composed of a field half its typical size.
The complete schedule reads: Illinois vs. Iowa State on Aug. 31 and Illinois vs. Iowa State on Sept. 1.
"Very different," said the Illini's fourth-year head coach, a staff member since 2004.
What happened? Hambly had difficulty lining up opponents that could be expected to put up a worthy fight against teams that were seeded No. 3 (Illinois) and No. 4 (Iowa State) in last year's NCAA tournament. The Illini went on to finish second, while the Cyclones reached the Elite Eight.
"We had trouble scheduling teams that both teams wanted to play and would help us," Hambly said. "The more we talked about it, (we said) 'Hey, let's just play twice.'
"Sometimes, subtracting teams, it's better. Making sure you play in good matches, it's better for your RPI and it's better for competition."
This might be new territory for the Illini Classic, but it's not unprecedented. A year ago, Minnesota's Diet Coke Classic consisted only of two matches between the host Gophers and Texas.
Now the Illini and Cyclones are following suit. Hambly likes the idea of squaring off against a high-caliber opponent twice in two days,
"You'll learn some things about yourself on the first night; then they'll make adjustments and you'll learn more on the second night," the Illini coach said. "It's like the second half of the Big Ten (schedule). We learn a lot more about ourselves when we play really good opponents the second time around."
For Hambly's program, the new-look Illini Classic fits the overall profile of a demanding 2012 schedule, which the school announced today.
Of the Illini's 30 regular season matches, 21 will be against teams that competed in the 2011 NCAA tournament. Fourteen matches will be against Sweet 16 teams. Illinois also will play three opponents who reached the Elite Eight — Texas, Iowa State and Pepperdine — a total of four times.
"We're playing a schedule that sets it up for a good RPI, (against) teams that are used to winning and will be able to test us," Hambly said. "I think it's one of the tougher schedules that's got to be out there."
An Illini team that finished 32-5 last season and reached the NCAA title match for the first time in program history will wade into this schedule without its top two scorers from 2011: senior outside hitters Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward.
Despite those sizeable shoes to fill, Hambly decided not to ratchet down the difficulty of the 2012 schedule.
"Our expectations don't change very much even though we bring in all these young players," he said. "We talked about that in the spring with the girls — we're not going to use youth as an excuse.
"The truth is that they need to mature. But we still can find ways to win and figure things out, and we need to do that. That's a skill we need to develop with these young kids. And so ... we're going to play what we feel like is one of the top schedules you can put together in this region to prepare us to try to make a run in the NCAA."
For Illinois, the road to what would be a fifth consecutive postseason appearance begins Aug. 24, when it faces host Dayton in the Flyer Classic.
Other noteworthy items on the Illini schedule:
— The last Big Ten/Big East Challenge will be held Sept. 7-8 at Cincinnati. The event began in 2009, matching two schools from each conference in a total of four crossover matches. Illinois has been a fixture in the Challenge.
Taking its place on future UI schedules will be some form of a Big Ten-Pac 12 Challenge — an outgrowth of an extended partnership between the two leagues that was announced last December.
"It could happen as early as 2013," Hambly said.
— The Illini can expect to see a familiar face at the Flyer Classic. Outside hitter Jazmine Orozco, who requested and was granted a scholarship release from the UI following the 2011 season, transferred to Pepperdine. Illinois will face the Waves on Aug. 25. Orozco was one of the Illini's top reserves last season but did not play after suffering a concussion on Nov. 2. The junior-to-be is eligible to play this season.
— Illinois will face Texas in the opening round of the Texas Tournament on Sept. 14. The Longhorns were the No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament, losing to eventual champion UCLA in the Elite Eight. Texas will return the trip with a future match against the Illini at Huff Hall. "Probably not till 2014," Hambly said.
— Nebraska will make its first visit to Huff Hall as a Big Ten member on Oct. 20. As was the case a year ago, this will be the teams' only meeting of the conference race. In 2011, the host Cornhuskers ended then-No. 1 Illinois' season-opening winning streak at 20.
— For the second year in a row, Illinois' Big Ten schedule will alternate weekly between home and road matches. At no time will the Illini play more than two consecutive league matches at Huff Hall or away from their home court. Hambly's a big fan of that type of breakdown in his team's conference schedule since it avoids lengthy stretches on the road.
"I think we're fortunate to have it at this time," he said. "It won't be this way all the time. ... I'll take it for this year knowing that in the future it's going to be a lot different."
News-Gazette college volleyball beat writer Jeff Huth picks three must-see matches on the 2012 Illini home schedule:
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 1 Iowa State 4:30 p.m.
Comment: Second half of a football-volleyball doubleheader on UI campus.
Oct. 6 Penn State 7 p.m.
Comment: In 2011, Illini swept a season series vs. Nittany Lions for first time.
Oct. 20 Nebraska 7 p.m.
Comment: Cornhuskers making first visit to UI campus as a Big Ten member
18 — Alumni Exhibition Match, 7 p.m.
24 — at Dayton, 6 p.m.
25 — Pepperdine at Dayton, 9 a.m.
25 — Ohio at Dayton, 4 p.m.
31 — Iowa State, 7 p.m.
1 — Iowa State, 4:30 p.m.
7 — at Cincinnati, 6 p.m.
8 — Louisville at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m.
14 — at Texas, 6 p.m.
15 — Central Florida at Texas, 9 a.m.
15 — Cincinnati at Texas, 4 p.m.
21 — Minnesota, 7 p.m.
23 — Wisconsin, 1 p.m.
28 — at Indiana, 6 p.m.
29 — at Purdue, 6 p.m.
5 — Ohio State, 7 p.m.
6 — Penn State, 7 p.m.
10 — at Michigan, 6 p.m.
13 — at Michigan State, 6 p.m.
17 — Northwestern, 7 p.m.
20 — Nebraska, 7 p.m.
26 — at Wisconsin, 7 p.m.
28 — at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
31 — Purdue, 7 p.m.
3 — Indiana, 7 p.m.
9 — at Penn State, 6 p.m.
10 — at Ohio State, 6 p.m.
16 — Michigan State, 7 p.m.
17 — Michigan, 7 p.m.
21 — at Northwestern, 7 p.m.
24 — at Iowa, 7 p.m.