CHAMPAIGN — When Kevin Hambly says preseason rankings "don't mean very much," the Illinois volleyball coach might want to point to his 2011 team as Exhibit A.
Ranked eighth in the American Volleyball Coaches Association's preseason poll, those Illini went on to finish one victory short of an NCAA title.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Hambly's reaction was much the same Monday when he learned that his Illini will enter the 2012 season at No. 7 in the coaches' poll.
"You know me; I don't put a lot of stock in the rankings," said Hambly, one of the AVCA's voters this season. "I just care about how we finish at the end of the year.
"Actually, I'm more worried about what our RPI will be."
Hambly will need to wait a while to learn where the Illini stack up in the computer-generated Rating Percentage Index, which needs a decent sample size of matches. But his point is well-taken. A year ago, Illinois entered the NCAA tournament ranked seventh but was No. 1 in the RPI — the latter no small reason the Illini received the No. 3 national seed.
As it turned out, the computer came a whole lot closer to predicting where national runner-up Illinois would finish in the tournament than the voters.
This marks the fourth straight year that the Illini earned a Top 10 preseason ranking. One season after going 30-5 with a program-best finish in the NCAA tournament, Illinois must replace two All-America outside hitters but returns all other starters.
UCLA, the team that ended the Illini's bid for their first national title last December, was the overwhelming choice for No. 1 in the preseason poll. The defending champion Bruins received 54 of 60 first-place votes. Texas, which was No. 1 on one ballot, was a distant second — 144 points behind UCLA.
Two Big Ten teams were ranked above fellow conference member Illinois — No. 3 Penn State and No. 4 Nebraska.
In all, seven of the Big Ten's 12 volleyball-playing schools made the Top 25 cut, while one other league member received votes on at least two ballots.
When Illinois opens its season Aug. 24 at the Dayton Flyer Classic, it will be wading into a schedule heavy on ranked opponents. The Illini are slated to play a total of 15 matches against nine foes in the preseason Top 25. In addition, Illinois has six matches against teams that received votes on at least two ballots.
While acknowledging that the Illini's preseason ranking "shows respect" for his program, Hambly repeated that it's unwise to put too much emphasis on the poll, particularly before even one ball has been served.
"I think the (preseason) ranking has a lot to do with last year," he said.
The 2012 version might be Exhibit A for that view, too. All 25 teams ranked in the final 2011 poll appear in the Top 25 that was announced on Monday.
Alumni format changed. The Illini's annual Alumni Event on Saturday will be an intrasquad match instead of a varsity vs. alumni contest, Hambly said.
With a large number of former Illini players currently involved in coaching their own teams — and others unable to play due to injury — the alumni lacked enough players to field a team, according to the UI coach. Instead, the varsity will play a best-of-five match at 7 p.m. at Huff Hall.
Three-time Illini All-American Michelle Bartsch, a first-year student assistant on Hambly's staff, will participate.
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