Beat writer JEFF HUTH's preview of this weekend's Texas Invitational in Austin:
Central Florida (3-6) vs. Cincinnati (1-8), 2:30 p.m.
No. 23 Illinois (3-4) vs. No. 6 Texas (6-2), 6 p.m.
No. 23 Illinois vs. Central Florida, 9 a.m.
No. 6 Texas vs. Cincinnati, 11:30 a.m.
No. 6 Texas vs. Central Florida, 4 p.m.
No. 23 Illinois vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m.
Setting the scene
The Illini conclude the preconference portion of their schedule this weekend with their third trip to Austin since 2010. Two years ago, a 24-9 Illinois team also played in the Texas Invitational and then returned to the Longhorns' court for an NCAA regional semifinal match. In the regular season meeting, No. 5 Illinois swept No. 2 Texas to end the Longhorns' 26-match home winning streak. It also was Texas' first 3-0 home loss since 2003. In the high-stakes postseason rematch, however, the Longhorns prevailed in five sets. The all-time series is tied 6-6, with Illinois winning two of the last three. ... The Illini attack faces a formidable challenge against a Texas team that leads the nation in blocks per set (3.42). It's the fourth-highest average in school history. The school record is 3.66 by the 1995 Longhorns. ... A year after finishing second in the NCAA tournament, the Illini have yet to nudge above .500. The Illini have twice reached .500 — at 2-2 and 3-3. All four of Illinois' losses were against teams ranked in the current Top 25. ... Illini coach Kevin Hambly expects redshirt freshman Ali Stark to be able to play at outside hitter this weekend for the first time since she suffered an ankle sprain in the season opener Aug. 24 at Dayton. After missing two matches, the Mount Vernon, Iowa, native has played in the last four strictly as a defensive specialist, replacing outside hitter Morganne Criswell in the back row. Hambly said Wednesday that Stark was "about 80 percent" recovered from the injury and able to do the jumping required of an outside hitter. Stark is regarded by Hambly as one of the Illini's best ball-control players. Despite missing two matches, she ranks third on the team in total digs (34) as well as digs per set (1.70). ... Illinois never has faced Central Florida, but the Illini's final opponent this weekend definitely is familiar. This will be the second meeting of the season between the UI and Cincinnati, which have squared off at least once every year since 2008. Illinois defeated the host Bearcats in four sets Sept. 7 in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. Saturday will mark the teams' seventh meeting in five years, with the Illini holding a 5-1 edge in that span.
The scoop on Texas
Coach: Jerritt Elliott (12th year, 272-77)
Players to watch: Fr. S/OH Nicole Dalton; So. OH Haley Eckerman; Jr. OH Bailey Webster
About the Longhorns: Texas handed Minnesota its first loss of the season last Friday to halt a two-match home losing streak. Texas had not lost back-to-back matches on its home court since 2003. ... Eckerman is a special talent, earning National Freshman of the Year and second-team All-America honors in 2011. No surprise, the 2011 Big 12 Player of the Year was picked the 2012 Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. ... The Longhorns run a two-setter attack with Dalton and junior Hannah Allison. The versatile Dalton — Prepvolleyball.com's No. 6 player in its Class of 2012 Senior Aces — leads Texas in assists, ranks second in digs and blocks, and stands fifth in kills. ... Another freshman, middle blocker Molly McCage, was ranked No. 1 in Prepvolleyball.com's 2012 Senior Aces. McCage is seeing more court time lately, and in the win against Minnesota, she contributed five kills in 12 swings and five block assists. ... Texas is the only team in the nation to advance to the regional finals in each of the last six NCAA tournaments.
The scoop on Central Florida
Coach: Todd Dagenais (fifth year, 66-68)
Players to watch: Jr. OH Angelica Crump; So. MB DeLaina Sarden; Sr. RS Evija Vilde
About the Knights: Central Florida's record easily could be reversed. Half of the six losses have been in five sets. ... Last season, the Knights posted their best record (20-11) since 2003 and earned their most league wins (12) since becoming a Conference USA member in 2005. ... Illinois is the second Big Ten opponent on Central Florida's schedule. The Knights lost in three sets to Wisconsin on Aug. 25. ... Crump, a 2011 honorable-mention All-American, ranked 22nd in the nation in kills per set (4.34) last season. ... Sarden was the 2011 C-USA Freshman of the Year. She's hitting .375 in 152 swings this season. ... Dagenais was the associate head coach at Michigan State from 1998 to 2003 under Chuck Erbe. In that span, the Spartans reached the NCAA tournament every year.
The scoop on Cincinnati
Coach: Molly Alvey (first year, 1-8)
Players to watch: Sr. MB Becca Refenes; Sr. MB/RS Jordanne Scott; Sr. OH Megan Turner
About the Bearcats: Considering the proven core of experienced seniors on the roster, Cincinnati has gotten off to a surprisingly rocky start. In a preseason poll of Big East coaches, the Bearcats were picked to finish fourth. Cincinnati's lone victory was against Drake, which entered this week 0-9. It should be pointed out, however, that five of the Bearcats' defeats were to nationally ranked opponents. ... Cincinnati is 0-3 against the Big Ten, with losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois. ... Despite going 0-2 in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge last weekend, the Bearcats placed two players on the all-tournament team: Scott and junior libero Emily MacIntyre. In the loss to Illinois, Scott had 18 kills and hit .350, while MacIntyre totaled 20 digs and committed one error in 42 service receptions.