Illinois opens its Big Ten season on Friday against Minnesota. To get you in the mood, beat writer JEFF HUTH will take your volleyball questions during his 11 a.m. chat.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini volleyball. We'll get started in about 10 minutes. No. 20 Illinois opens its Big Ten schedule tonight against No. 12 Minnesota at Huff Hall in a match that will be shown live on the Big Ten Network (7 p.m.).
The usual Friday-Saturday schedule gets a tweak this week, with the Illini playing host to Wisconsin at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Illinois finished a challenging preconference schedule with a 6-4 record. The Illini went 2-3 against Top 25 opponents and also faced (and lost to) a Dayton team that is No. 22 in this week's poll.
-- Jeff Huth
Did Illinois win any other games in Texas other than against the Longhorns. I didn't see any news on here about the rest of their tournament.
The Illini went 3-0 to win the Texas Invitational title, also defeating Central Florida in three sets and Cincinnati in a four-set match. That was Illinois' second victory this season against Cincinnati, and both were very challenging matches for the Illini. I'm really puzzled by the Bearcats' record of 2-10. It certainly doesn't reflect how good of a team UC is. And it's a team that certainly doesn't lack for veteran talent. One factor might be the coaching transition the Bearcats are going through; those are not always smooth, either for the players or for the new staff.
Hey Jeff - - It was great to see the Illini go 3-0 last weekend. Given all the top 10 teams that have lost to top 25 tems over the past 3 weeks, and weekly shuffling of rankings, do you see this as a year where there are no clear favorites to dominate the NCAA? Can't wait to fire up the Big 10 race - - What do you see as the story lines to watch there?? Thanks - it's always fun to get your take on things.
At this point, I'd say the top tier is pretty deep, so I'd agree there are no clearcut favorites.
On Wednesday, No. 2 Southern California made a strong statement by knocking off No. 1 and defending champion UCLA in four sets. That match was held on the Trojans' court and improved their record to 13-0.
If USC can have a similar result tonight against No. 8 Oregon in a matchup of unbeatens -- the Ducks are 10-0 -- the Trojans and their fans could make a strong case for their team being the best in the land currently.
With conference races in their beginning stages, there's a whole lot of volleyball yet to be played, so stay tuned. The unknown is what makes athletics so much fun.
Can you tell us about the roles of the assistant coaches for this team? Dan Conners came in with mostly a defensive focus. What is his current focus? Has Jen's role changed since he arrived? What are the main contributions of Laura and Michelle? Thanks.
With Dan Conners' relatively late arrival as the successor to David Kniffin -- his hiring was announced on July 30 -- Kevin Hambly said Conners would be going through an adjustment period, getting acquainted with the players and staff and learning how Hambly wants the program to operate.
Hambly said that in any hiring, it would be important that a new assistant agreed with and fit into the "culture" that the head coach has created. It's a three-pronged approached that addresses a player's personal developmen and academic progress as well as volleyball.
To start with, Hambly said he wanted Conners to concentrate on the volleyball side of things, so he would not be immediately involved in recruiting. Hambly and recruiting coordinator Jen Flynn Oldenburg would continue to handle that phase while Conners eventually got up to speed on recruiting. My recollection from when I talked to Hambly about Conners is that, among his duties, he would be responsible for scouting reports
Conners does have an impressive background in defense. As a new assistant to Nebraska head coach John Cook last season, he served as defensive coordinator. In 2011, the Cornhuskers led the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage.
With the emphasis Hambly places on defense, surely his thumbprint is heavily on that aspect of the Illini program.
Oldenburg is in her ninth season on the UI staff, a tenure that dates back to the Don Hardin coaching era. She is the ultimate multi-tasker, with duties in recruiting, on-court training., summer camps, and as a liaison to the DIA compliance and facilities departments. With her background as the starting setter for the U.S. National Team that won a silver medal at the 2002 World Championships, I have to believe her expertise if valuable to Illini setters, too.
With regard to volunteer assistant Laura DeBruler and student assistant Michelle Bartsch, they assist in pretty much an area that Hambly requires of them. In DeBruler's case, I know she was heavily involved during the offseason with a statistical analysis of the UI team that Hambly has said is proving valuable. She's also involved in the video breakdown
Is 14 Liz McMahon trying to find her groove? I thought her blocking is great, but is she not getting very many sets for her, or what?
Liz McMahon definitely is in a groove when it comes to blocking. In the five-set win against then-No. 6 Texas last Friday, she racked up 11 blocks, a big reason Illinois outblocked a team that entered No. 1 in the nation in that category.
McMahon ended up 21 blocks in three matches at the Texas Invitational, and she has a key role as the Illini's right-side hitter. In that position, McMahon is blocking against an opponent's outside hitters, who typically get the most swings in a match. On the Illinis two starting middle blockers have more total blocks than McMahon currently.
McMahon is still striving to become more consistent with her own swing so far this season. Against Texas, she had as many hitting errors as kills. Cutting those errors will be vital if she is to become the force she's capable of being. She currently has 43 hitting errors, second-highest on the team behind outside hitter Jocelynn Birks's 51. Keep in mind, however, that Birks has taken 201 more swings.
One year after hitting .268 as a freshman, McMahon currently is hitting .192. To be fair, Illini passing has been a work in progress, and that impacts the potential success of the attacker. Still, McMahon is capable of much better in this area.
Is 13, Ali Stark, an animated, spirited player on court? She sounds like she might be. Of course, Grametracker shows none of that.
Yes, there certainly are limiations on what GameTracker can convey.
Since the Illini have played on two home matches so far, I'll defer on your question until seeing more of Stark.
Even in those two matches, her court time was limited. While recovering from an ankle sprain, Stark was used as a defensive specialist only.
Last weekend, the redshirt freshman returned to outside hitter duties and was in the starting lineup, appearing in every set the Illini played at Texas. Her all-around skills, particularly passing, elevated her ahead of sophomore outside hitter Morganne Criswell last weekend.
I will say that a player's outward demeanor doesn't always reflect how competitive -- spirited, if you will -- they really are. Some players might appear to be more reserved and serious on the court, but are every bit as competitive as the fist-pumping, jubilantly-jumping athlete after a big point.
Looks like we've run out of questions so we'll wrap up this chat. Thanks for your interest and talk to you next Friday.