Illini volleyball preview
Michigan State (21-7, 9-7 Big Ten) at Illinois (11-15, 5-11 Big Ten), 7 p.m. today
Michigan (21-9, 9-7 Big Ten) at Illinois, 7 p.m. Saturday
Setting the scene: The Illini’s tenuous postseason hopes are officially out of wiggle room. Illinois must win its last four regular-season matches to finish with a .500 record, which is the minimum requirement to be eligible for an NCAA tournament at-large bid. Considering that the Illini have lost six of their last seven matches, it will take an abrupt turn-around to get this accomplished. Even then, it seems counter-intuitive that the NCAA selection committee would reward a team that has lost as many matches as it has won. Still, every time Kevin Hambly checks his team’s ranking in the NCAA Rating Percentage Index, it gives the coach hope that his Illini remain in the running for the 64-team NCAA field. Illinois currently is 40th in the RPI. “And the top 44 (teams in the) RPI get in almost every single year,” Hambly said. “If we end up .500, we’ll end up somewhere in the 35 (RPI) range. It would be almost unprecedented that a team at that RPI (level) didn’t get in it.” Several weeks ago, Hambly said he thought his team needed at least 17 wins to get into the tournament, but with the emphasis the selection committee places on the RPI, Hambly has re-evaluated his team’s postseason prospects. “I’m surprised by where our RPI still is,” he said. “I thought our RPI, if we were where we are (now record-wise), would not be still in the top 40. if we can be eligible, I think we have a better shot (at making the field) than I would have thought at 15-15. All we can do is go for it and then wait until the committee (decides).” ... Five Illini players will be honored Saturday night in the annual Senior Night ceremony: Jessica Jendryk, Erin Johnson, Annie Luhrsen, Tayler Onion and Jackie Wolfe, The group represents former Illini assistant Hambly’s first recruiting class as Illinois’ head coach. During their careers, Illinois advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2009 and 2010 before finishing second in the NCAA tournament last year. “I think people will look at that as a big deal, how many matches they’ve won and what they’ve accomplished that way,” Hambly said. “The impact they had is very similar to the ‘07 class as far as the culture (of the program). The ‘O7 class took the culture to a certain place, and theses guys came in and helped evolve it to something else. We’re struggling right now, but the team is staying together and it’s because of the culture (the seniors) helped create.” ... Jendryk, who received a medical redshirt as a freshman, will continue her career at Saint Louis University next season as a fifth-year senior while enrolled in graduate school there. Her future coach, former Illini assistant Kent Miller, will be at Huff Hall this weekend, according to Hambly. ... Illinois enters its final two home matches with an average attendance of 2,878. That ranks second in program history to the average of 3,098 in 1992.
The scoop on Michigan State
Coach: Cathy George (eighth year, 142-111)
Players to watch: Jr. OH Lauren Wicinski, Jr. MB Alexis Mathews, So. L Kori Moster
About the Spartans: Michigan State has won its last four matches, which ties for the second-longest current winning streak in the Big Ten. A couple victories in this stretch were real eye-openers. The Spartans upset then-No. 4 Nebraska in five sets, then knocked off then-No. 10 Minnesota in four. ... In their first meeting of the season on Oct. 13, Illinois rallied from a 2-0 deficit against then-No. 25 Michigan to pull out a five-set win on the road. That match marked the collegiate debut of Illini freshman setter Alexis Viliunas. She started the next three matches as well before Hambly returned Luhrsen to her starting role. ... The Spartans lead the Big Ten in service aces per set and rank among the top four teams in five of the seven primary statistical categories. ... Wicinski is No. 1 in the conference in kills, points and aces per set.
The scoop on Michigan
Coach: Mark Rosen (14th year, 282-173)
Players to watch: Jr. MB Jennifer Cross, So. S Lexi Dannemiller, Jr. OH Lexi Erwin
About the Wolverines: No Big Ten is on a bigger roll right now than Michigan. The Wolverines have won their last five matches and, like Michigan State, knocked off Nebraska and Minnesota in the process. Michigan will try to extend its streak tonight at Northwestern, a team the Wolverines swept earlier this season. ... Michigan swept Illinois in the teams’ first meeting on Oct. 10. Claire McElheny, one in a series of right-side hitters who have given Illinois major problems this season, had 11 kills in 19 swings and hit .474 in that match. ... Dannemiller, a former high school teammate of Illini outside hitter Liz McMahon, earned her second straight Big Ten Setter of the Week honor on Monday. In conference-only matches, Dannemiller ranks third in assists per set (10.88). ... This marks the seventh straight season in which Michigan has won at least 20 matches.