Jeff Huth, who covers the Illini in volleyball and women's basketball, chats at 11 a.m. Thursdays. Submit questions of any kind at any time.
Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini volleyball. We'll also take your questions on UI women's basketball (I see we have at least one today). We'll get started in a few minutes.
-- Jeff Huth
1. What will it take for this volleyball team to pull itself up?
2. At ths stage what is the weak point? Lack of experience of setter?
3. Recent lineup switching around, what does it mean in terms of lineup changes?
1.) Kevin Hambly has said that Illinois' defense needs to get better, and that's going to be especially important as the team enters the start of its Big Ten schedule this weekend. This is a grind-it-out conference in which defense is emphasized and hitting percentages take a hit. After what happened last weekend, the confidence of this Illini team can't be high. One way to bolster that is pretty simple: win Friday night against Iowa in convincing fashion. Then carry that good vibe into Saturday's highly challenging match against No. 12 Nebraska. Win that one, and this team clearly would be back on track.
2. We've already referred to the defense, but I would add lack of consistency in all phases of the game. The offense was at its poorest last Friday in the 3-0 loss at North Carolina. It improved somewhat in the defeat at Duke, but obviously wasn't good enough. Not to put this all on Jocelynn Birks, but the Illini need their most prolific attacker to perform up to her capabilities, and she was well below that last weekend. The UI attack isn't so potent that it can make up for an off-night from Birks. She's a terrific talent and just like any top-tier player on any team, that team typically suffers when its best attacker is struggling. I don't think inexperience at setter is the problem. When the passing is on point, I see Viliunas spreading the ball around. I think she's doing at least OK.
3. With Illinois struggling to score points last weekend, Hambly went to outside hitter Morganne Criswell, and the junior provided a lift, particulary against Duke. That move puts Liz McMahon back on the right side, and that can be a significant thing for the UI defense. You have a 6-foot-6 player blocking against the opponent's left side, where most of the attacks come from. If Criswell holds up and remains in the lineup, that puts right-side hitter Ali Stark more of the role of defensive specialist. And Hambly has said since Stark arrived at the UI that's she's one of the team's best ball-control players.
Humor me...if our offense continues to sputter and/or be ineffective, is the any chance the following happens:
The illini utilize a 6-2 offense with Viliunas and Kelsay which would allow for three hitters to be in the front row at all times. Birks opposite Criswell on the outside, Mayers and Stadick in the middle and McMahon and Dorn on the right?!? Lefthanded Ali Stark would also be a good option on the right...but I like the idea of Dorn there.
This would allow Dorn to be on the floor and take some pressure off her knee as she would only have to transition to the ten foot line and would be responsible for the right side hitter and a middle on a slide...this would greatly improve, at least theoretically, our block...with 6'6", 6'4", 6'3", 6'3", 6'2" and 6'1" on the front row at all time...not to mention a brick wall opposite the opposing outsides.
I am not sure how sub numbers would work but numbers willing, Stark and Conard could still play three rotations in the back. I know there are major advantages in continuity and consistency with one setter, but we have too much talent to be struggling offensively like we are...your thoughts?
And my other question is this...is there any chance Ali Stark is our starting libero next season? From everything I have read, her ball control and serve receiving abilities are an asset.
If McKenna Kelsay were a veteran and had been training with the Illini for several years and had proven herself in some matches, this might be an option. But you're talking about a true freshman who is new to this level of volleyball. You would also be making a complete change to your attack during the season without any advance preparation. Under the right circumstances, maybe this would be an effective move. But not now and not with the available personnel at setter.
I do think Stark is very much an option at libero. The one gap in her game has been scoring. She's been given opportunities as an outside hitter and right-side hitter, but hasn't been an effective attacker on a consistent enough basis. Maybe that will come at some point, but it's yet to surface. If Criswell seizes her current opportunity in the starting rotation, the need for Stark at one of the pin positions lessens. Also, highly regarded freshman outside hitter Michelle Strizak will have a year of college training under her belt by next season. Hambly has said Strizak has been impressive as a hitter but needs work on other aspects of her game. That's why, at this point, she's on track to be redshirted this season.
Getting back to next season's candidates for libero, Julia Conard certainly would have to be considered, too. She came on strong at the end of 2012 as a true freshman and I think has carried that over into this season. I've long thought she's been a solid contributor when given an opportunity to get on the court.
Can we expect Criswell to be a consistent presence on the outside?
Only time will tell. That's really the key, isn't it. Being consistent, especially when you're playing one of the most important positions on the court. You're entrusting lots of swings to any player you put at outside hitter.
Hambly has said that one of the things that held the junior back earlier in her college career was ball control and blocking. He said this week that Criswell has made significant strides in both areas this season. Although her 14 kills against Duke certainly caught people's eyes, it shouldn't be overlooked that the Decatur native also contributed 11 digs.
If Criswell can be an consistently effective player, it would very much strengthen the Illini rotation in multiple ways.
What players are the Illini women's basketball team recruiting from the 2014 class.
The Illini already have two high school seniors in the fold, as well as a college transfer who will be eligible for the 2014-15 season.
Illinois has received oral commitments from 6-3 Chatrice White of Shelby, Neb., and from shooting guard Brooke Kissinger of Minden, Neb. Also, the Illini added guard Kyley Simmons, a guard from Missouri who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
Coach Matt Bollant has one scholarship left in this class and he has offered to Asia Doss, a senior guard at Detroit Country Day School, the same school attended by current Illini senior Amber Moore. I briefly met Doss at an Illini game last season when she made a campus visit. I think Doss has narrowed her choices to Illinois, Ohio State and one other school.
I know there's a football game, but once its 11am kickoff was set, why wouldn't the Saturday volleyball game be played at State Farm Center also?
Before the season began, I asked Kevin Hambly why the Illini were not playing more than one time at State Farm Center. With the UI hosting a 2013 NCAA regional there, he earlier had indicated that the team likely would play "multiple" matches at SFC this season.
Hambly said that changed because Huff Hall is such a home-court advantage for the Illini, and given the difficulty of this season's schedule, he wanted to take advantage of the atmosphere and support at Huff as often as possible. He also said it was important that his seniors experience as much of Huff as possible in their final season.
Both UI athletic director Mike Thomas and Hambly have said that Huff Hall is Illini volleyball's home. No plans to move, although plans are in the works to improve the facility, Thomas says.
If the atmosphere at State Farm Center on Friday night is off the charts, I suspect other fans will be asking the same question you did.
Looks like we're out of questions so we'll wrap this up. As always, we appreciate your interest. Talk to you next week.