Volleyball beat writer Jeff Huth takes a look at this weekend's Big Ten matches.
Illini volleyball preview
Illinois (6-8, 2-2 Big Ten) at No. 20 Purdue (10-5, 1-3), 6 p.m.
Illinois at Indiana (8-7, 0-4 entering Friday’s match versus Northwestern), 6 p.m.
Setting the scene: The Illini hit the road for the second straight weekend, looking to get back to .500 for the first time since they were 4-4 on Sept. 14. Illinois is coming off a much-needed victory last Saturday at then-No. 14 Michigan. That five-set, come-from-behind win followed a 1-6 tailspin that knocked the Illini out of the national rankings and cast doubts on where their season was headed.
“Before the game we said, ‘We’re sick of losing. We’re sick of it,’ and that’s kind of the attitude we went out with,” junior right-side hitter Liz McMahon said after a practice this week. “And we went out to actually do something about it. And then getting the result we wanted against a really good team, it really helped our confidence.”
This weekend, on the road against two opponents eager to get on track themselves, will be a good test of whether the Illini are back to playing the level of volleyball they displayed to open the season. “I think we’re excited about where it’s going again,” McMahon said, “and we kind of saw (at Michigan) what we started the season with again.”
Illini update: The latest American Volleyball Coaches Association national rankings lend some perspective to Illinois’ record. The Illini are 0-6 against the current Top 12 teams; they’re also 4-0 against the rest of the Top 25. ... Illinois might not be ranked in the national poll, but its a Top 25 team in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index, which is a significant tool of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Boosted by an extremely challenging schedule, the Illini are No. 22 in the season’s first RPI, which was released Monday. “I’m not surprised,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said. “We thought if we played this schedule that the RPI wouldn’t be an issue. I’m not worried about our RPI, I’m worried about getting enough wins.” To be eligible for an NCAA at-large bid, a team needs to finish the regular season with at least a .500 record.
... Illinois no doubt is hopeful that outside hitter Jocelynn Birks is back to her old self after belting 21 kills and hitting .288 in 59 swings at Michigan. The redshirt sophomore notched her fourth 20-kill match of the season and 15th of her career. However, in four of her previous five matches, Birks was limited to between six and nine kills. Three times in that span, she hit under .050, and another time her attack percentage was .125. In 14 matches this season, the Preseason All-Big Ten selection is hitting .161 after hitting .223 in 2012.
... Not that Birks is alone. Fellow Preseason All-Big Ten pick Liz McMahon is hitting .147 after recording .268 and .270 figures the previous two seasons. Hambly has said repeatedly that the attack is the primary concern so far this season. A year ago, Illinois hit .249. Through 14 matches in 2013, it’s a Big Ten-worst .188.
... There’s a good chance Jennifer Beltran will become the UI’s career leader in digs at some point this weekend. The senior libero needs 23 to overtake record holder Ashley Edinger (2006-09). Beltran enters with 1,899 digs.
... Junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell was a key contributor in the win at Michigan, coming off the bench to produce eight kills and hit .300 in 20 swings. That doesn’t necessarily mean she has earned a starting spot as Hambly continues his search for a reliable partner with Birks at outside hitter. “She does really well coming of the bench,” the Illini coach said. “When we’ve started her, she hasn’t done as well as she does when she comes off the bench. We’ll see what that means moving forward.”
About Purdue: As with Illinois, the Boilermakers’ record deserves some context. Purdue is 1-3 in its last four matches, but the defeats were to current No. 4 Penn State, No. 11 Minnesota and No. 19 Wisconsin. In the other match, Purdue swept current No. 14 Ohio State.
... Although the Boilermakers return five starters from a 2012 Sweet 16 team, the departed player was irreplaceable Ariel Turner. The two-time All-American finished her career No. 2 in program history in kills and had led Purdue to three straight Sweet 16s. Hambly now sees a more diverse attack from the Boilermakers. “Before they would just go to Turner, Turner, Turner, and now I think in some ways they’re less predictable,” Hambly said. “They use the middles more, they use the right-side attack more, ... Before you knew, we stop Turner, we’ve got success. Now it’s, we’ve got to stop everybody.”
... Paced by middle blockers Faye Adelaja and KiKi Jones, the Boilermakers entered the week ranked 33rd in the nation in blocks per set. Each ranks among the top six individuals in the Big Ten in blocks. ... Purdue has moved its match against Illinois from Holloway Gymnasium to 14,264 Mackey Arena, home of the men’s and women’s basketball programs. The Purdue promotions department is pushing for a sellout.
... Under fifth-year coach Hambly, the Illini are 4-4 against Purdue, but the Boilermakers have won four of the last five. Last season, Purdue twice won five-setters against Illinois.
About Indiana: The Hoosiers opened the Big Ten race with the same opponents as travel partner Purdue and, like the Boilermakers, nearly picked off Ohio State. The match came down to a fifth set, with the Buckeyes barely prevailing 17-15.
... Illinois has won the last four meetings with Indiana, and 10 of the last 11. The Illini’s 58 wins all-time against the Hoosiers are the most versus any Big Ten opponent.
... Just as Illinois has struggled this season on offense, the same can be said of Indiana’s defense. The Hoosiers rank last in the Big Ten in blocks, digs and opponent hitting percentage.
... Champaign native and Centennial High School graduate Morgan Leach has been Indiana’s most successful attacker, leading the team in kills (146) and kills per set (2.75). The junior middle blocker also ranks second in blocks (31) and points per set. (3.12).