With a victory Saturday night, the Illini will climb back to .500 for the first time since they were 4-4.
No. 13 Michigan State (19-6, 8-5 Big Ten)
at Illinois (11-12, 7-6 Big Ten), 7 p.m. Saturday
Setting the scene
With a victory Saturday night, the Illini will climb back to .500 for the first time since they were 4-4. To do so, they’ll need to avenge one of their most lopsided losses of the season. In the teams’ first meeting, the Spartans rolled to a three-set victory while hitting a scalding .439. The next-highest attack percentage by an Illinois opponent this season is .318, by Nebraska on Oct. 30. ... As Illini fans well know by now, a .500 record is required to be eligible for the NCAA tournament. Illinois has been as many as three games below .500 this season but has made up ground lately by winning three of its last four matches. A victory Saturday night also would give the Illini a season-best three-match winning streak. ... Michigan State has won three of the last four in this series. Before that, however, Illinois won four straight against the Spartans.
If Illinois makes it into the NCAA tournament, Wednesday’s five-set victory against No. 17 Michigan will be viewed as one of the most critical steps to the postseason. The Illini pulled this one out of the fire after losing the first two sets on their home court. “You saw a whole different Illinois team in the last three sets, just like you saw a whole different Michigan team in the first two sets,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said afterward. The Illini have experienced the flip side of this scenario, bolting to a 2-0 lead Oct. 23 at Northwestern, only to lose the next three sets. ... The Illini remain on firm ground with their Rating Percentage Index, one of the key factors considered by the NCAA selection committee. Through matches of Nov. 4, Illinois is No. 23 in the RPI — sixth among Big Ten teams. Michigan State is No. 22. ... Here’s one gauge of the difference between last year’s 14-16 Illini team and this year’s squad. In 2012, Illinois was 5-8 in five-set matches. So far this year, the Illini are 4-3 in matches that go the maximum distance. ... How important is the block to Illinois’ success? After outblocking Michigan 13-7, the Illini improved to 7-2 in matches in which they outblock the opponent. Conversely, Illinois is 3-10 in matches in which it is outblocked (and 1-0 when the blocks are equal). ... Michigan should be glad it’s seen the last of Jocelynn Birks, at least for this regular season. The Illini redshirt sophomore belted a match-high 22 kills Wednesday, the fourth time in four career matches against the Wolverines that she’s recorded at least 20 kills. It was the 17th 20-kill match of her career, and Birks already ranks sixth in program history in that category.
About Michigan State
The Spartans were the talk of the Big Ten well into October, opening the conference race by knocking of then-No. 1 Penn State en route to a 6-0 league start. At that point, Michigan State was 17-1 for the season and No. 5 in the AVCA Top 25 poll — its highest ranking since being No. 3 in the 1996 preseason poll. But the Spartans have faded badly since, losing five of seven after beating Northwestern on Friday night. The stunner in that bunch was a home defeat to Indiana, which entered the match 0-9 in the Big Ten. ... Entering the week, middle blocker Alexis Mathews ranked seventh in the nation in blocks per set (1.51). Outside hitter Lauren Wicinski, a three-time Big Ten Player of the Week this season, ranked 12th nationally in points per set (5.13). ... Illinois will need to be on task with its serve-receive Saturday night. Entering Friday, the Spartans led the Big Ten in service aces per set (1.61) and had three players who ranked in the top nine in that category. ... Junior libero Kori Moster led the conference in digs per set (4.61) entering Friday’s action.