Beat writer Jeff Huth takes a look at the Illini's weekend matches.
— Indiana (9-16, 1-13 Big Ten) at No. 25 Illinois (12-12, 8-6 Big Ten), 7 p.m.
— No. 18 Purdue (16-9, 7-7 Big Ten) at No. 25 Illinois, 7 p.m.
Setting the scene
Having won a season-high three straight matches, Illinois will look to build on its recent momentum. In fact, the Illini have won four of their last five, with three of those victories coming against ranked opponents. This resurgence has lifted Kevin Hambly’s team back to .500 after a nearly two-month climb, as well as back into the AVCA Top 25 following a six-week absence. The former achievement is far more significant because a .500 record is required to be eligible for the NCAA tournament.
With six regular season matches remaining, Illinois appears to be a lock for an at-large bid — if it can at least finish 15-15 — because of its No. 18 Rating Percentage Index and No. 1 strength of schedule. The recent surge, however, raises this question: If the Illini can keep it going, could they be in the discussion to host first- and second-round matches? Given that Illinois should be regarded as an underdog in only two of its remaining six matches — against No. 2 Penn State and No. 11 Minnesota — a 16-14 record just might keep the Illini home to open the postseason.
“First and foremost, we want to make it in,” Hambly said this week. “If we can do more than that, then there’s an opportunity — because of where our RPI is at — to actually still have a chance to host. I don’t know if it’s possible — if the committee will allow us to — but if our RPI can keep climbing like it should by playing the (remaining) teams we’ll be playing ... who knows? Maybe we have a chance to host.”
Why has Illinois gone on a run lately after playing such up-and-down volleyball for much of the season? Improved execution certainly is one explanation, but Hambly thinks it has more to do with a change in assertiveness and aggressiveness among his players. A change that has been a long time coming but appears to have finally kicked in.
“(It’s) a level of toughness and trying to assert your will on the opponent instead of sitting back and allowing things to happen,” he said. “Before, we were just passive and waiting for things to happen, hoping for things to happen. We’ve seen (toughness) at times, but it really locked in in the Michigan match (on Nov. 6) when we were down 0-2 (and won). And (against) Michigan State (last Saturday) from the beginning to the end, I felt like we were that.”
... With six blocks against Michigan State, redshirt junior Anna Dorn moved into 14th place on the UI career list for total blocks with 363. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker passed Sue Nucci (1991-94), who had 360.
... Through nine home matches, the Illini are averaging 3,207 in attendance. The program record is 3,098, set in 1992 (17 home matches).
It’s been a tough Big Ten race for the Hoosiers, but Indiana can be a handful on any given night. Just ask No. 16 Michigan State, which lost in five sets on its home court to the Hoosiers. In three of their Big Ten losses, the Hoosiers have taken the opponent to five sets.
“When they’re passing and things are lined up, they’re really tough,” Hambly said. “They went into Michigan State and passed great and got (the Spartans) in all kinds of trouble and ended up beating them.”
Such outcomes against Illinois, however, have been rare. The Illini swept Indiana in the season’s first meeting on Oct. 12 for their fifth straight win in the series and 11th victory in the past 12 meetings. Illinois’ 59 all-time victories against the Hoosiers are its most against any opponent. Even so, this Indiana team certainly was competitive in the most recent matchup, falling 25-22, 25-23, 25-20.
... Centennial graduate Morgan Leach makes another visit to her hometown. The junior right-side hitter leads the Hoosiers in total kills (247) and kills per set (2.74), and is second in blocks (47). Leach had eight kills and hit .235 in 17 swings against Illinois in October.
The Illini have experienced several defeats this season that really stung, and the four-set loss to the Boilermakers on Oct. 11 was among them. There were a total of 33 ties and 12 lead changes in this up-for-grabs match that Purdue captured 29-31, 25-23, 25-17, 25-23.
Illinois held leads of 17-13 and 19-16 in the fourth set but could not pull it out.
... The Boilermakers have lost three of their last four, with two of those setbacks against Top 10 opponents. No doubt, Purdue didn’t expect to lose its most recent match against slumping Ohio State. Then again, the Boilermakers were without libero Carly Cramer for the second straight match due to injury.
Purdue has declined to make details of the injury public but this week listed her availability as day to day. The fifth-year senior ranks third in the Big Ten in digs per set in conference matches.
“Their libero is one of the best in our conference,“ said Hambly, who also mentioned his own Jennifer Beltran and Michigan State’s Kori Moster. “When she’s out, they struggled passing last weekend, but if she’s in, they have six weapons all the time — they run a 6-2 (offense) — and all can score.”
In conference matches, Purdue ranks second in digs per set (15.37). “They always play tremendous defense, so they will be a handful,” Hambly said. “They always are.”