Beat writer Jeff Huth breaks down Wednesday night's Big Ten match.
Northwestern (16-14, 8-10 Big Ten) at No. 18 Illinois (15-13, 11-7 Big Ten), 7 p.m.
Setting the scene
Having assured themselves of a .500 record for the regular season — a requirement to be eligible for the NCAA tournament — the Illini will attempt to polish their postseason resume in this final week before Announcement Sunday. Illinois shouldn’t be tempted to peek ahead to Saturday’s visit by No. 11 Minnesota, not with the ugly memory of its last meeting against Northwestern. In that one, the Illini jumped to a commanding 2-0 lead before the host Wildcats roared back to sweep the next three sets and hand Illinois a stunning defeat. The Illini lead the all-time series 50-28 and have been particularly successful against the Wildcats at home, where they’re 26-9. Illinois’ last loss to Northwestern at Huff Hall was in 2008.
Illinois moved up two more spots in this week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 poll, reflecting a late-season surge that has seen Kevin Hambly’s team win six of its last seven matches. The lone loss in that stretch was at No. 2 Penn State in four sets. The Illini also are No. 17 in the NCAA’s latest Rating Percentage Index (RPI), a position bolstered by a No. 1 ranking in strength of schedule. Those rankings seemingly put Illinois strongly in the discussion when the NCAA selection committee decides on the tournament’s top 16 seeds. That’s a particularly big deal because the top 16 are offered hosting rights for the first and second rounds. The UI definitely would accept. ... It’s easy to understand why Illinois owns the No. 1 SOS. The Illini have faced a school-record 19 ranked opponents and will tackle one more Saturday when they play Minnesota. So far, Illinois is 9-10 against ranked foes. The last team to face as many as 20 ranked opponents in a season is Stanford in 2007. ... With 19 more digs, Jennifer Beltran will move into eighth place on the UI single-season list. The senior libero and Illini career digs leader already ranks first, second and sixth on the single-season charts. Beltran also is within 37 digs of moving into fourth place on the Big Ten career list. ... Illinois remains on course to set a program record for average home attendance in a season. The Illini have averaged 3,194 fans in 11 matches at Huff. The record is 3,098, set in 1992. With most UI students having left campus for Thanksgiving — and a percentage of non-student fans also sure to be traveling — the pursuit of this record figures to be put to the test this week.
The Wildcats have lost five of their last seven matches, although four of the setbacks were against ranked opponents. Among Northwestern’s few recent wins was a four-set victory against current No. 20 Purdue. That victory gave the Wildcats a sweep of the season series against the Boilermakers — a team against which Illinois split.
... As the Illini learned Oct. 23 at Evanston, Northwestern can be a handful on its home court, where Keylor Chan’s team is 11-4. The Wildcats usually aren’t the same team away from Welsh-Ryan Arena, however, going 3-8 in true road matches.
... This is a big week, too, for a Northwestern team with NCAA tournament aspirations. After visiting Huff Hall, the Wildcats will host No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday. With a No. 57 RPI, Northwestern believes it belongs in the 64-team NCAA field and has an opportunity to strengthen its argument this week against two ranked opponents.
... Since the Illini last saw the Wildcats, Stephanie Holthus became Northwestern’s all-time kills leader. The senior outside hitter achieved the feat on Nov. 2 and enters Wednesday night with 1,774 kills. Holthus also ranks No. 1 in program history in career kills per set (3.77).