Illini volleyball preview
No. 11 Minnesota (26-6, 14-5 Big Ten) at No. 18 Illinois (16-13, 12-7 Big Ten), 7 p.m. Saturday
Setting the scene: It’s the Illini’s final opportunity to raise their stock with the NCAA tournament committee before Selection Sunday. Considering their stretch-run surge (7-1 record in the last eight matches) and ranking in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (No. 17), a victory against the Gophers (No. 13 RPI) might be the clincher in persuading the committee to include the Illini among the coveted top 16 seeds. We say coveted because seeded teams automatically host first- and second-round matches. “I think if we don’t win (today) there’s still a chance, but I think if we do we’ve got a really good shot at hosting,” said coach Kevin Hambly, whose Illini are 8-4 at home this season. “I don’t know that it’s a guarantee.” It would benefit Illinois’ cause if the committee puts heavy emphasis on how a team has performed over the past month or so. A win against Minnesota would give Illinois an 8-2 record in the second half of the Big Ten race. The lone losses were to current No. 1 Penn State and No. 10 Nebraska. And each was on the road. ... This is the Illini’s lone meeting of the regular season with Minnesota. The Gophers swept last season’s two-match series and have won four of the last five meetings. “We’re playing a whole lot better and I feel better about our chances than I did last year in either match we played,” Hambly said. “And being at home is going to help. But they’re tough. They play a similar style to us so it will be interesting to see how the kids respond.”
Illini update: By defeating Northwestern on Wednesday, Illinois assured itself of finishing the regular season with a winning record. The Illini also clinched a plus-.500 record for the entire campaign, regardless of what happens tonight or in the NCAA tournament. This will be Illinois’ sixth winning record in seven seasons, the exception coming last year during a 14-16 finish. ... With a win Saturday night, the Illini would improve to 10-10 against ranked opponents. Illinois is 5-2 in its last seven matches against Top 25 foes. ... Junior Liz McMahon joined the Illini’s 1,000-kill club in the victory against the Wildcats. With 11 kills, the right-side hitter raised her career total to 1,003. To break into the UI’s all-time top 10, McMahon would need 1,228 kills. ... McMahon hit .500 in 16 swings against Northwestern, tying her season high for attack percentage. Her career high is .800, set as a freshman against Middle Tennessee State.
About Minnesota: The Gophers are 8-2 in their last 10 matches, with each defeat to a higher-ranked team (Penn State, Nebraska). On Wednesday, Minnesota avenged an earlier loss to No. 13 Wisconsin, rallying from a first-set loss to win in four. ... Two Gophers received Big Ten weekly awards on Monday. Senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman was named Big Ten Player of the Week after producing a pair of double-doubles (kills, digs) in victories against Michigan and Michigan State. Senior middle blocker Tori Dixon was selected Defensive Player of the Week for the fifth time this season following a 13-block weekend during which she also hit .360. ... It’s rare for a middle blocker to lead a team in kills, but Dixon has done so 17 times this season after belting 15 against Wisconsin. ... In conference only matches, the Gophers rank among the top three in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, blocks and digs.