Questions about the Illini? We have some answers

Questions about the Illini? We have some answers

Will Jordyn Poulter ascend to become the top setter in the country?

If the Illinois senior's inclusion as the only collegiate player on the U.S. Pan-Am Cup team is any indication, then yes. The setters selected above Poulter last season for All-American honors were mostly on teams that won more than the Illini. Poulter's abilities, though, aren't in doubt. She set career highs in assists (1,357), digs (306), blocks (116) and kills (109) in 2017. Look for that type of production, at minimum, again this fall for the Illini.

How could transfer Ashlyn Fleming help this fall?

Illinois was fine before adding the 6-foot-4 middle blocker earlier this month. Yes, the Illini were thin at the position with just returning All-American Ali Bastianelli and Blayke Hranicka and susceptible to trouble with an injury, but they were still able to fill out the lineup. Fleming provides both depth and another legitimate option in the middle after putting up 554 kills and 234 blocks with a career .342 hitting percentage in her two seasons at University of the Pacific.

What's the ceiling for sophomore Megan Cooney?

Cooney's strong finish to the 2017 season bodes well for the 6-4 opposite hitter this fall. She played in all but two matches and made 29 starts last year, but it was her final four matches that showed how dangerous she could be on the right side of the Illinois attack. Cooney finished her freshman season with four straight double-digit kill performances, including 13 kills — plus the winner — in Illinois' upset of Washington to advance to the Sweet 16.

Can Morgan O'Brien fill Brandi Donnelly's spot at libero for a full season?

O'Brien got a crash course in anchoring Illinois' back row defense last season when Donnelly — No. 2 on the Illini's career digs leader list behind Jennifer Beltran — missed seven matches with a knee injury. O'Brien stepped right in, averaging 3.74 digs per set in Donnelly's absence with a career-high 24 digs at No. 5 Minnesota. Spending part of her summer in the USA Volleyball system and playing with one of the collegiate national teams should only help her.

What are the expectations for the Illini in Year 2 under Chris Tamas?

Last season's return to the NCAA tournament — and another Sweet 16 appearance — set the bar. Anything less this season in a final year with Poulter and Bastianelli would be seen as a disappointment. Add in Jacqueline Quade and Beth Prince returning at outside hitter, and Illinois has the pieces in place to make another run. Breaking into the top four of the Big Ten for the first time since 2014 would be a good step to expectations beyond the Sweet 16.