Illinois returns to memorable place

Illinois returns to memorable place

CHAMPAIGN — Chris Tamas wanted his nonconference schedule to provide as much of an RPI boost and as many quality road wins as possible. Hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament is the goal.

Illinois took the first step toward that in the opening weekend of the season. A Top 25 showdown in the books — and a win in that match — Illinois has four more before it hits Big Ten play. Two more opportunities come this weekend in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Seattle against No. 21 Colorado and No. 13 Washington.

The Illini (3-0) return to the Pacific Northwest with plenty of good memories after knocking off a top-10 Washington team last season to advance to the Sweet 16.

"One of the best of last year," Tamas said. "We went in the tournament last year after not having made the tournament the year before and it was kind of, 'Hey, let's get past Hawaii and then let's do our best against Washington.' Obviously it was a little more complex than that, but it was kind of one of those things where we had nothing to lose.

"We were playing against a good Washington team who was, I think, eighth in the country at the time, and we just went for it. That's what I hope we learned from that match and what we still try to continue that message as we move on in the future here."

This season is the fifth year of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, pitting teams from the top two conferences against each other. Playing the Buffaloes will let Aurora, Colo., native Jordyn Poulter hit the state of Colorado trifecta after the Illini already played Colorado State and Northern Colorado. The only teams the senior setter will miss this season are Air Force and Denver.

Illinois will also square off against former assistant coach Jason Mansfield, who joined Keegan Cook's coaching staff at Washington this season. That the Illini will face two more Top 25 teams — with two more (Creighton and Northern Iowa) coming once they return home Sept. 14 for the Illini Classic — is the bigger takeaway, though.

"I think it's always good to have a challenging preseason — enough to get us prepared for Big Ten play but also keep us in a good RPI range," Poulter said. "It's a good test for everyone to play against people out of conference you don't really know much about and don't necessarily have a ton of video on. It's a really big focus on what we do on our side."

The focus this weekend after the 3-0 start to the season in Colorado is playing a little cleaner. Illinois figured out a way to win playing a necessary new lineup with Beth Prince sidelined, but the Illini had some struggles.

"I think you go back and look at film and just see lots of points you're leaving on the board," Tamas said. "For us, a lot of it's about playing together more — maybe settling on a lineup that's best for the teams we're playing against. ... We do have players who are multi-faceted. We're going to use the best lineup to get wins."