Can Illini handle Final Four glare?
SAN ANTONIO — If the Illinois volleyball team needs a tutorial on the Final Four experience, it has a ready resource in David Kniffin.
The first-year Illini assistant coach was on the staff of two men's Final Four teams — and two national champions — earlier this decade at Cal Irvine.
Kniffin is the only member of Final Four-bound Illini who has coached or played in the event entering Thursday's 8:30 p.m. semifinal match against Southern California.
"I think there's some value of having been there before," he said this week.
That doesn't mean the uninitiated can't adapt to, in Kniffin's words, "the circus surrounding" the national semifinals and final.
It's all a matter, he says, of keeping things in perspective.
"The teams that are successful at the Final Four are the ones that are treating it as another volleyball match, the ones that are able to manage the distractions around it and really just appreciate the opportunity to play the best volleyball of the year." Kniffin said.
Based on what he observed last weekend at the Gainesville (Fla.) Regional, Kniffin says third-seeded Illinois appears up to the challenge of the bright lights and big stage of a Final Four.
"What I can say is, the feeling on this team right now — the way the girls are carrying themselves and the way the staff is approaching this — is the same feeling I felt in 2007 and 2009 when (Cal Irvine) won national championships," Kniffin said. "That feel, whatever it is in the air, is almost identical. And it's pretty cool to see."
Of course, the atmosphere for a Final Four might be considered Gainesville Regional x 10.
The number of media covering a Final Four and the volume of requests for interviews will be unlike what these Illini ever have experienced. Laurie Cannon of the NCAA's media services department said she expects about 100 media credentials to be issued.
In addition, family, friends and even fans surely will want a piece of the players' precious free time.
"The distractions are going to be insane, and we have to compartmentalize," UI coach Kevin Hambly said. "We have to take the time that's the volleyball time — and that's the volleyball time — and the rest of it we want to enjoy."
Kniffin says Illini players should be well-prepared for the media crush because they've already been much in demand by the pen and mic club during a season that included a four-week run as the nation's top-ranked team.
"For our girls ... with the coverage that we get here in Illinois, they're comfortable talking to the media," Kniffin said. "It's a situation they've been in before, even though it's not (been at) the (Final Four). They're used to dealing with media before or after practices (and) games.
"So I think our girls are really prepared for it, but it is a little bit more of a circus."
Like Kniffin, Hambly liked what he saw of his players' calm and steady approach at the Gainesville Regional, even when faced with the challenge of playing Florida on the Gators' home court in front of a highly-partisan crowd of over 3,500.
"It is just a volleyball match, and I think that's the thing that gets lost sometimes," Hambly said. "I think some of the teams we played (last) weekend, they treated it like a regional instead of treating it like a volleyball match.
"(Illini players) really did a nice job of that against Florida. They were very calm. They looked like they were playing a match at home."
However, nothing will prepare the Illini for venue. This Final Four is being held in a dome — the $186 million Alamodome. Although the expansive interior will be portioned off to accommodate volleyball — last year's Final Four in Kansas City drew crowds of 12,091 and 14,031 — the view from the court will be uncharted territory for UI players.
Hambly admitted he's unsure how his team will react to playing in such a unique facility for volleyball.
"We'll find out," he said. "I've never played in a dome before. But everyone's in that boat. I'm excited to see how they respond."
Hambly has been to the Final Four many times as a spectator. The American Volleyball Coaches Association holds its annual convention in conjunction with the Final Four, drawing coaches from all levels of the sport to this marquee event.
"It's a lot of fun as a coach to go watch," Hambly said, "but it will really be interesting and fun to be there playing."
For the semifinalists, this year's Final Four will offer a truer neutral-court atmosphere than some in the past. That would not have been the case if Texas had made it through, but the top-seeded Longhorns were toppled by UCLA in the Lexington (Ky.) Regional final.
"What you'll get is knowledgeable volleyball fans, and there'll be a bunch of people, but not necessarily a home-court advantage," Hambly said.
The Final Four scheduling format should be an advantage to the semifinal winners. Unlike previous stages of the tournament — where matches are played on consecutive nights — there is one day off between the semis and the final. That's one full day to coaches and players prepare for and focus on their next opponent.
Not surprisingly, staff members who help prepare game plans welcome the additional time.
"I think for us it's especially advantageous, just in the way we game plan," Kniffin said. "I don't know that we do it any better than anyone else, per se, but I know that our girls get a lot out of our game-plan (instructional) times. The fact that we get an extra day to focus on it, I think, helps us all out."
What would help Illinois the most, UI coaches say, is for the Illini to keep their blinders on and continue focusing only on the very next serve and the very next point.
"They've been doing that throughout the tournament thus far, so I think for us it's keep treating it the way we've been treating it," Kniffin said. "It's another big-time volleyball match, but we've had a bunch of those this year."