No. 12 Minnesota (9-2) at No. 20 Illinois (6-4), 7 p.m. Friday, Huff Hall
Setting the scene
Homecourt advantage? What homecourt advantage? Given how this series has played out over the past two years, it's a question worth asking. In four meetings since 2010, the visiting team has won each time. The Gophers' win at Huff Hall last season was particularly notable, and not just because Illinois played what Kevin Hambly came to regard as the NCAA runner-up's worst match of season while being swept 3-0. The Illini ended up going 16-1 at home in 2011. ... The Illini and Gophers have played two similar opponents. Illinois went 1-0 at Texas and 0-1 at Dayton. Minnesota split two matches against the host Longhorns and defeated the Flyers in a neutral-site match. ... The Gophers lead the all-time series 38-28-1, but the teams have split their last six meetings. ... In the conference's annual preseason poll of its coaches, Minnesota was projected to finish fourth and Illinois fifth. ... Illini redshirt freshman Ali Stark appears to have solidified her status as a starter at outside hitter ahead of sophomore Morganne Criswell. Stark played OH last weekend for the first time since suffering an ankle sprain in the season opener, appearing in all 12 of the Illini's sets during the Texas Invitational and capping her performance with career highs in kills (13) and digs (13) against Cincinnati for her first career double-double. Criswell, who had been an OH starter while Stark was injured, appeared in one set at Austin. Hambly indicated that Stark currently is the Illini's best all-around player among outsides, particularly in passing, which has been an area of concern for this team. "She did well attacking," Hambly said of Criswell's performance to date. "We need some other things there (at OH). We need passing. We need defense. We need some blocking. Ali, especially passing, does a good job of it." ... The Illini will play their first home match since Sept. 1. In two previous home matches this season, Illinois has attracted crowds of 3,770 and 3,269, each ranking among the top 16 largest in program history.
The scoop on Minnesota
Coach: Hugh McCutcheon (1st year, 9-2)
Players to watch: Jr. MB Tori Dixon; Sr. OH Katherine Harms; Jr. OH Ashley Wittman
About the Gophers: Wittman and Dixon understandably draw the most attention on this team. As sophomores, each was an All-Big Ten selection for a 2011 Minnesota team that won 20 matches and reached the NCAA Sweet 16. But there's a third Gopher who's playing at an All-Big Ten level this year. Harms, a 6-foot-2 senior, entered the week ranked second in the conference in kills per set (4.32) and points per set (4.84) while hitting .400 in 310 swings. In Minnesota's four-set victory against Texas, Harms belted a match-high 24 kills. She was named Big Ten Player of the Week for the first time in her career the following Monday. ... Harms and Dixon (.490) are major reasons why Minnesota leads the nation in hitting percentage at .342. ... The NCAA's top three players in service aces per set all come from the Big Ten, including Daly Santana. The Gophers freshman outside hitter ranks No. 2 at 0.63. ... Five of the 14 players on the Gopher roster are from California, one fewer than from Minnesota.