Illini volleyball preview
No. 4 Nebraska (16-2, 8-1) vs. No. 25 Illinois (10-9, 4-5 Big Ten), 2 p.m. today at Huff Hall
Setting the scene: One of the storied programs in women’s collegiate volleyball makes its first trip to Huff Hall as a Big Ten member for a nationally televised match (ESPN2). The Cornhuskers — who entered the conference last year — are three-time NCAA champions, three-time national runner-ups, and have appeared in the Final Four a total of 11 times. Nebraska is the second-winningest program in Division I history behind UCLA. ... Although the Cornhuskers are a relative Big Ten newcomer, these two teams are no strangers. They’ve met 22 previous times, with Nebraska holding a 16-5-1 edge. They’ve also squared off each of the last two years in Lincoln, Neb., with the Cornhuskers winning both matches. This will be Nebraska’s first trip to Huff since 1994, when a second-ranked Cornhuskers team won in three sets. The Illini’s last victory in the series came in 1992, when coach Mike Hebert’s Big Ten co-champions swept No. 7 Nebraska in an NCAA regional semifinal. ... Illinois can draw upon a unique resource in its preparations for the Cornhuskers. First-year assistant coach Dan Conners spent the 2011 season on John Cook’s Nebraska staff as defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. With that background, Conners is highly familiar with the team’s players — their strengths and potential vulnerable spots — as well as Cook’s tendencies and counter-moves in specific situations and matchups. Of course, Cook will be mindful of this, too, as he prepares for Illinois. Ultimately, talent and execution decide most matches, but Conners’ insider knowledge of Nebraska certainly can be of some value to the Illini today. ... Illinois coach Kevin Hambly’s decision to switch setters so far is having the desired results. Illinois is 2-0 with freshman Alexis Viliunas at the offensive controls. The Illini hit a cumulative .284 in those two matches, raising their season figure to .263. Viliunas also has provided a welcome infusion of defense. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week had 14 digs in each match and has contributed a total of five block assists. ... Today’s match provides Illinois with an opportunity to significantly ratchet up its RPI ranking. In the latest Rating Percentage Index, released by the NCAA on Monday, the Illini are No. 32. Nebraska is No. 3. The NCAA tournament selection committee closely examines the RPI in making decisions on at-large selections and in determining the bracket. The Cornhuskers will be the Illini’s 11th American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 opponent this season. Illinois enters with a 3-7 record against ranked teams. ... Illini right-side hitter Liz McMahon had a match-high 18 kills on Wednesday against Northwestern, continuing her recent offensive surge. The sophomore has 17 or more kills in six of her last eight matches. In her first 11 matches before that, McMahon reached double figures in kills four times, with a high of 16 kills. After McMahon produced seen kills in the fourth set and three block assists in Set 5 on Wednesday against Northwestern, Hambly noted that it’s not uncommon for her to gain momentum as the match progresses. “She’s like that a little bit,” he said. “The first set she’s never great, and as the match goes on she works her way into it and starts to figure it out. She did the same thing (in the previous match) against Michigan State (18 kills). She just kept getting better and better as the match went on.”
The scoop on Nebraska
Coach: John Cook (13th year, 376-35)
Players to watch: Sr. S Lauren Cook; Sr. OH Gina Mancuso; Sr. OH Hannah Werth
About the Cornhuskers: Nebraska is on an eight-match winning streak after sweeping Iowa on Wednesday. The Cornhuskers, who were picked to win the Big Ten in a preseason poll of conference coaches, enter in second place. Their lone league defeat was to top-ranked Penn State on Sept. 19 in four sets on the road. The rematch is Oct. 28 in Lincoln. ... Nebraska ranks among the Big Ten’s top three in five of seven primary statistical categories. Only Penn State (with six top-threes) can say the same. ... A loaded Cornhuskers roster includes four 2011 All-Americans: first-teamer Mancuso and honorable-mention picks Cook, Werth and Morgan Broekhuis. ... Lauren Cook, the daughter of Nebraska’s head coach, is the Big Ten Setter of the Week for the second week in a row. She’s received that award three times this season, ... Nebraska emerged as a national powerhouse under coach Terry Pettit, who won 694 matches from 1977 to 1999. Under Pettit, the Cornhuskers made 18 consecutive NCAA appearances, reached the national semifinals six times and won it all in 1995. Nebraska hasn’t missed a beat under John Cook, a former Cornhusker assistant who returned to Lincoln when Pettit retired. Cook, a former Wisconsin head coach, went 34-0 and won a national title in his first season (2000) at the Nebraska helm. Since then, the Cornhuskers have reached the Final Four four more times, winning another title in 2006 after finishing second in ‘05.