Setting the scene
Two teams headed in opposite directions square off for the second time this season. After Friday’s four-set loss at Wisconsin, the Illini have dropped six of their last eight matches and are tied for eighth place in the Big Ten. The No. 10 Gophers, meanwhile, have won six of their last seven and share second place with No. 4 Nebraska. ... A struggling Illini team faces a tall task today for several reasons, including Minnesota’s near invincibility at home. After sweeping Northwestern on Friday night, the Gophers are 10-1 in home matches. However, Illinois has been no pushover on the road. Even with Friday’s loss at Madison, Wis., Illinois is 4-4 on opponents’ home courts. And the Illini have been successful in each of their last two trips to Minnesota, pulling out five-set victories there in 2010 and last year. ... The Gophers, who swept Illinois on Sept. 21 at Huff Hall, have 11 3-0 wins this season. ... The last time the Illini saw the Gophers, Minnesota was leading the nation in hitting percentage. This remains a potent attack. The Gophers entered the week ranked fifth in the nation in hitting. After hitting .424 against Northwestern — its fifth plus-.400 match of the season — Minnesota is up to .308 for the year. ... Friday’s loss to Wisconsin marked the first time Illinois was defeated by a team that has not been nationally ranked at any point this season. ... On Friday, Annie Luhrsen saw her most extensive playing time since being replaced as the starting setter Oct. 13. The fifth-year senior and freshman Alexis Viliunas split setting duties, with Viliunas playing most of the first and third sets and Luhrsen on the court for most of the second and fourth sets. Viliunas finished with 23 assists and Luhrsen with 17. The move didn’t spark the UI attack, however, Illinois hit .155, its second-lowest percentage of the season. ... With four block assists Friday, senior middle blocker Erin Johnson moved past Sara Sorrell (1996-99) into sixth place on the all-time UI list with 402 for her career.
Coach: Hugh McCutcheon (first year, 18-4)
Players to watch: Jr. MB Tori Dixon; Sr. OH Katherine Harms; Jr. OH Ashley Wittman
About the Gophers: Santa Clara transfer Alexandra Palmer is thriving in her first season at Minnesota. In Big Ten matches, the junior setter leads the conference with 12.10 assists per set. McCutcheon still utilizes 2011 starting setter Mia Tabberson, too, but Palmer does the bulk of the setting. ... Daly Santana was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday, her second such accolade this season. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter totaled 18 kills, 29 digs and six aces against Wisconsin and Purdue last week. ... Tabberson will join more than 60 members of the Minnesota football team on Monday in having their heads shaved to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer research. Gophers wide receiver Connor Cosgrove is battling leukemia.