Michigan State (21-7, 9-7 Big Ten) at Illinois (11-15, 5-11), 7 p.m. Friday
Michigan (21-9, 9-7) at Illinois, 7 p.m. Saturday
Setting the scene
Illinois must win its last four regular season matches to finish with a .500 record, which is the minimum requirement to be eligible for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
Considering the Illini have lost six of their last seven matches, it will take an abrupt turnaround to get this accomplished. Even then, it seems counterintuitive that the NCAA selection committee would reward a team that has lost as many matches as it has won.
Still, every time Kevin Hambly checks his team’s ranking in the NCAA Rating Percentage Index, it gives the coach hope that his Illini remain in the running for the 64-team NCAA field. Illinois is 40th in the RPI. “And the top 44 (teams in the) RPI get in almost every single year,” Hambly said. “If we end up .500, we’ll end up somewhere in the 35 (RPI) range. It would be almost unprecedented that a team at that RPI (level) didn’t get in it.”
Several weeks ago, Hambly said he thought his team needed at least 17 wins to get into the tournament, but with the emphasis the selection committee places on the RPI, Hambly has re-evaluated his team’s postseason prospects.
“I’m surprised by where our RPI still is,” he said. “I thought our RPI, if we were where we are (now recordwise), would not be still in the top 40. If we can be eligible, I think we have a better shot (at making the field) than I would have thought at 15-15. All we can do is go for it and then wait until the committee (decides).”
... Five Illini players will be honored at Saturday’s Senior Night ceremony: Jessica Jendryk, Erin Johnson, Annie Luhrsen, Tayler Onion and Jackie Wolfe. The group represents former Illini assistant Hambly’s first recruiting class as Illinois’ head coach. During their careers, Illinois advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2009 and 2010 before finishing second in the NCAA tournament last year. “I think people will look at that as a big deal, how many matches they’ve won and what they’ve accomplished that way,” Hambly said. “The impact they had is very similar to the ‘07 class as far as the culture (of the program). The ‘07 class took the culture to a certain place, and these guys came in and helped evolve it to something else. We’re struggling right now, but the team is staying together and it’s because of the culture (the seniors) helped create.”
... Jendryk, who received a medical redshirt as a freshman, will continue her career at Saint Louis University next season as a fifth-year senior while enrolled in graduate school there. Her future coach, former Illini assistant Kent Miller, will be at Huff Hall this weekend, according to Hambly.
... Illinois enters its final two home matches with an average attendance of 2,878. That ranks second in program history to the average of 3,098 in 1992.
Scoop on Michigan State
Coach: Cathy George (eighth year, 142-111)
Players to watch: Jr. OH Lauren Wicinski, Jr. MB Alexis Mathews, So. L Kori Moster
About the Spartans: Michigan State has won its last four matches, including then-No. 4 Nebraska in five sets and then-No. 10 Minnesota in four. ... In their first meeting of the season Oct. 13, Illinois rallied from a 2-0 deficit at then-No. 25 Michigan State to pull out a five-set win. That match marked the collegiate debut of Illini freshman setter Alexis Viliunas. She started the next three matches as well before Hambly returned Luhrsen to her starting role.
Scoop on Michigan
Coach: Mark Rosen (14th year, 282-173)
Players to watch: Jr. MB Jennifer Cross, So. S Lexi Dannemiller, Jr. OH Lexi Erwin
About the Wolverines: The Wolverines have won their last five matches and, like Michigan State, knocked off Nebraska and Minnesota in the process. ... Michigan swept Illinois in the teams’ first meeting Oct. 10. Claire McElheny, one in a series of right-side hitters who have given Illinois problems this season, had 11 kills in 19 swings in that match. ... This marks the seventh consecutive season in which Michigan has won at least 20 matches.