Huth: Illini Classic has a little bit of everything

News-Gazette college volleyball beat writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines on the Illini Classic, which starts Thursday at Huff Hall:

Milestone marker
In this, the 40th season of Illini volleyball, the program’s namesake tournament is marking its own milestone. This will be the 30th Illini Classic, an event that began in 1984, when the team still played its home matches at Kenney Gym. The host team didn’t win the inaugural Illini Classic. In fact, visitors claimed three of the first four titles. Since then, however, Illinois typically has ruled its own tournament, winning 20 of the last 25 crowns and sharing another. In a deviation from tradition, a champion won’t be decided or declared this year due to an unbalanced schedule. Of the five teams in the field, two (Washington and Youngstown State) will play one match, and another (Texas) will play twice. The others (Illinois and Arizona State) each play three times. Why? It’s complicated, but long story short, it met the scheduling restrictions and requests of several visiting teams. For example, fellow Pac-12 members Washington and Arizona State couldn’t be expected to meet in a nonconference match. And Washington needed to quickly hit the road (read on).

Don’t sleep on ASU
Considering the high profile of three teams in the field — No. 2 Texas, No. 6 Washington and No. 18 Illinois — it might be easy to overlook Arizona State. That would appear to be a mistake. Nowhere to be found in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 preseason poll, the Sun Devils now are two spots shy of being ranked. Jason Watson’s team opened eyes with its early- season sweep of then-No. 24 Wichita State and hasn’t slowed down since, not only building a 6-0 record but winning every set it has played. “They have talent,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think they’ll make some noise this year in the Pac-12. So we will not be overlooking them, I can promise you that.” Hambly and Watson know each other well. They were volleyball teammates at Brigham Young, and Hambly was in Watson’s wedding party. During his three-year stint as head coach at BYU, Watson’s teams went 74-18 and never missed an NCAA tournament. Last season, his fifth at ASU, Watson guided the Sun Devils to 20 wins and their first postseason appearance since 2006. It helps to have Macey Gardner. Entering the week, the sophomore outside hitter led the nation in kills per set (5.94) and ranked second in points.

The other Huskies
Mention the Washington Huskies to an Illini fan this week and they might presume you’re referring to football. But the UI-Washington game Saturday at Soldier Field isn’t the only matchup between the schools this weekend. One night before kickoff, the Illini and Huskies will wage a Top 20 duel on Huff Hall’s court. It’s Washington’s lone match in Champaign before it heads to Chicago to watch the football game. Coach Jim McLaughlin’s volleyball Huskies will cap their trip to the Land of Lincoln with a Sunday match in Chicago against Loyola before flying home to Seattle. Hambly agreed to Washington’s one-match appearance in the Illini Classic because ... well, would you turn down a chance to play a team the caliber of the Huskies? “It gave us a third high-quality match,” Hambly said. The Huskies (4-0) spent last weekend playing — and winning — a pair of exhibitions against the Canadian National Team. In NCAA competition, Washington began the week ranked second nationally in hitting percentage (.351) and No. 1 in aces per set (2.43). Game-planning for the Huskies involves little guesswork. In his 13th season at the helm, McLaughlin has a specific system and he sticks with it, confident in his team’s ability to out-execute the opponent. “They’re very disciplined, and they do a great job of running their system,” Hambly said.

Longhorns rematch
Defending NCAA champion Texas won’t enter Huff ranked No. 1, but perhaps it should be following a virtuoso performance last weekend. In a span of two days, the Longhorns knocked off then-No. 1 Penn State and then-No. 2 Stanford in the Nike Big Four Classic at Austin, Texas. Only a season-opening loss to Hawaii stains No. 2 Texas’ 4-1 record. “They’re for sure one of the top three teams in the country right now,” said Hambly, including Penn State and Southern California in his top-tier troika. Both historically and recently, however, Illinois has more than held its own against this perennial power. The Illini lead the all-time series 7-6 and have won three of the last four meetings. Most recently, Illinois outbattled Texas in five sets early last season on the Longhorns’ court. For the Illini, it was the unequivocal highlight of an otherwise mostly forgettable 14-16 season. Texas, meanwhile, was virtually unbeatable thereafter, winning 23 of 24 matches en route to the NCAA title. Now, the Longhorns return the Illini’s visit with five returning starters plus their 2012 regular at libero. “They’ll be coming after us hard; they’ll take us seriously,” Hambly said. “And I’m sure that they’ll want to exact some revenge.” But Hambly’s team returns all but two starters plus its libero from last season, and his players well remember last season’s outcome in Austin, too. “They have some confidence (against Texas) because they know that we can match up against these guys,” Hambly said. “I expect us to come out and battle and have a shot to win.”

Early risers
A 10 a.m. match on a weekday might not be the most fan-friendly time to schedule a sporting event, but that’s when Illinois will play Arizona State on Friday. The host team need not be fearful, however, of a near-empty Huff Hall. The program has extended an invitation to attend to all students, faculty and staff in the UI Department of  Recreation, Sport and Tourism, which has its offices and classrooms in Huff. That’s not the only link between Illini volleyball and RST. Former UI volleyball coach Don Hardin is a lecturer in the department as well as director of the Illini Scholar’s Program. UI coach Kevin Hambly earned a bachelor of science degree in RST. During a two-day period this week, he spoke to a total of eight classes in the department to drum up interest in the match. “We’re doing the best we can,” Hambly said. Michael Raycraft, the RST director of undergraduate studies, said he expects nearly 500 students from the department to attend. In addition, 15 faculty members will serve as honorary coaches. Attendance also will be bolstered by local grade-school students making a field trip to Huff for the match. About 900 students from Thomas Paine, Leal and Wiley schools in Urbana are expected, according to Carrie Snyder, UI director of sports marketing. About 70 choir members from Urbana High will sing the national anthem. While plenty of good seats figure to be available in the morning, don’t expect the same situation when the Illini play the nightcap of their Friday doubleheader. The 7:30 p.m. match against Washington is the annual Stuff Huff promotion. Crowds for the seven previous Stuff Huffs have averaged 2,681 fans.

Classic schedule
THURSDAY’S MATCH
Arizona St. (6-0) vs. Youngstown St. (3-3), 6 p.m.

FRIDAY’S MATCHES
Illinois (3-2) vs. Arizona State, 10 a.m.
Texas (4-1) vs. Arizona State, 5 p.m.
Illinois vs. Washington (4-0), 7:30 p.m.

SATURDAY’S MATCH
Illinois vs. Texas, 7 p.m.

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