No. 16 Illinois (4-4) at No. 15 North Carolina (9-0), 6 p.m.
Illinois at Duke (7-2 entering Friday home match versus Indiana), 5:30 p.m.
Setting the scene: The Illini look to halt a two-match losing streak Friday when they face yet another Top 25 team in an ambitious preconference schedule. Illinois enters its match against North Carolina with a 3-3 record against ranked opponents, including losses last weekend to then-No. 6 Washington and then-No. 2 Texas in the Illini Classic. ... Remember the Big Ten/Big East Challenge? From 2010-12, the Illini and Purdue squared off annually against Louisville and Cincinnati in an abridged version of the basketball challenges that the Big Ten and ACC have waged in full for years. Now, a new volleyball challenge is in place, with Illinois and Indiana representing Big Ten against the ACC’s North Carolina and Duke. This apparently nothing official — only the Tar Heels and Hoosiers specifically list these matches on their website schedules as a “Big Ten/ACC Challenge” — but either way, it’s a chance for all concerned to measure themselves against another quality conference. “They’re a legit Sweet 16 team, maybe contend for (being) a Final Eight team,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said of North Carolina. “We’ll find out if we are too.”
Illini update: Hambly is emphasizing offensive improvement in practice this week. Through Sunday, Illinois ranked 221st in the nation in kills per set (11.79) and 170th in hitting percentage (.199), and last in both categories in the Big Ten. “I think defensively we’re pretty good, but we need to get our offensive system more in order,” he said. Hambly said he and his staff are analyzing videotape of matches as well as in-depth statistics to “really figure out where (UI players) are best at attacking; what situations we can put them in where they can have the most success.” ... Hambly said he is encouraged by the progress of sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas, who has produced double-doubles (assists, digs) in each of her last three matches. ... Redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers continues to rank among the national leaders in blocks per set (fifth) and leads the Big Ten in that category. ... Viliunas and Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks will renew acquaintances with a former high school teammate for the second time this season. Duke outside hitter/defensive specialist Laura Williams played with the UI duo at LaGrange Lyons on a Class 4A state title team in 2010. That same squad produced setter Erin Juley of Long Beach State, which defeated Illinois on Aug. 30.
About North Carolina: The undefeated Tar Heels have tied their best season start since 1981. North Carolina was picked to finish second in the ACC preseason coaches’ poll behind two-time defending champion Florida State. ... The Tar Heels’ 6-2 attack is clicking on all cylinders. UNC ranks 10th in the nation in kills and 36th in hitting percentage. ... North Carolina is off to a torrid start despite the absence of two-time All-ACC selection Chaniel Nelson. The redshirt junior right-side hitter has yet to play due to a stress fracture. The Illini will have to contend with 2012 ACC Freshman of the Year Paige Neuenfeldt, a sophomore middle blocker. The UNC roster also includes 2012 News-Gazette All-State first-teamer Sheila Doyle, a freshman libero who played on two Class 4A state title teams at Lisle Benet Academy. ... The Tar Heels’ most impressive victory came against current No. 24 Ohio. North Carolina rallied from a 2-0 deficit in front of a hostile crowd of 3,874 to defeat the Bobcats.
About Duke: The Blue Devils have won five of their last six matches. The exception was a three-set defeat at then-No. 4 Minnesota. In fact, both of Duke’s defeats have come against Top 10 teams on the opponent’s court. Then-No. 9 Florida swept the Blue Devils on Aug. 31. ... Duke returns two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year Ali McCurdy, a senior libero, and 2012 ACC All-Freshman Team pick Emily Sklar, an outside hitter. ... The Blue Devils were picked to finish sixth in the ACC. ... Hambly expects Duke, which runs a unique quick-tempo attack with multiple combinations, to challenge his defense. The Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in kills and 38th in hitting percentage. “It’s like a Chinese Fire Drill kind of offense sometimes, but there’s a method to it,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a good job of serving and be prepared for that.”