CHAMPAIGN — Kevin Hambly didn’t mince words. Didn’t even consider softening his message about the implications of Sunday’s match for the Illinois volleyball team.
With the Illini facing the prospect of falling three matches below .500 — and faced with an unrelentingly difficult remaining schedule in a Big Ten Conference with eight nationally ranked teams — losing was not an option.
“This is a must win for us. We can’t get three back,“ the UI coach told his team before it took the Huff Hall court against No. 17 Ohio State.
Message heard. Mission accomplished.
Shaking off a sluggish start, Illinois knocked off the slumping Buckeyes 15-25, 25-15, 25-22, 25-20 to improve to 4-4 in the Big Ten.
It’s their 8-10 season record that has the Illini’s utmost attention, however. As Illini fans found out last season, a team must have at least a .500 record to be eligible for the NCAA tournament.
And that’s a mark that continues to elude Illinois. For the Illini, this weekend was deja vu all over again as they finished 1-1 for the fourth consecutive week in the Big Ten race.
“I like the way we’re playing; I like the direction we’re going,” Hambly said after a weekend in which his Illini lost a five-set battle against No. 4 Penn State and then bounced back for their fifth victory this season against a ranked opponent. “But if we don’t get a sweep weekend, then we’re in trouble. And we’ve got to find a way to get that done.”
With 12 regular season matches remaining, certainly there is time. But with each missed opportunity, the sense of urgency will only become stronger. The kind of urgency Illinois faced Sunday before handing Ohio State (14-6, 2-6 Big Ten) its sixth loss in seven matches.
“We’re aware of reality,” Illini junior right-side hitter Liz McMahon said. “That’s clear to us. We need to sweep a weekend.
“We just need wins, and so it’s not like we’re trying to get a split every weekend. We’re trying to get a sweep. We’re playing well, so we’re happy with that. We’ve just got to get wins.”
While a .500 record might seem like a modest credential for an NCAA bid — and certainly there’s a difference between being eligible and being selected — Hambly is confident his Illini would get a postseason invitation should they end the regular season with a 15-15 record.
His most compelling argument remains the caliber of competition Illinois has and will continue to face. According to the most recent NCAA Rating Percentage Index (RPI), the Illini have played the most difficult schedule in the nation so far. Illinois also is No. 25 in the RPI, a component the NCAA tournament selection committee takes strongly into account when picking and seeding its 64-team field.
“They ask us to play tough schedules, and we’ve certainly done that,” said Hambly, whose team is 5-8 against Top 25 opponents. “We’ve done what they’ve asked. Plus, we have wins against really good teams.
“By the eye test and by the numbers, if we’re at .500, I can’t see how they couldn’t take us. So, I feel we’ve got a good shot at it.”
For those who doubt the NCAA would invite a .500 team into its showcase event, the proof is as recent as the 2012 tournament. California received an at-large bid after going 15-15 in the regular season.
“So there’s been some history with that,” Hambly said.
Now the question is whether Illinois can shake its history of Big Ten weekend splits and go 2-0. The Illini will have their next chance this week, although not in a standard weekend schedule. Instead, Illinois will join the rest of the Big Ten in playing on Wednesday night and then once more during the weekend.
For Illinois, that means a midweek trip to Northwestern, followed by a visit next Sunday to No. 15 Wisconsin.
“All we can do right now is worry about what’s in front of us and try to win the matches in front of us,” Hambly said. “And I think they’ve done a good job of that.”