Volleyball preview: UI (8-11, 4-5 Big Ten) at No. 16 Wisconsin (17-4, 6-3), 1 p.m. Sunday
Setting the scene
Sunday marks the end of the first half of the Big Ten race, a 20-match marathon that will wrap up on the final day of November. Depending on the outcome, Sunday’s match will determine whether Illinois climbs back to within two games of .500 for the season or falls four below — a significant difference for a team fighting to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. Overall record is critical because teams must finish the regular season with at least a .500 mark to be eligible for NCAA tournament consideration. A loss today would put the Illini deeper in the sub-.500 hole, requiring at least a 7-3 record in their final 10 matches. This is the fourth time this season that Illinois has been as many as three games below .500. In each of the previous three instances, the Illini won their next match. If that pattern continues today, Illinois’ postseason quest would look far more attainable than the alternative.
Illinois faces a ranked opponent today for the 14th time this season. The Illini are 5-8 versus Top 25 foes. If Illinois can finish the regular season at .500 or higher, a highly challenging schedule should work in its favor with the NCAA tournament selection committee. Through matches of Oct. 20, the Illini ranked No. 1 nationally in strength of schedule. Illinois is No. 25 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), one of the primary tools used by the selection committee. ... Illinois is coming off a stunning loss, falling in five sets Wednesday at Northwestern after winning the first two sets. At one time this season, the Illini were 3-1 in five-set matches, but they’re 0-2 in such matches since. ... Illini senior libero Jennifer Beltran racked up a season-high 26 digs at Northwestern. The UI career digs leader moved up one spot to sixth place on the Big Ten career list. With 1,979 career digs, Beltran trails fifth-place Kelli Miller (2005-08) of Purdue by 34. ... Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks recorded her third straight double-double (14 kills, 11 digs) in the match at Evanston. The redshirt sophomore is up to 19 double-doubles for her career. ... Illinois has won nine of its last 10 matches against Wisconsin, the defeat coming in the teams’ last meeting of 2012.
The Badgers are the biggest surprise team in the Big Ten. One year after going 5-15 in the conference — a record that cost coach Pete Waite his job — Wisconsin has been ranked as high as No. 15 this season and is coming off eye-catching victories against then-No. 5 Michigan State and current No. 7 Minnesota — each in four sets. It marked the first time in program history that the Badgers defeated consecutive Top 10 opponents. ... Wisconsin’s success has Kelly Sheffield firmly in the discussion for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Illinois is highly familiar with the previous work of the first-year Badgers coach. During Sheffield’s tenure at Dayton from 2008-12 — when the program made the NCAA tournament field every year — the Illini faced his Flyers five times. Dayton won two of the five meetings, including a 3-0 home sweep last season. ... Badgers libero Annemarie Hickey is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. The Oswego native was honored after averaging 6.4 digs per set in a pair of matches last week, including a season-high 27 in the win against Michigan State. ... Hickey and her back-row mates have been a major factor in Wisconsin’s success. Through Friday’s matches, Wisconsin ranked first in the Big Ten in digs per set for the season as well as in conference matches. That’s no small reason the Badgers are No. 3 in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage for the season and No. 2 in conference action.