Volleyball preview: Michigan at Illinois

Illini volleyball preview: No. 17 Michigan (15-8, 5-7 Big Ten) at Illinois (10-12, 6-6 Big Ten), 6:30 p.m. today

Setting the scene
The travelin’ Illini are finally back home. After playing eight of its previous 10 matches on the road, Illinois returns to Huff Hall for its next four. It’s the start of a stretch run in which the Illini will play  six of their final eight regular season matches on their home court. The question is, can Illinois capitalize on this favorable schedule? Kevin Hambly’s team will need to in order to become eligible for the NCAA tournament. Only teams with a .500 record can get in — if invited — so the Illini will need to go at least 5-3 the rest of the way. Illinois’ current 3-4 home record might not appear encouraging, but some context is necessary. Those four defeats came against opponents currently ranked No. 1, 2, 3 and 11. ... BTN will carry tonight’s match live. Illinois enters 1-3 in matches on the network this season. ... The Illini have won nine of the last 11 meetings against Michigan, including a five-set victory Oct. 5 at Ann Arbor, Mich.

Illini update
The last time Illinois faced Michigan, outside hitter Jocelynn Birks belted a match-high 21 kills and committed four errors in 59 swings. The redshirt sophomore, who had been mired in a five-match slump entering that night, has been playing some of the best volleyball of her career since. Birks is averaging 15.9 kills in her last nine matches and has been making an impact on the defense, too. The outside hitter reached double figures in digs in six of those nine matches, raising her number of career double-doubles to 21. ... Illinois is No. 23 in the latest NCAA Rating Percentage Index, that’s sixth highest among Big Ten teams. Michigan is No. 25 in the RPI. ... In conference matches, the Illini have two players ranked in the top 10 in kills per set: Birks fifth and Liz McMahon 10th. Nebraska is the only other team with as many as two.

About Michigan
After going 10-1 in the preconference, including 2-1 against ranked foes, the Wolverines have found it much tougher sledding in the Big Ten. Michigan is still highly regarded, maintaining its seasonlong presence in the coaches’ Top 25 and never falling below No. 17 in the poll. However, it’s not having much success against the Big Ten’s best, going 2-6 against ranked conference foes. ... They have been a dangerous team on the road, going 4-3 on opponents’ courts and 7-4 in all matches away from home. ... In conference matches, Michigan ranks fourth in blocks and digs, and fifth in opponent hitting percentage. Illinois hit only .175 in the first meeting against the Wolverines but managed to pull out a win with a Jekyll-and-Hyde attack. In Sets 2 and 3, the Illini hit .030 and .000. In Sets 1 and 5, they hit 429 and .300. ... Setter Lexi Dannemiller ranks fourth in the Big Ten in assists per set (10.70) for a balanced Michigan attack. The Wolverines have no individual in the league’s top 10 in kills but rank third as a team in that category.

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