1. When Illinois wades into the Champaign Regional starting Friday, Kevin Hambly’s team shouldn’t have any doubt about whether it’s capable of beating any of the three visitors to State Farm Center. It already has.
The No. 18 Illini opened the season with a neutral-site sweep of No. 16 Florida State. Illinois won its lone meeting against No. 13 Wisconsin in four sets at Madison. And the Illini split two matches against No. 19 Purdue, with each winning on its home court. Hambly views his team’s 3-1 record against the regional field as a bit of a two-edged sword: a confidence-builder for his players and an additional motivator for the Badgers, Seminoles and perhaps even the Boilermakers, whose last memory of the Illini was being swept in mid-November at Huff Hall.
“I think there’s a little bit of confidence in that (3-1 record), but also teams are out for revenge,” Hambly said. “Two of those teams, they haven’t gotten us this year.” Still, the way Hambly reads the pulse of this Illini team, confidence is paramount. “To me, when this team believes that they should win, they compete a little bit harder,” he said. “They’re a little bit more comfortable (in the heat of competition).”
2. For much of the season, Hambly has extolled the merits of Big Ten volleyball. The national coaches’ poll and the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI) weekly supported Hambly’s view.
Now, in this postseason, Jim Delany’s conference is further cementing its claim to being the deepest, most competitive bunch in the sport in 2013. Of the 16 teams still standing in the NCAA tournament, seven are Big Ten members. That’s not only a Big Ten record for Sweet 16 representatives, it’s the most for any league in the history of the event. It’s worth noting, too, that although the Pac-12 had a nation-high nine members selected to the original 64-team field, six have been eliminated.
And the SEC, which matched the Big Ten’s eight postseason picks, already has been wiped off the board. “We had five teams hosting (first- and second-round matches). That helps, of course,” Hambly said. “But the Big Ten, I think, top to bottom is the strongest conference. You could argue still that maybe the Pac-12 is better at the top. We’ll find out, because I think SC (Southern California) and Stanford and Washington are all really good teams. But I think we had 10 teams that were capable of making a run in the tournament.”
3. If longtime Illini volleyball fans are hard-pressed to recall the last time they witnessed a postseason loss in Champaign, don’t fret. You’re not having a senior moment. It really has been a long time. Twelve years, to be exact.
Coach Don Hardin’s 2001 Illini squad was picked to host the opening two rounds after going 20-8 in the regular season. However, the NCAA also assigned No. 4 Arizona to Champaign, and Illinois fell to the Final Four-bound Wildcats in the second round at Huff Hall. Since then, the Illini are undefeated in 12 NCAA tournament home matches. But that only hints at the astounding postseason home record the program has built since Illinois’ first NCAA tournament appearance in Champaign in 1986.
With two wins last week at Huff Hall, the Illini now are 26-3 overall in such matches. “I’d love to keep that rolling, of course,” Hambly said. However, the UI coach rightfully points out that the bulk of those victories were achieved in the first and second rounds. Particularly since expansion of the tournament to 64 teams in 1999, the Illini typically would have been favored in those home matches. “A lot of times, we’ve probably been the seeded team,” Hambly said. “And Huff is a good place to play in the tournament. I think it has a lot to do with just being at Huff.” The record for UI home regional matches is equally impressive, although the sample size is far smaller and highly dated.
The Illini previously hosted three regionals, the last in 1992. They are 5-1 in those matches, with the 1987 and ‘88 teams that played its home matches at Kenney Gym advancing to the Final Four. Overall, Illinois is 9-10 in regional matches.