Illinois is back on the road this weekend in Milwaukee to finish its nonconference slate, and beat writer Scott Richey has the lowdown on the 25th-ranked Illini:
Back in the mix
Kennedy Collins eased back into the Illinois rotation last weekend after missing time with an undisclosed injury. The senior middle blocker played just a single set against Missouri State and sat out the Villanova match before playing the duration of the Illini’s win against Dayton. Collins also played the entirety of Wednesday night’s sweep at Eastern Illinois, finishing with eight kills and four blocks.
“It was obviously because I was in a role I’m not usually in, and it wasn’t very comfortable for me,” Collins said about being forced to sit out. “But I had all the trust in my teammates. It was fine, and now I’m recovered. … I did ease into it and felt really good. It felt good to be back. My adrenaline was running. I was hyped.”
Three wins last weekend put Illinois back on the right side of .500, and Wednesday’s win in Charleston kept the positive streak going. It was a needed turn of events after the Illini (5-3) lost three of their first four matches — albeit against solid competition with a pair of ranked opponents — to start the season. The trip to Milwaukee to play Illinois State (6-3) at 10 a.m. Saturday and 19th-ranked Marquette (7-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday is Illinois’ final tuneup before Big Ten play starts Sept. 23.
“The Big Ten is a great conference — one of the best in the country,” Illinois junior outside hitter Raina Terry said. “We have to do that in the preseason, too. We can’t just play a ton of easy teams, roll over them and not be battled-tested come Big Ten play.”
Illinois coach Chris Tamas sets up his nonconference schedule with a purpose — both in the long-term and short-term. The long-term benefit is RPI related as the Illini build a worthy NCAA tournament résumé. In the short term, no nonconference team will be a perfect simulation of a Big Ten opponent, of course, but weaknesses can be exposed early and then fixed before league play. Tamas said he felt like his team made some necessary adjustments last weekend.
“I thought we were really patient on defense and made some really nice plays,” Tamas said. “We’ve been known to be a really good serving team the last several years. I really felt like (last) weekend was the first weekend we kind of put that all together.”
Diana Brown is the only holdover on the Illinois roster from the 2018 Final Four season when she redshirted behind eventual Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Poulter. That just means the current Illini setter has had more than a passing familiarity with most of the teams on the nonconference schedule. This was Brown’s third season playing against Colorado and Washington in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, and matches this weekend against Illinois State and Marquette will also be familiar. The Illini played the Redbirds in 2019 and 2021 and the Golden Eagles in 2018 (a Sweet 16 match at Huff Hall) and 2019.
“It builds the competitiveness,” Brown said. “I want to beat you again. Let’s go play again and get out on the court and win.”