After 10 matches away from Champaign, Illinois will have its first action at Huff Hall this weekend, and beat writer Scott Richey spotlights where the Illini stand with Big Ten play beginning:

Home-court advantage

This isn’t the first year Illinois spent the first month of the season playing away from Huff Hall. The Illini had zero nonconference home matches last fall and just one in 2019. While the Illini have had success away from Champaign in the past — and were actually significantly better in true road matches and on neutral courts last season — there’s still something unique about playing at Huff. Illinois coach Chris Tamas called the 97-year-old campus venue one of the “most electric places” he’s coached.

“I’m so ready to be home,” Illinois senior middle blocker Rylee Hinton said. “Traveling is brutal being on the road four weeks in a row and not really having a solid fan base and working against the crowd. I’m very excited to be home.”

Gritty defensive display needed

That Caroline Barnes’ perspective on Illinois’ efforts through its 10-match nonconference schedule centered on defense isn’t exactly a surprise. That’s the sophomore libero’s raison d’être since she slid into that role following Taylor Kuper’s departure. Barnes, who leads Illinois and ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 4.03 digs per set, said the nonconference matches showed her the Illini need to become grittier on defense.

“We do not want to be the team that shots and tips consistently score on,” Barnes said. “Obviously, there are plays where it’s like ‘golf clap, great play,’ but we want to be the team where we’re frustrating on defense. Everyone’s on the floor. It’s not people looking at each other guessing whose ball it is, but we’re running into each other before that ball hits the floor.”

Needed change on serving

Jessica Nunge caught fire from the service line last week and finished with eight aces in three matches. That more than doubled her season total — she’s now up to 15 aces, which is second on the team behind 19 from Raina Terry — and is a result of the 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter settling into a revamped approach that saw Nunge flip sides of the court she served from after three-plus seasons of the same lineup and technique.

“I needed kind of a fresh prospective, fresh restart,” Nunge said. “My serves when I was serving on the other side at the beginning of the season weren’t as effective as I wanted them to be. I just wasn’t able to make an adjustment if I stayed there. I had to make a big change to get a more effective serve.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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