NCAA tournament bracket provides special opportunity for Illini volleyball

By Alex Roux

The road to the Final Four runs through Champaign.

Members of the Illinois volleyball team huddled around a TV Sunday night during the NCAA Volleyball Tournament selection show, March Madness style. The brackets were released, the players cheered, and the Illini’s tournament prospects got much brighter.

With the Illini earning a No. 13 seed, Huff Hall will host first and second round matches of the NCAA tournament, with State Farm Center in Champaign set to host regional rounds. If the Illini end up making it to the Final Four, they will have done so without playing a match away from home. This is an unbelievably favorable path for Kevin Hambly’s squad. It’s 2005-esque, when the Illini basketball team made it to St. Louis’ Final Four after playing regional and semifinal rounds in Indianapolis and Chicago.

For any team, the ultimate goal is to win it all. The 2011 version of the Illini nearly did it, falling in the championship match to UCLA. This 2013 team is not the same, not even close. The Illini posted a 16-14 overall record after slugging through one of the nation’s toughest schedules. They played strong down the stretch, which likely contributed to their favorable seeding.

The Illini fell on Senior Night, getting swept at the hands of Minnesota. Now they have a chance to shine on two unofficial senior nights at Huff Hall, which is sure to be packed and loud on Friday night when Morehead State comes to town.

Huff is old. Huff is cramped. Huff is deafening when filled to capacity. Seniors Jennifer Beltran and Courtney Abrahamovich should relish the opportunity to play there one, hopefully two, more times.

With the path to the Final Four now in front of them, reasonable expectations for this team come into play. The Illini have shown they can compete with the top teams in the country. They hung tough with perennial powerhouse Penn State and took No. 1 seed Texas to five sets. Illinois is ranked 18th in the country and will be playing at home. I expect the Illini to benefit from their home-court advantage this weekend and move on to the regional round.

If the Illini can make it to the Sweet 16 at State Farm Center, this season should be considered a resounding success.

If they can advance that far, then momentum will undoubtedly be on the Illini’s side. They’ll have converted a unique opportunity into a special one. People would be pumped about heading over to the home of Illinois basketball for a volleyball match.

Let’s fast-forward to Dec. 13. Illinois is taking on a 36-0 Missouri team at State Farm Center. The arena is rocking. Spike Squad is in full force. Even the elderly fans in the reserved seats are on their feet. It feels like 2011 all over again.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But this is my dream scenario for the Illini now that the brackets are set. A berth in the Sweet 16 coming off two home postseason wins. A chance to advance to the Elite Eight, then the Final Four, in front of the home crowd. Anything can happen with momentum on your side.

The Illini can’t ask for much more than that.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.