Illini volleyball near perfect at home in tournament

Playing at home is advantageous for most teams, but for the Illinois volleyball team, it may be more than that.

The Illini are 34-20 in the NCAA tournament all time, but 26 of those wins have come at home, compared to three losses. The last time Illinois lost a home match in the NCAA tournament was over a decade ago, in 2001 against Arizona. Fortunately for the Illini, they get the potential opportunity to play two more matches at their “alternate” home, State Farm Center, before potentially embarking on a trip to Seattle for the Final Four.

The home-court advantage doesn’t just bode well for Illinois’ play on the court, but it also bodes well for its academic endeavors at this time of year.

“It’s all new,” head coach Kevin Hambly said of the atmosphere after his team’s win against Marquette on Saturday. “I’m excited that we’ll have a great crowd, but I’m curious to see how it is to play at the State Farm Center.

“It’s nice for the kids to play at home. They have tests and finals coming up. Last time we made our tournament run we took 23 finals in the last two weekends on the road. To be here and have our normal schedule is a huge advantage.”

Junior outside hitter Liz McMahon said the team is taking a different approach to the tournament than the regular season.

“We’re approaching the whole tournament as just living in the moment,” McMahon said. “That goes for everything. We all have finals, so when you go to take a test just live in that moment. Then when you get to the State Farm Center you can’t get wrapped up in playing at home. It’s going to be a different atmosphere. Huff was even different when we’re hosting the NCAA’s. We have this vision and we’re not stopping until we can get there.”

Looking ahead

While Illinois is facing a familiar opponent in Purdue on Friday in the Sweet 16, the Illini have a chance to face teams it has played in the regular season throughout the rest of the tournament, if they advance. Of the 16 remaining programs, Illinois has already faced 10 in the regular season.

“It’s only going to be great teams from here on out,” assistant coach Dan Conners said in a radio interview after the win against Marquette. “The NCAA is getting deeper and deeper. You can’t look past any of these teams in the tournament.”

With the exception of the Big Ten teams remaining, the Illini have a chance to match up against Florida State in the Elite Eight, San Diego or Texas in the Final Four and Washington in the championship. Illinois defeated Florida State in the season opener, but fell to the other three teams.

Big Ten providing strong showing

So far, just one of the eight Big Ten teams has failed to reach the Sweet 16 this year. Michigan was knocked off by LSU in the opening round. Depending on match results, the Big Ten can represent three of the Final Four teams and both teams in the championship match. The conference has had at least one representative reach the Final Four every year since 2006. Illinois reached the championship match in 2011, but lost to UCLA.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]