Illinois volleyball benefiting from tough schedule in NCAA tournament

By Alex Roux

A dream run to the Final Four for the Illinois volleyball team is looking more like a reality.

After taking care of Morehead State on Friday and knocking off No. 22 Marquette on Saturday, the Illini have advanced to the Sweet 16 regional round. Luckily for Illinois, the regional round is being held at State Farm Center in Champaign. If the Illini can win their next two matches at State Farm Center, they will advance to the Final Four at KeyArena in Seattle. The Illini took full advantage of their home court at Huff Hall this past weekend, dropping only one set to Marquette as they steamrolled through the first two rounds.

After enduring a rough start to the season, Kevin Hambly’s squad is winning when it counts. Illinois’ 16-14 regular season record is unimpressive at face value, but you have to look deeper to see why losses piled up.

Illinois had the toughest schedule in the country after a brutal nonconference slate and playing in the stacked Big Ten conference. It nearly cost them an NCAA tournament appearance as the losses mounted, but the Illini played strong down the stretch to earn a tournament berth. Such a difficult schedule can be a double-edged sword, but the Illini are reaping the benefits of playing tough opponents now that it’s tournament time.

The Illini, who garnered a No. 13 overall seed, played two opponents last weekend that were unseeded. Their next opponent is Purdue, a familiar conference foe. They faced the Boilermakers twice in the regular season, losing in West Lafayette and sweeping the Boilers at home.

If the Illini can take care of Purdue, they will once again be facing a familiar opponent with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Wisconsin and Florida State are playing in the other regional matchup at State Farm Center. Illinois swept Florida State in their first game of the season and defeated Wisconsin 3-1 in their only matchup of the season. The Illini know they can beat any opponent they face this weekend, because they’ve done it before.

Illinois’ regular season schedule consisted of five matches against teams ranked in the top 10, and 15 of them were against teams ranked in the top 25. That’s an absurd stat: Half of their regular season matches were against ranked teams. The Illini took their lumps and came out of the gauntlet a better team, as their key wins down the stretch demonstrated. Missouri’s 2013 season provides a great example of why playing a tough schedule is important. The Tigers faced a cupcake regular-season slate and stormed to a 34-0 record. They fell 3-1 to Purdue on Saturday night. The Illini have done just the opposite. After taking top-five teams Penn State and Texas to five sets, Illinois has no reason to be intimidated the rest of the way.

Junior hitter Liz McMahon was a force over the weekend’s two matches, including a 17-kill performance against Marquette. To make it to the Final Four, the Illini will also need strong contributions from sophomore Jocelynn Birks and junior Morganne Criswell. When Birks and Criswell are on, the Illini pose a much more formidable hitting threat, and the team plays noticeably better as a whole.

A week ago, I wrote about how the Illini got a favorable tournament draw and that their most realistic goal would be a Sweet 16 berth. After seeing their potential matchups with the home crowd on their side, I’ve changed my tune.

There’s no doubt that Illini fans should be proud of what this team has accomplished, no matter how this weekend turns out. But it’s time to get excited. Now, it’s Final Four or bust.

See you in Seattle.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.