Same result, different feeling for Illinois volleyball

Minnesota came to Huff Hall and swept the Illini volleyball team in three sets on Friday. This experience was not totally new for the returning players.

Illinois (7-5, 1-1 Big Ten) suffered a 3-0 home loss to Minnesota last year that served as its worst performance of the season. This year, though the result was the same, the effect was not a low point as much as it was a message to a young team of what Big Ten play is like.

“They are the quintessential Big Ten team,” middle blocker Anna Dorn said of Minnesota. “They’re big and physical, they’re gonna do a lot of things that we haven’t necessarily seen because they’re so big. They can hit over us and around us and all that stuff. … I think it was a good way for us to start out (the conference season) just because it would be a good test for us.”

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said he thought the team came out and played passively until late in the third set, during which time Illinois made a 7-3 run before losing the match.

“We were just very tense, very tight (in the first set) and our attacks, we were just hitting these roll shots and not attacking Minnesota at all,” Hambly said Friday. “We had 10 errors, we gave them a lot of points on very, very passive errors. You expect to come out and fight and attack a team … and we didn’t start really attacking them until that third set.”

Illini making it easy for opposing teams

Illinois allowed opponents Minnesota and Wisconsin to hit .375 and .262, respectively over the weekend — both above the Illinois opponents’ season average of .238. After the first week of conference play, Illinois is last in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage.

“We’ve been like top three (in opponent hitting percentage) the last several years, and … something we’ve hung our hat on is being a very good defensive team,” Hambly said. “It’s frustrating for us because we have our system, and we’re not executing it. Things are falling apart.”

Hambly compared the system to Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone defense, where the system works unless the people operating it are younger and inexperienced.

“Actually, when I watch Boeheim’s zone, it’s kinda how we wanna block, it’s read and react,” Hambly said. “You’ve gotta understand situations, and we give them lots of freedom to make decisions and the decisions they’re making aren’t always on. … We need to continue to get better.”

Illinois also ranks last in the Big Ten in opponent service aces allowed per set and kills allowed per set.

Illini hanging on to Top 25 status

Despite losing in three sets to Minnesota, the Illini’s bounce-back win against Wisconsin allowed them to stay in the Top 25, as they slid just one spot to No. 21 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

Around the Big Ten, Penn State vaulted from No. 4 to No. 1 in the country after toppling No. 3 Nebraska and seeing then-No. 2 USC beat then-No. 1 UCLA and then promptly lose to current No. 2 Oregon in three sets. Nebraska fell from No. 3 to No. 6.

Minnesota’s victory over Illinois helped the Golden Gophers rise from No. 12 to No. 10. Purdue’s wins over Michigan and Michigan State helped the Boilermakers rise from No. 17 to No. 13.

Ohio State and Michigan State moved up one spot each to Nos. 22 and 24, respectively. Michigan’s loss to Purdue sent them out of the top 25.

Eliot can be reached at [email protected] and @EliotTweet.