This is the first of a two-part series that emphasizes the strengths and weaknesses of two teams in a big match on any particular day. We chose the Big Ten match-up between #6 Minnesota and (RV) Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. Minnesota is coming off of a four-set victory at Evanston Township High School (no seriously, it’s Northwestern), while Illinois lost a hard-fought four-setter to #12 Wisconsin last night at home.
- #6 Minnesota (25-3, 14-3 Big Ten) at (RV) Illinois (18-10, 9-8 Big Ten)
- Champaign, Illinois
- 7PM Central Time/8PM Eastern Time
- Big Ten Network
- Full TV and streaming schedule
This is one of those matches that coaches fear the most. Near the end of the season, the second of back-to-back nights, long matches the night before. Neither will win the Big Ten Conference title. Both will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s the kicker: Minnesota (RPI: 4), with the opportunity to host on opening weekend, cannot afford to falter in that goal. They’re going to beat Rutgers next week. But they also get Penn State at home on senior night on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They might even be able to steal a #1 overall seed, if they win all three and the three teams in front of them in the RPI (Penn State, Florida, Kentucky) all slip up somewhere this weekend or next.
Illinois (RPI: 27) does not have that same pressure. They will not host on opening weekend. They’ll make the tourney, and most likely be sent someplace that would make the match watchable for the masses. Wouldn’t it be neat if they were sent out to Stanford?
Ahem. I digress. Sorry about that. I’m a conspiracy theorist at heart.
In all seriousness, this match and this match alone will be the last RPI booster that can show the NCAA Committee that they should be sent somewhere easier. Their last two matches are hosting Iowa (RPI: 45) and at Ohio State (RPI: 38). Neither of those two teams will be easy, since both will be fighting for their tournament lives. And neither of those teams will help Illinois’ RPI cause with both being below them in the RPI rankings.
So what do we have? This match. A loss by Minnesota would not help, but it won’t kick them out of hosting on the opening weekend. A loss by Illinois, though, makes the trek through the tournament field that much harder. A win for the Illini could mean the difference between travelling to Stanford or travelling to Iowa State. Big difference.
MINNESOTA’S KEYS TO VICTORY
- Stephanie Samedy staying hot
She’s a ridiculously talented athlete and volleyball player. She’s averaging almost five kills per set in their last four matches. No one else on Minny’s roster is showing up that hot this late in the season. The crazy part is that every team they play knows that by now, and she’s getting better. Six kills per set in their four-set win as recently as last night over Northwestern. In order for Minnesota to keep taking care of business, take care of the ball, and subsequently, Samedy. Did I mention she’s a freshman?
- Conference stat leaders should continue to lead
The statement by itself makes no sense. But knowing that Minnesota leads the Big Ten in kills per set and digs per set, and you can plug the above bullet point in and understand Minnesota’s success. They transition dig with the same offensive tempo as their serve receive, making it extra hard on opposing teams if you don’t make Samantha Seliger-Swenson at least move away from target. The tempo in the offense creates gaps in blocks, and here comes another thump from the Golden Gophers. Purdue gave a little blueprint on how to slow them down, but Purdue is one of the tougher serving teams in the conference. Illinois is not.
ILLINOIS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
- Hands on everything at the net
What Illinois has is the best blocking team in the Big Ten. It is rare to find a team on their schedule they have not outblocked; the last time they were outblocked was against Penn State almost a month ago. But at 3 blocks per set, you can now cut your need to earn each and every one of those 25 points. 3 blocks per set, plus a few more soft blocks/free ball transitions limits that number to 20. 1 ace per set brings us to 19. 14 kills per set, now you only need to find 5 points. See how important blocking is?
- Go for it
Illinois, truly, has nothing to lose. They’re in, and if the NCAA Committee leaves them out, it would be a disservice to the tournament. Coach Chris Tamas has them fighting for every last point, and their crowds are amazing. So why not “grip it and rip it”? Go for it, push Minnesota. Make them be limited in their offensive options. Who knows? It worked for Purdue.
SO NOW WHAT?
I got a little saucy with my last scouting report and included my first prediction. I was this close to being wrong. And I don’t like being wrong. I’ll stay out of the prognostication business and leave it to the experts. But here’s what each team needs:
TO BEAT MINNESOTA, YOU NEED TO:
- Blast high and hard
- Make them move in serve receive and defense
- Keep them out of system
- Minimize errors
Cheesy, yes. But again, the above worked for Purdue, so why not Illinois? Bullet #1: Minnesota is big, but not the greatest of blocking teams. Teams that lead the league in digs per set usually lack in the blocking area. Bullet #2: Movement of any defensive posture changes platforms, randomizing passing. Bullet #3: They aren’t the greatest in out-of-system play. If anything, they’re predictable. Bullet #4: Minnesota will not beat themselves. No need to send over any free points.
TO BEAT ILLINOIS, YOU NEED TO:
- Keep them down
- Avoid hitting seam
- Serve anyone but Donnelly, and tough
Bullet #1: Keeping the crowd out of it should be a primary task for any team that enters Huff Hall. Illinois is not built as a comeback team—only three players average over 1.9 kills per set. Bullet #2: This should be a no-brainer, but Illinois’ middles are long-armed to the max. Most of those blocks come from their middles. Avoid them. Bullet #3: Donnelly can pass really well, and making the others pass makes for a quick night (or a long night, depending on perspective). Making the other players pass will make Illinois out-of-system and predictable.