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The Sett, Week 2: at Illinois

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Wisconsin returns to Huff Hall for the first time since their Elite 8 loss in 2018. What’s happened to the Illini since?

2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“Last” Year In Illini Volleyball

Coming into 2019, the Illinois Fighting Illini had high expectations. They finished a strong 34-4 overall, with a 17-3 record in regular Big 10 play, two games behind Minnesota. In irregular Big 10 play, they beat Wisconsin in Huff Hall to advance to the Final 4, where they lost to Nebraska in Minneapolis. The Gophers, even with home court advantage for all six matches, did not advance past the Sweet Sixteen. Did I start this paragraph meaning to dump on Minnesota for a game played 25 months ago? No, but life finds a way.

2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship
Poulter (No. 1) and Bastianelli (No. 5) vs. Nebraska in the Final Four.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Turns out, their key seniors, middle blocker Ali Bastianelli and setter Jordyn Poulter, were actually irreplaceable. Illinois hitting percentage fell from .281 to .231, opposing hitting percentage rows from .168 to .212, and the preseason No. 6 team went 16-14 overall and got bounced in the first round by seeded Utah.

Last season, I was fascinated with how weird the Illini were doing. They’d build a 2-1 set advantage against Nebraska and Wisconsin and lose. They were up 2-0 at Penn State and lost. (We can relate.) November 27th, they beat Northwestern 3-1. November 30th, they lost to Northwestern 3-1.

2021 Illini Volleyball

Last weekend, Illinois headed to Iowa City and picked up a pair of 3-1 victories. Sophomore middle blocker Rylee Hinton was named as the conference’s defensive player of the week.

Iowa’s not that great, but managed to create one set each night where they out-hit Illinois to prevent a sweep. In small sample size, completely unsustainable news, the Illini notched 14 + 10 = 24 total aces in the weekend against the Hawkeyes. I peeked at the last few years of match stats, and the highest I saw from either Wisconsin or Illinois in a single match was 12, and not that often. 14 is preposterous.

Front Court

Two-time first-team all Big Ten and one-time AVCA All-American Jacqueline Quade left big shoes to fill, and in the very early going they’re being filled by senior OH Megan Cooney and redshirt freshman MB/OH Ellie Holzman on the attack.

Defensively, Rylee Hinton really thrived in her expanded role, with her 16 blocks being the reason she’s the B1G defensive player of the week. Last year she totaled 24 in her limited action.

Back Court

Last season’s all-conference freshman Diana Brown and senior Kylie Bruder each had 41 assists against the Hawkeyes, which suggests a 6-2 rotation over the 5-1 most teams run. It would definitely be a change from last year when Brown ran the show.

Another odd change is finding someone to replace the Illini’s 2019 best digger, Morgan O’Brien, who already won a Big XII title when she transferred to Texas. Taylor Kuper looks like she took over the libero spot, but the other players with double-digit digs are the two setters, Cooney and Holzman. I’m really intrigued at how this team subs in and out now, or if that was Iowa choosing to attack outside hitters.

Game Info

Game Info, But Make It Letterkenny

Elsewhere Around the Conference

Another light schedule this weekend, with the other conference favorites playing “happy to have you here!” teams. Maybe Northwestern’s Temi Thomas-Ailara single-handidly puts fear in the hearts of Nebraska? She has the cannon to do it, but that may be limited to a few choice highlights on Northwestern’s social media feed before they give the scoreboard showing a sweep with a sentence pulled from an emo lyricist’s notebook.