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What to expect as Illinois enters the Sweet 16

Marquette is up next.

@IlliniVBall

Illinois Volleyball cruised through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, sweeping Eastern Michigan and beating Louisville in four sets to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season — and ninth time in 11 years.

Illinois will play Marquette Friday morning, with an 11 a.m. first serve at Huff Hall. The match will be televised on ESPNU.

Nov. 30: #3 Illinois 3, Eastern Michigan 0

Eastern Michigan wasn’t able to put up much of a fight against the Illini, losing 25-14, 25-9, 25-20. Illini hit at a great .455 percentage for the match, including an absolutely ridiculous second set where they hit .812, with 13 kills on 16 attempts and no errors.

Jacqueline Quade and Ashlyn Fleming led the offense with eight kills each, while Megan Cooney tacked on another six, on 24 assists from Jordyn Poulter. Illinois’ block was as strong as ever as Ali Bastianelli and Fleming had five and four, respectively.

Dec. 1: #3 Illinois 3, Louisville 1

Illinois faced a tougher opponent against the Louisville Cardinals, who took the Illini to four sets, 25-22, 26-28, 25-17, 25-18. The Illini hit at a respectable .281 clip as a team, while they held Louisville to a .075 percentage.

Quade continued to lead the offense with 14 kills, while Beth Prince had 10 and Cooney had another nine, as Poulter picked up 44 more assists.

The Illini defense was strong all over, as Morgan O’Brien picked up 25 digs, while Quade and Poulter had 12 and 10 each. It was a ridiculous night for Illini on the block, as Ali Bastianelli had 10, while Poulter and Fleming each had seven and six.

The Road Ahead: Marquette, 28-6, RPI 15

The Golden Eagles will prove to be a much tougher opponent for the Illini than either of their two previous tournament opponents. Marquette has put together an impressive season, with big wins over USC (the 11th national seed this year) and UNI. Against other top opponents this year, they lost to BYU, Wisconsin and Creighton (twice).

Though their only real marquee win is USC, the strength of their schedule, especially in non-conference play, should help them against Illinois next Friday. Neither EMU nor Louisville had a schedule near the quality of Marquette’s, and it showed on the court. Marquette could prove to be a challenge for the Illini, and I anticipate that this match will go four sets, with Illinois coming out on top.

Further Ahead: Wisconsin/San Diego

Wisconsin will likely win the matchup between these two teams in the other Sweet Sixteen matchup at Huff this week. Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country, and holds the No. 6 national seed in this tournament. Wisconsin, led by middle Dana Rettke, has some big wins this year, having defeated a second-ranked Texas team, as well as Illinois, Nebraska, and Penn State in Big Ten play. Not only have the Badgers had strong opponents, but they’ve succeeded against them, being ranked sixth in the RPI with a 24-6 record.

However, the Toreros of San Diego have put up an impressive fight in the NCAA Tournament as well, taking down Cal Poly (#13 AVCA poll) and USC (#11 seed, #17 AVCA) so far, and will definitely put up a fight against the Badgers. If they want to continue their Cinderella story in this tournament, they’ll need to pick up a tough win first.

Provided that Illinois advances to the Elite Eight, either of these opponents should make for an exciting match. Illinois and Wisconsin split their matches with each other this season, and we should see another closely contested battle once again if these two teams’ paths cross, which could very easily go five sets and go either team’s way.

If Illinois was to play San Diego, I’d expect a slightly more lopsided result, in Illinois’s favor. While USD has shown it can compete, the Toreros don’t have any wins against teams near the Illini, losing twice to BYU. In a worst-case scenario for the Illini, I see this match going four sets with Illinois advancing to the Final Four in Minneapolis.

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