Volleyball season is right around the corner, and Illinois formally announced its schedule last week. It’s a great one with the Illini playing six teams who made it to at least the Sweet 16.
The Illini have put together a rather impressive non-conference schedule, which should both help prepare them for their Big Ten opponents and improve their resume for the NCAA Tournament this December.
The Illini have a very strong non-conference schedule this year, including matches against four teams who finished last season ranked in the AVCA Top 25. All but three of their opponents finished last season with a Top 100 RPI. Illinois’ first test should be against Colorado State on Aug. 24 on the road. The Rams are consistently a strong team, and shouldn’t be far behind the Illini this season.
The Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge also has two solid matchups, as the Illini take on Colorado and then Washington in Seattle on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, respectively. Colorado made it to the Sweet 16 last season and only had three players graduate. Meanwhile, Washington, who Illinois upset in the Round of 32 last season, will have to adjust after graduating seven players, including its libero, setter and kills leader.
Illinois’ last non-conference challenge will be against Creighton, who the Illini play at home on Sept. 15. With an RPI last season of 14, the consistently successful program had only three players graduate and should be one of the nation’s top programs this season, and arguably be Illinois’ toughest non-conference opponent.
The Big Ten is perpetually stacked when it comes to volleyball, and this year should be no different. Seven teams, including Illinois, ended last season in the AVCA Top 25, while only two teams — Indiana and Rutgers — failed to make the Top 100 in RPI. Reigning national champion Nebraska, along with Penn State and Minnesota will likely hold pace for the conference once again, but the rest of the league will be up for grabs.
Illinois’ schedule in the Big Ten should favor the Illini. They only play Penn State and Minnesota once, while they play easier opponents, such as Northwestern and Rutgers, twice.
One opponent to look for for this season is Michigan State, who Illinois will play twice. Illinois lost to the Spartans in the regular season last year and also was eliminated by the Spartans in the Sweet 16. Another home-and-home series against Purdue will also be critical. The Spartans and the Boilermakers should be around the same level as the Illini next season, and winning these games would be huge to boosting Illinois’ standing in the conference, and improving its tournament resume.