In less than two weeks, Illinois Volleyball fans will be filling up Huff Hall once again, as the Illini play at home for the first time in the 2019 season on Sept. 1. Illinois’ Final Four appearance last year was no fluke, and a strong regular season schedule not only helped prepare the Illini for the NCAA Tournament, but bolstered their record and helped them earn top seed honors. Oh, and don’t forget that sweet, sweet home court advantage through the Elite Eight.
Once again, Illinois Volleyball finds itself facing an impressive assortment of teams, with the Big Ten as strong as ever and seven out of eight non-conference opponents having made the NCAA Tournament last year. RPI plays a huge role in determining seeding when it comes to the postseason, and who gets to host games.
While last year’s non-conference slate featured a number of top teams, I anticipate this one being even tougher. Illinois has raised the floor of this portion of the schedule considerably. Last year’s team played five games against teams whose RPI wound up below 100, while this year’s schedule has only three against teams who finished last year with an RPI of 50 or below.
Despite the fact that only one of Illinois’ non-conference games is at home (Sept. 1 against Tennessee), the Illini find themselves close to home for much of the start of their season. Illinois plays three games at Illinois State, along with two in Indianapolis. The furthest Illinois travels to play non-Big Ten teams are Knoxville for the season opener at Tennessee, and Iowa for the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
This non-conference schedule is only setting the Illini up for a rigorous Big Ten schedule however, and should serve to really prepare them for the toughest bit. Ranked No. 6 in the AVCA preseason poll, Illinois is fourth in the Big Ten. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all find themselves above the Illini in the same poll, and for good reason. The Big Ten is stacked, and the competition between these four teams for a shot at a Big Ten title should be intense.
Illinois only plays four games against those top three Big Ten teams: Nebraska once at home, Wisconsin once on the road, and Minnesota twice. All four of these games will take place during the front half of the Big Ten schedule, in Illinois’ first eight conference games. The Illini will also take on Penn State, ranked No. 8, twice as well.
Looking at the rest of the Big Ten, not too much jumps out. Illinois will take on No. 15 Michigan twice, and No. 17 Purdue once on the road. These two teams sit a bit below the Big Ten frontrunners, but could very well serve as spoilers to any team that faces them. Illinois also only takes on Rutgers, the basement dwellers of the Big Ten, once, which should help keep Illinois’ RPI high.
Illinois has shown itself to be one of the top volleyball programs in the country over the last few seasons, and top programs play tough schedules. This year is no different, and with the quality of opponents Illinois faces this season, the Illini will be preparing to make a run come the postseason.