Last time the Boilermakers came to Champaign, Illinois handled them in three, but the NCAA Tournament's a whole different animal.
Dec. 12, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Champaign, Ill. - The University of Illinois is hosting one of four NCAA Regionals this weekend as the Road to Seattle goes through State Farm Center. Three of the four participants in the Champaign Regional are members of the Big Ten, attesting to the strength that the conference has shown across the board this season.
Wisconsin vs. Florida State - Friday, Dec. 13 - 4 p.m. - ESPN3
Wisconsin comes into the Sweet 16 at 25-9, earning the 12th overall seed in the tournament and ranking No. 13 in the AVCA poll. Having survived its tough conference schedule, the Badgers finished 12-8 in the Big Ten and are looking forward to sharing the floor with two other Big Ten teams in the Champaign Regional. Wisconsin is making its first NCAA Regional appearance since 2006 and its 11th Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
First-year head coach Kelly Sheffield is one of the most successful first-year head coaches for Badger volleyball. His 25 wins ties for the second best for a rookie coach at UW.
"We're really excited about being here in Champaign playing in the Regionals," Sheffield said. "Being at a place where there are three Big Ten teams I think is really kind of cool and special and we're excited about it. It's a great field of four, four teams that are playing their best volleyball at the end of the season and that are coming in with a lot of confidence."
The Badgers' first test is against the lone non-conference opponent in the regional, the Florida State Seminoles, who tallied a 26-7 record for the season and finished 17-3 in the ACC. The Seminoles will try to carry their momentum from Saturday's second-round upset of in-state rival No. 5 Florida, the highest ranked win in school history. It was the first victory for FSU against Florida in the O'Connell Center in 23 years.
Florida State is competing in its school-record fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament, marking its 16th postseason appearance. Although the Seminoles have never faced Wisconsin, senior right side hitter Elise Walch is a former Badger and knows the Wisconsin team has a lot of good players to watch out for.
Florida State head coach Chris Poole is well aware of how talented the Big Ten conference is this year, and played a few Big Ten teams during the regular season.
"It's very good," Poole said. "Obviously they've challenged teams all year, the top teams in the country. This year with seven teams (in the Sweet 16), you've got to take your hat off to them. Those teams obviously deserve to be there."
"We prepare a certain way throughout the season and we carry that over into the post season," Sheffield said. "What we've done has been good enough to have a really good season in the Big Ten. That conference prepares you for this. If you're able to beat the top teams in that league, those are the best teams in the country. We feel like we've been really, really competitive in the league, preparing a certain way and we're going to continue to prepare a certain way."
UW has won its last three matches by 3-0 scores, its longest set winning streak of the season. In their last three matches, the Badgers are cruising on offense and defense, hitting .392 and averaging 15.4 kills per set. The Seminoles will have a similar look to the Badgers' Big Ten opponents, which will make for an exciting challenge for Wisconsin.
"These guys are monsters at the net," Sheffield said of the Florida State Seminoles. "They are offensively really good, blocking-wise really good. When I see them, I see a Big Ten team. That's not to sit there and say that our conference is the be-all-end-all, but I think when you're looking at most of the Big Ten teams, you're looking at very physical teams. That's who we've been playing against. Sometimes when you go out of conference you're seeing a different style of volleyball, maybe it's a smaller team or defense-oriented or maybe a lot quicker. These guys are big, they're physical and they're very similar to the majority of the teams in [our] conference."
Purdue vs. Illinois - Friday, Dec. 13 - 6 p.m. - ESPN3
Purdue and Illinois will meet up for the third time this year after splitting a pair of conference matches in the regular season. The No. 18 Illini (18-14), who earned the 13th overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, are playing their best volleyball of the season and their matchup against the Boilermakers should make for an exciting game between the rivals across the border.
"They're very physical, they're playing at a very high level," Purdue head coach Dave Shondell said of Illinois. "They're playing as well as they've played all season. [They have] great confidence, and we feel like there are some things that we're going to have to do to stay in the match with them, and if we can do those things then I like our chances."
"I think it gives us a great advantage," Purdue middle blocker KiKi Jones said. "We've seen everyone and we've scouted them really hard before, so I think that we're really well prepared. I think also with Illinois we have a great rivalry already, playing them in the Big Ten twice this year, and I think that will bring a lot of people to come support us because they know how big of a game this is."
Having seven Big Ten teams in the field of 16 in the NCAA tournament is a huge boost for the Big Ten conference, which is playing some of its best volleyball as a whole in recent years. It also makes for well-scouted opponents for Big Ten teams lucky enough to face an in-conference foe in the race to Seattle.
"It's tough," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "We know every match, you show up and you have to play your best. It wouldn't surprise me if we had eight teams in, if all eight made it. It wouldn't surprise me if we had nine teams in, if all nine made it to the Sweet Sixteen. I just think the strength of the conference is that strong."
"I think with the Big Ten teams, it's more about what happens on your side of the net, compared to scouting the other teams," Purdue's Carly Cramer said. "When you play a team out of your conference and they haven't seen you before, it's an advantage and a disadvantage. I think it's an advantage because they've never seen your style of volleyball. But with the Big Ten teams, you see that style all season long, so I think it's all about the mentality, the effort and executing."
Illinois and Purdue know what there is to look forward to Friday night and even with seven Big Ten teams in the tournament, only one of the three in Champaign will make it out of the regional Saturday night.
"Last weekend we played two teams that we were not very familiar with," Shondell said. "And so much of that was establishing a game plan and scheming and things like that. Where I think against Illinois it's about 10 percent scheming and game planning and 90 percent execution. This is all about execution right now."
In the battle for the regional title at State Farm Center, Illinois and Purdue are well prepared for Friday night's "rubber match" to decide the regular-season series split.
"We know each other very well," Hambly said, "so that means it just comes down to execution. It just comes down to how our players perform and how their players perform and how well they execute the game plan."