Champaign, Ill. (UI Release) - Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly makes no bones about where his team's focus is all year.
"From the time we start individual workouts in January through the spring and fall, non-conference and conference season, our goal is to put ourselves in position to get the highest seed possible and make a run in the NCAA Tournament comeDecember," the fourth-year coach said.
That includes how he schedules. Last season with a challenging schedule, the Illini finished No. 1 in the RPI and earned the No. 3 overall national seed in theNCAA Tournament. Illinois parlayed that into the program's third national semifinal appearance and its first national championship match. The Orange and Blue return five starters from that team, and the 2012 slate promises to be as challenging as any in recent memory.
The fact that 21 of the 30 matches are against teams that made the 2011 NCAA Tournament only begins to tell the story. Illinois plays 13 different teams(eight of them twice) that made the tournament. Of those, 12 advanced to the second round, eight reached the Sweet 16 and three joined Illinois in the Elite Eight. In total, the Illini play 14 matches against Sweet 16 teams. The schedule also features 13 matches against teams who finished in the final AVCA Coaches poll, including eight against top-10 teams. Those ranked opponents are Texas (4), Pepperdine (6), Iowa State (8), Penn State (9), Purdue (10), Nebraska (12), Minnesota (15), Michigan (20) and Ohio State (23). Dayton, Michigan State and Cincinnati also received votes.
The non-conference slate includes four matches against Elite Eight teams, one on the road, and a trip to one of the toughest home courts in the country, the University of Dayton, where the Illini participate in the Flyer Classic. Illinois has 6-3 advantage in the the all-time series against the Flyers, who reached the NCAA second round a year ago, but lost its only meeting in Dayton (in 2007) in five sets despite having match point.
"We start off playing in one of the craziest environments we're going to play in all year (Dayton)," Hambly said. "That will be baptism by fire for our players. I know they're ready for that kind of match and we'll use that for preparation purposes."
In that tournament, Illinois also faces perennial NCAA qualifier Ohio, although the Bobcats missed the tournament a year ago, and Pepperdine, who reached the Elite Eight last season before dropping a heartbreaking five-setter to USC in the regional final.
The first matches at Huff Hall will be equally as daunting. The State Farm Illini Classic features just one other team this year, Iowa State. The Cyclones, one of the top teams each year in the Big 12, earned the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, defeating Minnesota in the regional semifinal before beingupset by Florida State in the Elite Eight round.
The Illini and Cyclones have played the last couple of years during the spring season, but will meet for the first time in the regular season since 1982. Illinois will play Iowa State in back-to-back nights on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Hambly said the weekend will set the tone for how many big matches there will be at Huff Hall in 2012. Illinois ranked 10th in the nation in attendance in 2011 at 2,475. Illinois has a 57-6 home record over the past four seasons, including a 16-1 mark in 2011. The Illini had four of its top 15 all-time crowds last year.
"Every match that we are hosting will be a battle," Hambly said. "The goal in my mind is to average 3,000 for the season (only five schools in the country accomplished that in 2011). I would hope we could get close to that this year."
The other two pre-conference weekends will be tough as well. The fourth year of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge sees the Illini facing Cincinnati and Louisville, both of which won matches in last year's NCAA Tournament, in the Queen City. The Illini play Cincinnati again the following week in Austin, Texas, alongwith Central Florida and host Texas. Illinois stopped the Longhorns' 25-match home court non-conference winning streak two years ago in the same tournament before falling at Texas in five sets in the 2010 NCAA regional semifinal. The Longhorns followed up consecutive Final Four appearances with an Elite Eight bid in 2011.
"We'll have new faces out there and others taking on bigger roles than they have in the past," Hambly said. "We'll know who are at the end of the pre-conference."
The Big Ten season kicks off Sept. 21-22 with Minnesota, under the leadership of U.S. Olympic head coach Hugh McCutheon, and an improved Wisconsin team coming toChampaign. The Big Ten led the nation with six Sweet 16 qualifiers a year ago, including Purdue, who comes to Huff Hall for a mid-week special on Halloween night. The Illini host every Big Ten team but Iowa during the fall. Nebraska, which had a rare absence from the Sweet 16 in 2011, makes its first trip to Champaign as a member of the league on Oct. 20, an off weekend for Illinois football. PennState, who had its four-year national title run come to a halt last year, comes to town two weeks prior on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Reserved season tickets are $77 per ticket (less than $6 per match) for the general public, $65 for faculty/staff and $38 for youth 18 and under. A general admission season ticket is $25. For an additional $10 (or $35 total), fans can purchase a combined general admission season ticket good for women's basketball and volleyball. That translates to just over $1 per event for the 30 home dates. Single-match tickets go on sale starting July 30. Those prices remain the same -- $7 for public reserved, $4 for youth reserved, $5 for public general admission, $2 for youth general admission. University of Illinois students are admitted free to all events with a student ID. Season and individual tickets for volleyball matches can be purchased in advance, either in person at the Athletic Ticket Office or by calling 866-Illini-1.