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2018 NCAA Volleyball Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: #3 Illinois vs #14 Marquette

WOO FIRST EVER SWEET 16 PREVIEW ON THIS WEBSITE HIGH FIVES ALL AROUND

North Carolina Tar Heels v Illinois Fighting Illini Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

2018 NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT SWEET SIXTEEN

#3 Illinois Fighting Illini (30-3) vs #14 Marquette Golden Eagles (28-6)

Date: Friday, December 7, 2018
Time: 11 am Central
Location: Huff Hall, Champaign, IL
Television: ESPNU, because these are real teams playing, unlike in the second semifinal in Champaign which is streaming only
Streaming: WatchESPN
Live Stats: NCAA.com
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

All-Time Series: Marquette is 0-4 against Illinois.
Last Meeting: Illinois won, 3-1, in the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

This is what it looks and feels like to cheer for a team that’s accomplished a major goal for themselves over the past few seasons. Marquette had made seven straight NCAA tournaments before this season, but only reached the second round three times. Tournament #8 brought second round appearance #4, but thanks to hard work, determination, and a little bit of the stars aligning (thanks, Texas State!), Marquette found themselves with the bonus of getting to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament this year. Instead of having to play a top 16 team in the country to get to the Sweet 16, Marquette was the top 16 team. Seeded #14 overall in the tournament, MU swept both High Point and Cincinnati last weekend at the Al McGuire Center to reach the third round for the first time in program history.

As the #14 seed, the advantage has slightly slipped out of Marquette’s hands. The best team left standing in the region gets to host the next two rounds, which is why the Golden Eagles are down in central Illinois to face the Illini. Illinois is the #3 seed in the tournament, and with just three losses on the season, all in Big Ten play, it makes perfect sense why. In fact, all three losses came within two weeks of each other in what has to be the roughest stretch of the season for Illinois: Hosting #3 Nebraska (L), hosting #6 Wisconsin (L), hosting Northwestern (W), visiting #3 Minnesota (L), visiting #8 Wisconsin (W) and hosting #13 Michigan (W). All three teams that they lost to ended up getting top 10 seeds in the tournament, so while Illinois had a 1-3 stretch in their season, even at the time they had to look at it and go “well, that’s what happens when you play the best teams,” even though they themselves were a top 10 team in the AVCA poll at the time.

After dealing with the nation’s most prolific attacker in the second round, Marquette faces a much more diverse lineup of attackers on the Illinois roster. Jacqueline Quade leads the way with 4.13 kills/set, but there’s three more hitters behind her averaging north of 2.25 per set. The offense is very much designed to run through Quade, as she’s taken over 31% of the swings for the team. Beth Prince is second on the team in attacks, but while she’s taken over 400 fewer swings, she’s also played 13 fewer sets than anyone else on the team. Marquette will need to force Illinois to depend on someone else other than Quade, but as the 6’2” Indiana native is only hitting .262 on the year, MU may be able to force her into bad strikes as well.

Illinois is running a one setter system with Jordyn Poulter holding down the fort. The 6’2” senior from Colorado is averaging 11.55 assists per set, which is 12th best in the country. This absolutely could turn into a contest about who passes the best, as Poulter has guided the Illini to the 12th best team assist average in the country..... but Marquette’s two setter system combined with the underrated passing from Martha Konovodoff has the Golden Eagles ranked 4th.

Morgan O’Brien will be the rock on which the Illinois defense rests, averaging 4.38 digs per set. Surprisingly, Poulter is second on the team in digs at 2.56 per frame. Given her nationally impressive assist mark, I wouldn’t have expected her to be doing much in terms of first touches, but there you are. Taylor Kuper also averages more than two per set, and Quade is no slouch at 1.94/set. Ali Bastianelli is Illinois’ answer to Marquette’s Jenna Rosenthal. The 6’3” middle blocker from Michigan is averaging 1.40 blocks per set, which is good enough for 21st in the country. Bastianelli also averages 2.28 kills while hitting .349, so she’s going to do a little bit of everything for the Illini and MU will have to account for where she is on the court at all times.

The winner of this match will advance to Saturday’s Elite Eight contest, currently scheduled to start at 3pm Central time. The opponent there will either be #6 seed Wisconsin or unseeded San Diego, which upset #11 USC in the second round to advance.