CHAMPAIGN — Roughly 500 tickets remain in cozy Huff Hall for the Big Ten Conference volleyball match Friday between the league’s top two teams — three-time defending national champ Penn State and Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN — Roughly 500 tickets remain in cozy Huff Hall for the Big Ten Conference volleyball match Friday between the league’s top two teams — three-time defending national champ Penn State and Illinois.

So the campus and the community here already are sold on the Illini. But for the rest of the volleyball world and the mainstream sports fan, this is when reputations are made for the Illini. With a win, the Illini would validate an upset at then-No. 2 Texas earlier this season and likely brand themselves as a legitimate Final Four contender.

“(Penn State) has been quote-unquote the powerhouse of volleyball,’’ said Illini senior outside hitter Laura DeBruler, a returning All-America. “They won national titles back-to-back-to-back. A win would solidify what we’ve already put in place. You need to watch out when we come to play you.’’

A Sweet 16 program under former coach Don Hardin, the Illini appear ready to take another step back toward prominence not seen here since Mike Hebert guided the Illini to Final Four appearances in 1987 and 1988. Illinois hasn’t won the Big Ten title or filled Huff since 1992.

Already considered a member of the upper crust, Illinois wants a spot among the elite. With top-shelf recruiting under second-year coach Kevin Hambly, there’s a chance, but it will take victories inside the lines after winning on signing day. Illinois (8-2) dropped four spots to No. 9 this week in the national coaches poll after an upset loss to Cincinnati over the weekend.

“To be elite, you don’t lose matches you’re not supposed to lose,’’ Hambly said. “To be really considered elite, you have to play in national championship matches. We’re trying like hell to get there.’’

Sixty-five and counting

This is when the casual fan takes notice. A win over Penn State is a big deal, because virtually nobody beats Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won or shared the last seven Big Ten championships. Penn State just saw its 109-match winning streak snapped, but the Nittany Lions bring a 65-match conference winning streak to Huff.

Penn State (10-1) is ranked second in this week’s coaches poll. The Nittany Lions haven’t lost to Illinois since 2003. A win would help Illinois’ NCAA tournament resume. For the Illini, it’s Final Four or bust.

“We have the talent and competitiveness to get there,’’ DeBruler said. “You might as well shoot for those goals, except we can really reach them. That’s an awesome feeling.’’

One volleyball blogger already had two Final Four picks: Stanford and a healthy Illinois.

Mononucleosis kept DeBruler out of seven matches, including a loss at then-No. 7 Nebraska, before a crowd of 11,982, and the upset against Cincinnati over the weekend. She is cleared to play against Penn State on Friday and Ohio State on Saturday. Junior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch was 80 percent last weekend while recovering from a sprained ankle.

With a four-player recruiting class highlighted by Ohio native Liz McMahon, the highest ranked Illini recruit ever at No. 3 nationally, and none of the four ranked lower than 53 in the nation among high school seniors, Hambly keeps adding talent and creating higher expectations.

“There’s definitely a buzz in town,’’ he said. “If we can take care of business, this thing could blow up here. The recruiting is stacking up for us. We have lots of years to make that elite run. That’s the goal. We want to be elite every year.’’

The next step comes against Penn State.

Basketball

Rock Island senior guard Chasson Randle, a longtime Illini target, is beginning his rounds of official visits. He goes to Purdue this weekend. Following a weekend off, he will visit Stanford on Oct. 8-9 and Illinois on Oct. 15-16.

Described as analytical and the top-ranked student in the Rock Island senior class, Randle is looking for the right fit during the trips, even if that means something different at each school. It’s a decision that probably won’t come until after the three visists and already has been a long time in the making.

“It’s not going to be perfect,’’ he told the Rock Island Argus, “but I want to make sure it’s something I’m comfortable with and that’s close to perfect.’’

Illinois coach Bruce Weber made a trip to Rock Island on Monday. A Stanford assistant also was expected at the high school Monday, and Purdue likely will be in town later in the week.

Football

In the Big Ten Conference opener on Oct. 2, Illinois will host No. 2 Ohio State in a game scheduled for an 11 a.m. kickoff. Broadcast will be on the Big Ten Network. The time and TV was announced Monday.

Illini guard Hugh Thorton, who suffered a strained neck after being taken from the field on a motorized cart, was back at practice Monday.

John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977 or johnsupinie@aol.com.