Edited: Elite Eight Update!
The last round did not go swimmingly for the Big Ten. We started the day with six teams in it, and today there are only two. Oof.
First, the losers. OSU faced a very difficult match against the Washington Huskies, but ended up giving them all they could handle in a five-set match. OSU won the first and fourth sets, before dropping the fifth set 15-8.
This also happened:
Wisconsin also found themselves on the wrong side of a heartbreaking five-setter. After landing in dire straits down 2-0, the Badgers battled back admirably, before narrowly losing the fifth set 15-12. This was one of the more surprising results of this round, and a real blow to the Big Ten's chances at making a deep run.
Penn State was another surprising result, getting swept by unseeded Hawaii. Hawaii is usually a power in women's volleyball, so their unseeded status probably undersold them a bit, but the sweep was certainly a surprise. There ends PSU's quest for its seventh natty in nine tries, as well as a three-peat.
Illinois got dropped by Minnesota, and with that, on to the winners. We knew one team would get knocked out from the Minnesota/Illinois game, and unsurprisingly, it was the Illini. The Gophers swept them, and they're on to the Elite Eight. Minnesota is going to be tough to stop this year, and are potentially headed for an epic Final Four showdown with Texas.
Nebraska also had a surprising result, but in a good way. After getting booted from the Elite Eight last year by BYU, the Huskers took revenge on the Cougars in a big way, sweeping them for only the second time this season. That's right--BYU has been swept only one other time this season, and that was clear back in August by #1 seed USC. The Huskers' blocking game was on point, and hopefully, with only three sets played, they've got something left in the tank for Washington this afternoon.
When to watch on Saturday:
#4 Nebraska vs. #5 Washington (4:00 pm ET, ESPNU)
#2 Minnesota vs. Hawaii (6:30 pm ET, ESPNU)
When the regular season ended a couple of weeks ago, the Big Ten had seven teams ranked in the Top 25, and four teams ranked in the Top Ten, and two teams ranked in the Top Five. Predictably, this resulted in strong representation in the NCAA tournament--nine B1G teams made the field of 64, and all nine advanced from the first round. In winning these initial nine matches, by the way, they dropped only a combined FOUR sets. Dominance.
Unfortunately, the second round was a little less stellar, and saw Michigan State get bounced by #5 seed Washington (3-1), Purdue knocked out by #3 seed Texas (3-1), and Michigan lose in a heartbreaking five-setter to #14 UCLA. Since none of these Big Ten squads were seeded, these losses weren't entirely unexpected, but we're sad to see our B1G brethren (sistren?) out of the tourney anyway.
Still, good season, ladies.
So, that leaves us with six Big Ten teams in the Sweet Sixteen, which kicks off tonight. Sadly, all of the Big Ten's matches are on ESPN3 instead of one of ESPN's real TV networks. Presumably, they had some hot poker action or a waterski competition to broadcast instead. Saturday's matches will all be on ESPNU.
Friday, December 11th--Round of Sixteen
#2 seed Minnesota vs. Illinois (6:00 pm ET, ESPN3) The bummer about this game is that it guarantees that there will be at least one fewer B1G team in the next round. Smart money says that the team headed home is the Illini, because Minnesota has rolled this season, dropping only two matches, both five-setters, on route to winning the Big Ten. Minnesota and Illinois met only once during the regular season, back in early October, and though the Gophers won, it was a tight five-set match. Coached by former US Olympic Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, I like Minnesota in this one, but I think the Illini will put up a good fight.
#4 seed Nebraska vs. #13 seed BYU (5:00 pm ET, ESPN3) Know who knocked Nebraska out of the tournament last year in the Elite Eight? BYU. The Cougars were last year's Cinderella team and made it all the way to the finals, and they won't be pushovers this year either. Hopefully, the Huskers remember last year's disappointing 0-3 match, and make BYU pay for it. The Final Four and Finals are in Omaha this year--you know the Huskers would love the chance to play for it all in their home state.
#6 seed Wisconsin vs. #11 Florida (5:30 pm ET, ESPN3) Wisconsin started the season slowly, with unexpected losses to Western Kentucky and Arkansas, but has finished strong--they haven't dropped a match since October 17th, and have lost in conference only to fellow seeded teams PSU, OSU, and Minnesota (twice). I don't know anything about Florida, but volleyball isn't usually the SEC's strength, so hopefully the Badgers can take the Gators.
#7 seed PSU vs. Hawaii (8:30 pm ET, ESPN3) Penn State, a #7 seed? Penn State, tied for third in the conference? This is indeed an unusual season for Penn State, because they're used to being at the top of these things. How used to being on top? They've won the national championship six out of the last eight years. SIX OUT OF THE LAST EIGHT NATTYS. That's crazy. So maybe this year hasn't been their best, and they've definitely shown they can be beaten... but it would be a foolish person who counted out a team with that kind of recent history and experience in finishing off a season.
#12 seed OSU vs. #5 seed Washington (7:30 pm ET, ESPN3) The only team of the remaining B1G squads to go into their match as an underdog, OSU definitely will have its hands full with perennial power Washington. UW has dropped only two matches all season, all while playing in B1G peer-conference, the Pac-12. How big of a roll is Washington on? They've dropped only four sets since November 1st. Ouch. More power to OSU, but I like the Huskies in this one.
In the event that all possible Big Ten teams win tonight, tomorrow will bring more conference thinning, as OSU and Nebraska would face each other, as would Minnesota and PSU.
If you haven't watched volleyball since high school, do yourself a favor and catch a match or two this weekend. These women are incredible athletes, and volleyball is extremely exciting when played at a high level, like these matches are sure to be.