The Big Ten finished the regular season in volleyball in typically thrilling and high-stakes fashion, when #2 Minnesota got the better of #3 Wisconsin in five sets on Saturday, granting Nebraska sole possession of the conference championship (their second since joining in 2011) and solidifying those three teams as the top three seeds for the tournament.
The Big Ten's claim to the #1, #2, and #3 teams for much of the season is unprecedented in college volleyball, and the conference's strength has been honored accordingly in the tournament. Numbers of note:
- Both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 bring 8 teams to the tournament. However, the Big Ten has six (!) seeded teams to the Pac-12's three.
- The Top 16 seeds all host the first round at home, so this means a lot of Big Ten teams will be playing in their home gyms, hopefully boding well for a big B1G showing on the second weekend of the tournament.
- Penn State and Stanford are the only schools to have made it to every single NCAA tournament since it began in 1981. In spite of a down (by their lofty standards) year, PSU squeaks into the seeding this year at #16 (Stanford is #6).
Without further ado, let's break it down! Matches start on Thursday, December 1.
If you'd like to bookmark the bracket, a live-updating version is available here.
Top Left Corner of the Bracket--Nebraska Quadrant
This corner of the bracket features three Big Ten teams. The defending National Champion Nebraska Cornhuskers earned the tournament's overall #1 seed, and anchor this portion of the bracket. #9 seed Michigan State and #16 seed Penn State also earned the right to host for the first weekend of the tournament.
New Hampshire, who has a heck of a trek to get to Lincoln, is up first for the Huskers. The Wildcats hail from the America East conference, where they recently won their fourth consecutive conference title with a sweep of the University of Albany. New Hampshire is 21-10 on the season overall, though they dominated their conference with a 10-2 record. This will be the Wildcat's seventh overall trip to the tourney, and fourth straight, though they have yet to win a match.
The Huskers and Wildcats battle in Lincoln at 8 pm (ET) on Friday, December 2. The winner of this match will face the victor of Wichita State (24-7) vs. TCU (14-12).
Michigan State (#9)
The Spartans first face Fairfield (hailing from Fairfield, CT, if you were curious), winners of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (the MAAC, not the MAC) and appearing in their second-straight NCAA tournament. Last year, the Stags won their first-round match against Arkansas State, falling in the second round to Washington. There are two fun facts about Fairfield: First, they are currently on a 22-match win streak, which is the longest currently active in the country. Second, their logo features this extremely intense deer, and it is awesome:
The Spartans and the Stags battle at 7:30 pm (ET) on Friday, December 2. The winner will face the victor of the Arizona (18-14) vs. Cleveland State (25-5) match.
Penn State (#16)
After finishing fourth in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions squeak into seeding and host LIU Brooklyn in the first round. Champions of the Northeast Conference courtesy of a five-set thriller over Sacred Heart, the Blackbirds finished the regular season 16-14.
The Nittany Lions and the Blackbirds square off at 7:30 pm (ET) on Friday, December 2 in Rec Hall. Next up for the victor will be the winner of Dayton (30-1) and Pitt (24-8). One can only assume that PSU fans will be rooting hard for their favorite western Pennsylvania school!
Bottom Left Corner of the Bracket--Texas Quadrant
Last year's National Champion-runner up (heh), Texas, is the lone non-B1G team of the top four seeds, and anchors this corner of the bracket. Though likely not immediately relevant to the Big Ten, Texas is playing UTRGV in the first round, an acronym that makes IUPUI look sleek and elegant. Anyway, more to our purposes, #12-seed Michigan is the lone B1G representative in this quadrant. They've got a tough road with potential matchups with not only Texas, but #5-seed and 2015 Final Four team, Kansas, Creighton (who played Nebraska tough early in the season and who boasts a tough defense) and #13-seed and perennial tough out BYU all lurking if the Wolverines make a deep run.
Michigan's first opponent will be the American Eagles (I don't know what else I expected their mascot to be), champions of the Patriot Conference. This is a challenging first-round match for Michigan--American is a tournament veteran, with 16 previous appearances (fourth straight), winning in the first round last season and advancing to the Sweet 16 two years ago. However, the Wolverines and Eagles played earlier this season in a tournament, and the Wolverines earned an emphatic sweep. Will history repeat itself? Or will American's tournament know-how kick in and get them the win?
Michigan and American take the court at 7:30 pm (ET) on Thursday, December 1 in Ann Arbor. Next up for the winner will be either Oregon or Miami Hydroxide.
Top Right Corner of the Bracket--Wisconsin Quadrant
Wisconsin and Ohio State find themselves in a quadrant with perennial power Stanford (#6 seed), SEC co-champ Florida (#11 seed), and #14-seed Kansas State. OSU is one of two Big Ten teams not hosting the first weekend (although Columbus will be the site of the Final Four and Championship), and instead will be playing in the Little Apple (Manhattan, KS).
After a heartbreaking five-set loss at Minnesota over the weekend that deprived the Badgers of a share of the Big Ten title, Wisconsin looks to shake off that disappointment with a deep run in the tournament. Their first hurdle comes in the form of Rutgers-and-Maryland-favored-football-opponent, Howard. This is the Bison's second-straight appearance in the tournament after they won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title last week. Howard is hot right now, on a 16-match win streak as a part of a 26-5 overall record. The two teams have never before met, and the Bison will travel to Madison from Washington D.C. to see if they can extend their winning streak.
The Badgers and Bison will face off at 8:30 pm (ET) on Thursday, December 1. The winner will face either other Wisconsin school Marquette (23-8) or Washington State (21-11).
Though unseeded and coming off of an up-and-down season, OSU can pose a threat in the tourney. One up of their season included being one of only two teams to best Nebraska, and the lows included losses to Maryland and... Missouri State. Now, as fate would have it, OSU's first opponent is...Missouri State! Missouri State is one of the few "small schools" who is in the tournament in spite of not winning their conference (the Missouri Valley Conference), having lost their first match in two months to conference champ Wichita State (who is in Nebraska's quadrant of the tournament.) Nevertheless, the 26-8 Bears earned the trip on the basis of a strong record and five top-50 RPI victories. Who will win the rematch?
We'll find out at 6:00 pm (ET) on Thursday, December 1. Whether Bears or Buckeyes, the victors will face the winner of #14 Kansas State (20-9) and Lipscomb (Nashville, TN) (22-7).
Lower Right Corner of the Bracket--Minnesota Quadrant
The final two B1G teams are in Minnesota's corner of the bracket, a section that contains Hawaii, #10 UCLA, USC, and #7 North Carolina. The best part about this quadrant are the teams Minnesota is hosting the first weekend--North Dakota (who should find Minneapolis quite pleasant) and USC and Hawaii, both of whom are going to hate the Twin Cities, regardless of what happens on court. Probably no one is sadder about the recent shift in volleyball power to the Midwest than the Pacific Coast teams who used to own the sport and now instead have to do things like travel to Minneapolis in December. But I digress.
Minnesota is my pick to win the whole enchilada, so take that for what it's worth. Regardless of whether you agree with that, they should dispatch North Dakota in fairly short order, unless their recent affinity for five-set matches (they've had--and won--four in a row) gets the better of them. The Fighting Hawks won the Big Sky Conference this past Saturday, and are making their first tournament appearance (as a Div. I team--UND had two appearances in the Division II tournament in the early 2000s). This is also one of three first-round rematches for Big Ten teams--Minnesota bested UND 3-1 in September.
The two teams will face off at 8 pm (ET) on Friday, December 2. The winner will face the victor of USC (18-13) and Hawaii (22-5), assuming they haven't frozen to death.
Purdue has had an uneven season, finishing a disappointing tenth in the Big Ten (behind, incidentally, Illinois and Iowa, neither of whom made the tourney.) So how'd they end up in the tourney? Well, the Boilermakers had some early non-conference success: they beat Stanford 3-2, Kansas 3-1, and also beat tourney teams Washington State and Coastal Carolina. Not exactly on a hot streak--Purdue failed to string together more than two wins at a time at any point during the conference schedule--the Boilermakers at least have the potential to spring a surprise or two on a team that's far better on paper. Purdue's first opponent, Iowa State, has also had mixed results, but has improved as the season went on, notching a five-set win against Texas, and also defeating tourney teams TCU and Kansas State.
Purdue and ISU play at 5:30 pm (ET) on Thursday, December 1. The victor faces either Northern Illinois (25-5) or SEC co-champ Missouri (25-5).
As of now, no early-round broadcast information is known, but when it is, I will update this.