If you missed it, the NCAA volleyball tournament field has been announced, and you can read all about that here. (You should, because it's a good article, if I do say so myself. And I do.) But that doesn't mean that the end of conference play was some boring little affair with no stakes to it at all. No indeed! The conference title came down to a five-set match, and the final conference standings look different than in years past (although similar to the national rankings all year.) Let's break down the highs and lows of Big Ten Conference Volleyball 2016!
The final (pre-tournament) national rankings again found the Big Ten well represented, but with a switch at the top:
#1 Minnesota: by virtue of a five-set victory in Minneapolis over the Huskers last Wednesday, the Gophers (25-4) reclaim the top spot for the second time this season.
#2 Nebraska: In spite of a better record (27-2) than Minnesota, last week's slip-up against the Gophers knocks the Huskers down a spot.
#3 Wisconsin: Also a victim of the Gophers last week, Wisconsin (25-4) holds strong at #3.
#13 Penn State: The Nittany Lions finished the season with a modest bump up the polls from #15 last week.
#15 MSU: Down a spot from the previous week, the Spartans remain in the mid-teens, where they have been for much of the season.
#17 Michigan: The Wolverines end on a one-spot bump to end the season.
Others receiving votes: OSU (53), Purdue (3)
Once again, the Big Ten has only six teams in the rankings, and the separation between the top three teams and the other ranked teams grew as the season progressed. But as I said last week, this is not a great indicator of quality of squad, and more a reflection of how deep the Big Ten is. If you look at my tournament article, you'll note that most of these teams earned seeds that are significantly higher than their final rankings, a recognition of that fact. This is the last national poll until after the tournament.
Final Big Ten Standings
- Nebraska (27-2 overall, 18-2 conference): Due to their defeat in Minneapolis last Wednesday, the Huskers could only ensure a share of the Big Ten title by beating Michigan in their final regular-season match on Saturday (which they did). However, thanks to the Gophers defeating Wisconsin in yet another five-set marathon, the Huskers won the conference outright, earning their second B1G title since joining the conference in 2011 (the year of their other conference title.) Congrats Huskers!
- Minnesota (25-4, 17-3): Benefitting from playing their two tough final matches (against Nebraska and Wisconsin) at home where they are undefeated on the season, and from a weird talent for forcing and winning five-set matches (Saturday's win against Wisconsin was their fourth such match in a row), the Gophers finish as conference runners-up, and spoiled Wisconsin's shot at a share of the conference title. The Gophers are poised to make a very deep run in the NCAA tournament.
- Wisconsin (25-4, 17-3): Yes, their record is identical to Minnesota's, and that illustrates how much of a dead heat these two teams have been in this season. In spite of the disappointment of losing out on the Big Ten championship, Wisconsin earned the #3 overall seed in the conference tourney, and like the two teams above it, hopes to do its part to make for a very B1G Final Four.
- Penn State (22-9, 14-6): An unusually low finish for the Nittany Lions comes in part due to two losing streaks this season (though only one was during conference play), and a relatively poor record against the top three teams--a combined 1-4 record, splitting matches with Minnesota, losing to Wisconsin once, and Nebraska twice. Nevertheless, no one has had the post-season success that PSU has had, so anyone counting the #16 seed out of a deep run is being very foolish.
- Michigan State (24-8, 13-7): It's a testament to the strength of the Big Ten that an excellent record like the Spartans' still only earns a fifth place finish. Nevertheless, the selection committee honored their outstanding year by seeding them #9 in the tournament. MSU still has some work to do to be able to knock off the top teams with regularity, but they were competitive in those matches more often than not, and are in good shape heading into the tournament.
- Michigan (22-10, 11-9): A detail that most MSU fans will appreciate is the knowledge that Michigan finished a step behind MSU at nearly every point this season, including in the final conference standings. Michigan is a solid team with a very good defense, and if they can get past their first-round opponent (a tougher matchup than most in American University), I think the Wolverines can make it to the second weekend of the tournament.
- Ohio State (20-12, 10-10): A season full of inconsistent results finds the Buckeyes finishing lower than they'd hoped and unseeded in the tournament. Nevertheless, in spite of their inconsistency, OSU has shown that they are talented enough to beat the top teams (namely, Nebraska, for whom they have a weird knack of beating in Lincoln). To advance, they'll have to slay the ghosts of non-con losses past, facing Missouri State for the second time this season.
- Illinois (17-14, 10-10): Although they had a similar record to OSU, Illinois was hindered by a 7-match skid in the middle of conference play, dropping matches to most of the conferences top teams (save for a sweep of MSU in early October). In 2016, Illinois was a solid squad that just couldn't quite get over the hump to steal a few from the conference heavies.
- Iowa (19-13, 9-11): One of the conference's most surprising stories was the emergence of the Iowa Hawkeyes. In 2015, the Hawkeyes finished 13th in the conference, with a dismal 2-18 conference record. Compared to that, it's easy to see what a vast improvement this year was for Iowa. Highlights of the year included five-set wins over Purdue and Illinois, and a five-set loss to Minnesota (yes, even though it was a loss--it was a huge step for this team). Although the Hawkeyes didn't knock off any of the top teams, they were far more competitive and won more sets against them than anyone expected. In a conference that is very hard to move up in, Iowa deserves a great deal of credit for their 2016 performance.
- Purdue (18-13, 8-12): In contrast to Iowa, Purdue represents a team that fell well below expectations. Ranked in many of the early polls thanks to some big non-conference wins, the Boilermakers put together a disappointing conference season. They still made the tournament (while Illinois and Iowa, above them in conference standings, did not) thanks to the aforementioned wins early in the season against highly ranked teams. Purdue clearly has some talent, but their trajectory over the season has gone the opposite way that one could wish.
- Indiana (17-16, 6-14): In many ways, Indiana 2016 may as well be Indiana 2015, as the performances were near replications. Last year's 16-16 record and 6-14 conference record looks all-but-identical to this year's. Once again, Indiana featured one of the conference's weaker teams, collecting its wins against the bottom half of the conference and losing to the top half.
- Maryland (12-20, 4-16): Things are starting to get a little rough in this portion of the standings. Unfortunately for Maryland, 2016 marked a slight regression from 2015, with three fewer overall wins, and one fewer conference win. It's not impossible to improve in the Big Ten, as Iowa demonstrated, but it's definitely difficult, and right now, Maryland is trending in the wrong direction.
- Northwestern (10-22, 3-17): Another team on a downward trend, and to a greater degree than Maryland. Finishing tenth in the conference last year, this year's edition of Wildcat volleyball won four fewer games, and half as many conference tilts as last season. Lucky for them, there's...
- Rutgers (4-29, 0-20): Oof. That conference goose egg is really bad (though maybe they can find some consolation and understanding from the football team?) I truly feel for the players on this team--going winless in conference play is a rough few months. And they didn't just go winless--they won only TWO sets the entire conference slate (one each against Indiana and Iowa). The good news for Rutgers is that they've got a lot of youth on their team, and hopefully, the experience of this season proves useful in the future. The Scarlet Knights will need to start small--next year's goals should revolve around knocking off Northwestern, Maryland, and Indiana. This is a modest start, but appropriate if Rutgers hopes to become competitive in B1G volleyball.
Players of the Week
Fittingly for the final edition of Big Ten Players of the Week, we see a good representation from four different teams:
Player of the Week is Sarah Wilhite of Minnesota. The girl is on fire right now. She averaged 4.2 kills per set, got 42 kills on the week as well as 44 digs, garnering a double-double in both matches. If you're not impressed yet, remember that both of the matches making up these stats were against #1 Nebraska and #3 Wisconsin. So yeah, she's pretty good. Better than Jabrill Peppers, even.
Defensive Player of the Week is Jenna Lerg of Michigan. This is her second time being honored with this award, and she earned it by helping her team to a win over #14 MSU and a four-set loss to #1 Nebraska. Lerg had 34 digs on the week, for a 4.9/set average.
Setter of the Week is Abby Detering of Penn State for the second time in her career. Detering helped Penn State end the regular season on a high note with a pair of wins against Illinois and Northwestern. She averaged 13.0 assists per set, and also contributed seven digs in each match.
Freshman of the Week is Molly Haggerty of Wisconsin. Can I just say how annoying it is that Haggerty is only a freshman? She'll be terrorizing the conference for years to come. She has earned this award five times this season, and gained it this week on the basis of 30 kills over matches vs. Iowa and Minnesota, as well as 29 digs, and a double-double in each match.
That does it for conference play! Stay tuned for tournament coverage--hopefully there will be lots of Big Ten teams making deep runs in the tournament, and showing the rest of the country how remarkable this conference is at volleyball.