You know what I missed this fall? I mean, in addition to social events, eating at restaurants, not living under the specter of a fascist government, living a life that doesn’t involve asking my mother multiple times a week if she’s tracking her temperature, and cheering for a functional football team?
Big Ten volleyball.
And now, after THIRTEEN MONTHS, it’s back!
Strange as it is to be watching the debut of a volleyball season in late January, it’s a welcome distraction in the gross non-Christmas winter months (especially since my basketball team of choice appears to be under permanent Covid restrictions).
What will pandemic volleyball look like? How will the conference be changing things? What is the new, weird schedule? Who will be good this year? The short answer, as it has been to everything this year, is “who knows?” But I’ll answer what I can below.
What is different this year?
As in every sport, different conferences are handling this differently. The Big Ten and the Pac-12—the volleyball powerhouse conferences—both opted for a 22-game conference-only season that started on Friday. (Other conferences split between fall and spring.) Teams will face the same opponent twice at the same site, on Friday and Saturday nights. This will theoretically limit exposure and traveling.
The downside is that the cancellation by a team could potentially wipe out some very good match ups, since there is no way to make that up. But overall, this seems like a sensible approach.
The NCAA still plans to have a tournament, even though a few conferences have opted out of the season entirely, and they haven’t announced plans for regional games yet. There will only be 48 teams instead of the usual 64. We also know is that the Final Four will be held in Omaha on April 22-24.
The way the game is played will look slightly different. The biggest change will be that teams will not change sides of the court after each set. The traditional handshakes and whatnot are also obviously not going to happen.
As in a typical season, BTN will be airing many of the matches. However, because volleyball is now up against men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and wrestling, it will likely be harder to watch matches than in a normal year. BTN is very proud that it is airing things on BTN+, but of course, that is hardly a solution to the problem for most people. If you’re a Husker fan, NET will air many matches, but overall, volleyball fans may have to get used to listening to volleyball matches instead of watching them.
Who are the favorites?
Compared to other seasons, the Big Ten is a bit “light” this year. I use quotation marks because there are obviously still some powerful teams in the B1G, including the pre-season (the AVCA split its polls into separate fall and spring rankings, so this refers to the pre-season spring poll) #1. In fact, that #1 team is there almost unanimously, collecting 40/62 first-place votes. But “only” one other Big Ten team is currently in the top five, which is a little below where the conference has been in recent years. Still, there are six Big Ten teams in the poll, which isn’t too shabby.
From the AVCA Jan. 5th pre-season poll:
#1 Wisconsin (40)
#5 Nebraska (1)
#9 Penn State
No other Big Ten teams received votes, something of a departure from normal, and perhaps suggesting a greater stratification of the haves and have-nots in Big Ten volleyball. But it’s a pre-season poll, so we will see how the season shakes out.
Wisconsin is riding the momentum of a runner-up performance last year in the National Championship and the return of much of that squad, including setter Sydney Hilley and fearsome middle-blocker Dana Rettke (both First-Team All-Americans).
The other Big Ten teams in the Top Ten are familiar features as well, particularly Nebraska and Penn State. Perhaps worth noting is that Nebraska has done unusually well when the season ends in Omaha—the last three times the Final Four was held there, the Huskers made it to that round, and won the entire thing twice. Will that trend hold in pandemic times when the Huskers’ considerable fan support is mostly neutralized?
Of course, as with everything in college sports this year, the only thing we know is that things likely won’t play out exactly as predicted. Covid is able to prove far more disruptive to smaller squads (as we’ve seen with basketball already), and with the block scheduling of teams model, the potential exists for teams to miss entire key match-ups with the best opponents.
How it’s Going
As previously mentioned, Big Ten volleyball started this weekend. Here’s how things played out:
#13 Purdue at #1 Wisconsin
Friday: UW 3 - PU 0, Saturday: UW 3 - PU 0
Wisconsin looked the part of a #1 team this weekend, as they swept Purdue off the court both nights. Saturday was a bit more competitive for Purdue, but it was still never in doubt who was in control here.
#5 Nebraska at Indiana
Friday: NU 3 - UI 0, Saturday: NU 3 - UI 0
The Huskers also had a strong debut, making it through the weekend without dropping a single set. It was a pretty mismatched pairing of opponents, so I’m not sure how much we learned about where Nebraska is, but they looked pretty darn good.
Also I am pretty sure I saw Lexi Sun in Trader Joe’s on Sunday, but it’s really hard to tell who people are with masks.
Michigan State at #7 Minnesota
Saturday: UM 3 - MSU 0, Sunday: UM 3 - MSU 0
Although both matches ended in sweeps for Minnesota, they had to work a little harder for these wins than the score might indicate. Notably in Saturday’s match, Minnesota came back from a 20-12 deficit in the second set to win 26-24.
#9 Penn State at #24 Michigan
Illinois at Iowa
Friday: Illinois 3 - Iowa 1, Saturday: Illinois 3 - Iowa 1
If you listened to both matches in this series, you probably had a strong sense of deja vu: both had close sets except the third, which Iowa lost by ten points, an apparent hangover from a close win of the second set.
Rutgers at Northwestern
Friday: NU 3 - Rut 0, Saturday: NU 3 - Rut 0
Northwestern isn’t great, but Rutgers is very much worse. To wit, their first set of the year featured them scoring only 12 points. Rutgers started at the bottom, now they still there.
Maryland at Ohio State
Friday: OSU 3 - UM 2, Saturday: OSU 3 - UM 2
By far the weekend’s most competitive pairing came from Ohio State and Maryland, as this series brought us the season’s first five-set matches. OSU’s volleyball program has been in decline in the past couple of seasons, while Maryland has shown signs of attempting an upward struggle in a brutal conference. This has to be a heartbreaker for the Terps, since they lost the fifth sets by only two points and three points respectively, but does show encouraging signs of improvement. Only a few seasons ago, Maryland was a reliable doormat for everyone except Rutgers and Indiana. Now, it appears that is no longer the case.
That does it for this week! I’m not sure if weekly recaps are in the cards or not, but I will try to check back in with the Big Ten’s best sport (I said it) throughout the season.
Will Wisconsin finish their business and win the National Championship this year?
This poll is closed