Here we are. The Final Four is set, and it features two fantastic B1G vs. ACC matchups:
Thursday, December 16 (ESPN)
6:00 p.m. CST: (4) Wisconsin vs. (1) Louisville
8:30 p.m. CST: (10) Nebraska vs. (3) Pittsburgh
Saturday, December 18
6:30 p.m. CST: NCAA Championship Match
Both B1G participants are underdogs in their matches, but neither is playing the part of Cinderella. In fact, in the preseason rankings, Wisconsin was #2, Nebraska #5, Pittsburgh #9, and Louisville #13.
Louisville has certainly earned the top spot, but there’s no denying that the B1G is the deeper conference. Further, one could argue that UW and Nebraska have been more impressive thus far in their path to the Final Four.
This is all preface though. It will get settled on the court Thursday and Saturday night. Let’s set the stage.
BRT: Sorry, I’m not ready to dive into this quite yet. First, I need you all to gaze upon this in wonder:
F*ck you, Texas.
I. Brief season recap
Kind of...: As noted above, Wisconsin was the preseason #2, so expectations were high. With the exception of Molly Haggerty, everybody took advantage of the extra year and returned. Given how convincingly Texas beat Wisconsin at the Final Four last year, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the season was “national title or bust” but, yes, expectations were quite high.
An undefeated nonconference performance, including convincing wins over defending national champion Kentucky and perennial power Baylor, did nothing to dampen expectations. However, super senior Danielle Hart was lost for the season to injury in the late in the nonconference season, which was a real blow. Wisconsin was still figuring things out when they were upset by Maryland in the B1G opener. However, they righted the ship and won the B1G at 17-3. The other two match losses were both to Purdue, the second one breaking a very long home winning streak. The Boilermakers defended UW very well each time, and if Wisconsin fall short, it will probably be because the opponent was effective at nullifying UW’s explosive offense. That said, going 5-0 against Nebraska (Final Four) and Minnesota (Elite Eight) shows you what the Badgers are capable of.
BRT: In spite of having the #1 freshman class on paper and returning superstars Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins, the Huskers had a “down year,”—well, kind of. Not really. But they didn’t win the conference, and they spent much of the season ranked #8-15, rather than #1-8, so for them, it kind of was. John Cook’s teams reliably improve over the course of the season, but it seemed to take a little longer than usual this year, as the coaching staff got very experimental with the lineup seeking offensive reliability and power. This was a result of trying to find places for Stivrins post-back surgery and a bevy of raw but talented freshman. Things went a bit more smoothly on the other side of the ball, with freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez showing that she’s going to be absolutely hated by everyone else in the conference for years to come and former libero Kenzie Knuckles adding enviable additional defensive capabilities. The Huskers lost more games than fans are used to, but they were all against ranked teams (including Wisconsin twice and Louisville once.)
II. Tournament performance thus far
Kind of...: Wisconsin hasn’t dropped a set in winning their first four matches. In fact, Minnesota was the only team to clear 20 points in a set against the Badgers, forcing extra points in the second set (26-24) and dropping the third 25-22. Louisville will be a huge test, obviously, but it looks like the Badgers are playing their best volleyball, a departure from last year, when, despite a Final Four appearance, it was obviously Wisconsin wasn’t firing on all cylinders during their tournament run.
BRT: The Huskers, so far, have hit another gear in the tournament, which really, is a good time to do that if you’re going to. Nebraska was workmanlike in the first three matches, dispatching Campbell (Fighting Camels!), UCLA, and Illinois (again) without dropping a set. And then came... Texas.
I wanted to write an entire article about this, because it was a phenomenal match, but it’s finals week, and needs must. But this one... this one meant a lot.
Because Texas is THE WORST.
If you’ve met a Husker fan, you probably already know we all think this. Yes, we hate their cheating-ass football team that burned down our conference, like the hubristic punk-ass dickweeds that they are. But we also don’t like their volleyball team very much, because they have a tendency to come in between our volleyball team and volleyball glory. Like last year, when they knocked out Nebraska in this very same round, 3-1.
But Saturday, it was payback time.
Many, including me, didn’t like Nebraska’s chances in this match. Texas was too polished, too good at everything, for a young team with variable offensive success to beat. But then, on Thursday, Texas looked vulnerable, getting blasted in their first two sets by Washington before roaring back to win in five. Optimistic Huskers hoped this would, at least, tire Texas a bit, but also recognized how dangerous a team with that kind of capability is.
But on Saturday, the Huskers won the first set. And then the second set. But that second set... the Huskers were up 20-12 before eeking out a 2-point win. It was starting to look a lot like what had happened to Washington. And then...
Texas won the third.
No. No no no no no. Was it happening again? Was Texas going to do what it had done to Washington? The crowd in Austin thought so, as it roared louder than the loudest Michigan Stadium home crowd. The tide was shifting against the Huskers. This author was pacing and reading a book about “breaking up with your cell phone,” even as she listened to the game on her phone and watched it on her iPad, thus proving the necessity of such a book. Her Fitbit did not understand why her heart rate was so elevated at 11 pm.
The fourth match started. It was tight until the Huskers exploded out of a 12-12 tie to take a 20-12 lead. But echos of the second set were heard, as Texas closed it to 21-19. But this time, the Huskers slammed the door, winning the set 25-21, punching their ticket to the Final Four, and handing Texas their second loss of the season and utter heartbreak at missing the big time, yet again.
The #10-seed Huskers crashed the Final Four party, and are the lowest seed to advance to a Final Four since 2014.
III. Who should I pay attention to?
Kind of...: Senior Dana Rettke is looking to become a five-time first-team All-American, and is one of the most dominant middles in the country. If she doesn’t earn All-American honors this year, it will solely be a function of Wisconsin making an effort to develop depth and multiple options. But she hit .423 on the season, which is just above her .420 career average.
Rettke is aided by having the nation’s best setter, Sydney Hilley (SR), as a teammate. The three-time B1G Setter of the Year is likely to add a third first-team All-American award to her resume. Hilley is as steady as it comes on the court, finishing second on the team in digs and third in blocks to complement her excellent passing. Hilley’s skills also have made it easier for the offense to spread the wealth. Devyn Robinson (soph), Grace Loberg (SR), Julia Orzol (frosh), Jade Demps (soph), and Anna Smrek (frosh) all have recorded 100+ kills on the year.
Izzy Ashburn (JR), Joslyn Boyer (JR), Gio Civita (SR) and Lauren Barnes (SR) hold it down defensively. Ashburn and Barnes are likeliest to be serving when the Badgers go on a run. Civita, who is playing on a torn ACL, is an emotional leader and is UW’s best at receiving serves.
BRT: If you like floor defense, the Huskers put on one of the best shows around, especially thanks to freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez. The Huskers can dig many things that should not be dug, and it’s a delight to watch.
The Husker hitters have also been flourishing in the post-season. Against Texas, Maddi Kubik had 15 kills, Ally Batenhorst had 15, Lindsay Krause had 13 (and five blocks), and Kayla Caffey had 7 kills (and four blocks.) Kubik has been stellar for much of the season, but Batenhorst and Krause have exploded in the post-season. Those two had 28 kills on 54 swings, which is nice. Why is this significant? Well, they’re both freshmen. Hip hip hooray!
Kind of...: It would be shortsighted to suggest that the Louisville/Wisconsin matchup is the de facto national title match. Pittsburgh was seeded ahead of UW and took Louisville to five in their first matchup this year, so the Panthers are also capable of winning it all. And Nebraska is the only team in the Final Four who HAS won the title already and John Cook is pretty familiar with December magic. That said, the Louisville/Wisconsin winner will be favored Saturday night. Can the Badgers take down the #1 team in the national semifinal?
The Badgers have experience at this, having defeated #1 Texas at the 2013 Final Four and #1 Baylor at the 2019 Final Four. The only trouble is that each time the Badgers lost the national title game. However, this year, neither Kathryn Plummer’s Stanford nor a vintage Russ Rose Penn State team will be waiting the in the title match. The call here is that Louisville proves game but Wisconsin gets a balanced offensive contribution and advances in four sets. While I would love another matchup with Nebraska, I do think Pittsburgh will knock off the Huskers in a tight match. Then, Saturday night, the Badgers fulfill their destiny, taking the title in four.
BRT: I’m very interested to see how Wisconsin fares against Louisville. When the Huskers played the Cardinals at the very beginning of the season, they were blown off the court, basically—Louisville really had no weaknesses. I don’t think they’ve developed any in the past few months. Wisconsin, of course, is very good—but they’ve had a match or two where they’ve had let downs. Now, will they have that kind of mental lapse with the stakes as high as they are here? Probably not. But I think that if they blink, Louisville is cool enough and good enough to make them pay.
I’ll be pulling for Louisville, sorry Sconnie. Usually in VB, I do cheer for the Big Ten, but Louisville coach Dani Busboom-Kelly is a small-town Nebraska girl like myself and a former Husker, and she’s got my support.
As for Nebraska’s expectations, well, they’ve already exceeded them. This is officially gravy territory. No one (me included) thought this was a Final Four team this year. I won’t be happy if they lose, of course, but they’ve already proven what they need to. What I think works in the Huskers’ favor are two big things:
1) Confidence. I can only imagine what that performance against Texas did for a young team. Wisconsin probably feels like they deserve to be at this place, at this time, and that can tighten a team up. Nebraska didn’t have those expectations this year, and hopefully that can benefit them.
2) John Cook. When the chips are down late in the season, there’s no one else I’d rather have on the sidelines. He’s been here many, many times before, and he’s won it all a few times too.
I admittedly don’t know much about Pitt, so I’m just going to go straight-up homer with this, and say that the Huskers can definitely take them. May I speak it into reality. :)
Who emerges from Wisconsin-Louisville?
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Who wins Nebraska-Pitt?
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