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B1G Volleyball Weekly Update: Conference Play Begins This Week

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Time to start conference play!!!

Grace Cleveland is well on her way to first-team All-B1G status for a third consecutive year.

The non-conference season is over, and there are thoughts on each team below, so the weekly recap will be limited to bullet points. Namely:

  • UW took six sets against overwhelmed competition, but lost senior middle blocker Danielle Hart for the season (ACL). Hart had really gotten off to a great start. UW is deep, but this is a tough loss.
  • Nebraska has a tough week with losses to Stanford and Louisville. Count out John Cook at your own peril, but the Huskers are still clearly looking for the right lineup.
  • Ohio State beat Notre Dame twice, but was pushed to five sets on Sunday. The undefeated non-conference record is nice, but it’s still tough to know just what the ceiling is for this team.
  • Penn State is 0-3 vs. ranked competition, but has won all 24 sets against unranked teams, including a sweep of previously unbeaten (and receiving top 25 votes) West Virginia this past weekend. It’s tough to know just what the ceiling is for this team.
  • Maryland completed a 12-0 non-conference season, but only one of the wins is over a major conference school (Virginia), and only one of the wins is over a team that made the tournament last year (UMBC, 5-9 this season). It’s tough to know just what the ceiling is for this team.

What We Think We Know

With the non-conference season concluded, the teams are presented in order of guesstimated finish in B1G play with a brief overview/prognosis for each. Bookmark, so you can check back in a couple of months to make fun of how wrong I was.

[Note: Current ranking listed first, last week’s ranking in parentheses]

#2 (#2) Wisconsin (8-0)

Last week: W-Green Bay (25-17, 25-11, 25-19); W-Northern Illinois (25-16, 25-11, 25-18)

To date: The Badgers have certainly justified their lofty ranking. The only two dropped sets each came after grabbing 2-0 leads against top 10 opponents. They are the clear favorite to win the B1G, and remain a legit national title contender. That said, the Hart injury is a real loss. UW’s best options are probably 1) move Devyn Robinson to the middle and give Lauren Jardine and Julia Orzol opportunities outside, and/or 2) keep Robinson outside and unleash 6’9” Anna Smrek in the middle. FYI: Jardine, Orzol, and Smrek are all frosh, and Robinson is a sophomore. To win a title, the senior-laden Badgers will need some of the youngsters to step up.

#9 (#11) Minnesota (5-3)

Last week: W-St. Thomas (25-14, 25-8, 25-7); W-Iowa State (25-17, 25-19, 25-20)

To date: I can only assume that my high opinion of Minnesota volleyball is messing with WSR’s mind, rendering him unable to offer his own overview. Either way, Minnesota’s losses are to a top-10 Baylor team on a neutral court, to #1 Texas, and, playing without Taylor Landfair (first-team all-B1G last spring as a frosh), @ Florida (then #5). The subsequent wins vs. Stanford and @ Oregon show a team finding its form. With Stephanie Samedy leading the charge, I think this the second-best team in the B1G and one of the top four teams in the nation.

#12 (#6) Nebraska (6-3)

Last week: L-#16 Stanford (19-25, 25-12, 21-25, 23-25); L-#5 Louisville (17-25, 20-25, 18-25)

To date (BRT): Ok, NOW I’m maybe a little worried. I don’t have a lot to say about Stanford—they were good, and the Huskers were less good, although they didn’t seem to be playing badly during that match.

But the Louisville match, hooboy. The only good thing is that, Moderna’d and masked, I went to my first match since December 2019! (Lincoln currently has a mask mandate, so masks were required in the arena—and compliance was actually pretty good. It’s almost like it’s not that hard to wear one while sitting on your ass doing nothing.) But the joy of being back in Devaney was overshadowed by the Huskers playing the worst game of volleyball I have ever witnessed by them. Louisville (coached by former Husker player and assistant, Dani Busboom Kelly, who got a big welcome when she was introduced), is a fantastic team and played a great match. But I’ve seen the Huskers play great teams before and not look like crap. Not this time. The hits were all off (even from vets like Lexi Sun), the defense had few answers for Louisville, and there was even more than one collision on court. I’m hoping a lot of the problems are a chemistry issue (there are certainly some communication issues!), but that’s not necessarily an easy fix.

So I’m not sure what to make from the Huskers—they’ve not been all bad in the non-con—their sweep of Creighton last week looked quite good. But boy, this has been a rough three matches. It’s the first time the Huskers have lost three in a row since 2018. The good news is that in 2018, the Huskers (who didn’t just lose three in a row, they lost five out of seven) made it to the NCAA final—apparently sharpened by the difficulties of the season.

I don’t see a final for this team, and maybe not even a Final Four - but I do think that if any coaching staff can turn this thing around, it’s Nebraska’s. Here’s hoping!

#3 (#3) Ohio State (10-0)

Last week: W-Notre Dame (25-23, 25-23, 25-19); W-Notre Dame (25-17, 20-25, 25-20, 23-25, 15-9)

To date: It probably makes little sense to pick the #3 team in the nation to finish fourth in their own conference, but I’m doing it anyway. I just think Minnesota is a Final Four team that had a tough start but has turned it around. Putting Nebraska ahead of OSU is, at present, less defensible, and more based on reputation...and the predicted consequences of the return of Lauren Stivrins. That said, her returned is not guaranteed, and OSU is for real. The home win over Washington is great, but the rest of the non-conference schedule was light on challenges. So view this as a bit of a “prove it” ranking.

#t-7 (#9) Purdue (8-1)

Last week: W-Jacksonville State (25-16, 25-19, 25-20); W-IPFW (25-19, 25-6, 25-12); W-#22 Tennessee (25-19, 25-22, 25-23)

To date (BoilerUp89): Purdue has responded to the Louisville loss and took 3 clean sweeps this past week. Nebraska also got swept by Louisville so rather than being alarming that Purdue looked non-competitive against Louisville, Louisville might just be really good. Like national title contender really good. The non-conference slate wasn’t too challenging and Purdue took care of business outside of Louisville so they look mostly ready to go as they enter the B1G season. Still not sure how they are going to match up with the top of the conference, but the Boilermakers look poised to make another tournament under Dave Shondell.

#20 (#20) Penn State (7-3)

Last week: W-Robert Morris (25-13, 25-15, 25-12); W-West Virginia (25-22, 25-13, 25-20)

To date: Russ Rose is a legend, but it’s clear that PSU, over the last few years, has merely been a very good program. There’s no reason to think the Nittany Lions are going to fall off of a cliff, but they also don’t have a lot to tout thus far, and are coming off a 6th place B1G finish in the shortened spring 2021 season. At this point, PSU might struggle to finish in the top 16 and get to host the first weekend, The last time PSU didn’t make the Sweet 16 was 2002. That said, they had two match points against Stanford that they failed to convert. Win that match, and PSU is 8-2 and a few spots higher. Don’t count them out yet.

Illinois (8-3)

Last week: W-Missouri (25-15, 25-14, 25-21); W-Illinois State (25-16, 25-16, 25-16); W-North Texas (25-19, 25-21, 25-12)

To date: I have no idea why Michigan is receiving top 25 votes when Illinois isn’t. Illinois’ losses are to teams currently ranked #6 (Washington), #16 (Creighton), and #20 (Colorado). On the one hand, Illinois was good enough to take at least one set off each of these teams. On the other, they fell behind two sets to zero in each. Are they just good enough to be a pesky out, or are they capable of playing their way into the tournament? Hard to say right now, as none of the non-conference wins leap off the page. However, the feistiness in their losses makes me think they’ll pull an upset or two during conference play.

Michigan (7-2)

Last week: W-Eastern Michigan (25-11, 25-20, 25-16); W-Boston College (25-13, 25-17, 25-22); W-Dayton (25-17, 25-22, 25-22)

To date: Maybe Michigan is better than Illinois and the pollsters have it right. At this point, though, Michigan’s losses (swept by West Virginia, five sets to UNC) aren’t as good as Illinois’ and Michigan doesn’t have any marquee wins to point to, either. Dayton is a solid win, and the Wolverines have looked better lately.

Northwestern (5-6)

Last week: W-UIC (25-20, 25-20, 21-25, 25-16); L-DePaul (21-25, 25-21, 20-25, 17-19); W-Loyola (Chi.) (25-20, 25-21, 25-22)

To date (MNW): It's a big ol' shrug from me as to whether the 'Cats can snap into the middle tier of the Big Ten or they'll be stuck in that bottom five with Rutgers, Iowa, et al.

Last weekend, though, made it look like the 'Cats are enjoying the ride and a little support thanks to Wildcat Welcome Week:

It was tough to drop the Chicago Cup to DePaul in a five-setter, but there were some nice moments within the rout of Loyola and the handling of UIC. Alexa Rousseau and Temi Thomas-Allara led the stat sheet, as usual, and to my untrained eye the 'Cats really seem to like setting out to the left and swinging back across the court.

Heading into a nationally-televised showdown with Nebraska on Wednesday, we'll see how Northwestern puts it all together. Errors cost them against DePaul, and there's no margin when they Huskers come to town.

Maryland (12-0)

Last week: W-Akron (25-11, 25-17, 25-16); W-Stony Brook (25-19, 25-23, 25-12); W-Columbia (25-21, 25-18, 25-22)

To date: You can’t argue with the record, but you can argue with the level of competition. But for the Sparty loss to Wright State, I’d have the Terps at 11th. We’ll get a better idea right away as Maryland’s B1G season starts: vs. UW, @Minnesota, vs. PSU, @OSU. I’ll put the O/U for sets won at 1.5 and will be ready to eat crow if Maryland hits the over. 9th seems like the ceiling.

Michigan State (7-2)

Last week: W-Oakland (26-24, 25-13, 25-20); W-IUPUI (25-18, 25-21, 25-17); W-Central Michigan (17-25, 25-16, 25-19, 25-15)

To date: Covid led the cancellation of matches vs. UNC and Duke, The loss to BYU is totally forgivable. The loss to Wright State a bit more worrying. The Spartans are a fine team, but in the best conference in the country that doesn’t get you as much as you’d think.

Rutgers (8-3)

Last week: W-ETSU (26-24, 25-23, 25-27, 25-22); L-Clemson (19-25, 19-25, 16-25)

To date: Rutgers gave NC State a fight before falling in five sets. They were swept by Clemson. Neither is an ACC power. Rutgers went 3-117 in B1G play from 2014-2019. [Please read that sentence again.] After going 6-14 last spring, it’s clear the program is on much better footing. However, it might be hard to go better than 6-14 this year.

Indiana (6-6)

Last week: W-Alabama A&M (25-8, 25-12, 25-17); L-Chicago State (21-25, 26-28, 23-25); L-Mississippi (22-25, 22-25, 24-26)

To date (Buffkomodo): Indiana did not use the home invitational too well and lost 2 of 3. At least we aren’t Iowa. [ed.—Really, what more is there to say?]

Iowa (2-8)

Last week: W-Incarnate Word (25-18, 25-14, 25-21); L-Air Force (25-20, 26-28, 21-25, 25-20, 6-15); L-Denver (22-25, 16-25, 23-25)

To date: Iowa State is 8-3 so far with losses to Penn State and Minnesota and some decent wins. But Iowa swept them in one of the more unexpected results of the nonconference season. Either that really shows you how deep the B1G is, or the Hawkeyes football dominance of the Cyclones has seeped over to other sports. Either way, Iowa is the worst team in the B1G until they prove otherwise.

This week’s schedule (all times Central):

A big week for #3 Ohio State with two road matches against ranked opposition. 1-1 would make for a successful week and even 0-2 wouldn’t spell doom. But if the Buckeyes are able to win both, then the predictions above will have aged very quickly indeed.

Wed. 9/22: Illinois @ Iowa (6:00, BTN)

Wed. 9/22: #12 Nebraska @ Northwestern (8:00, BTN)

Fri. 9/24: #3 Ohio State @ #7 Purdue (6:00, BTN)

Fri. 9/24: #2 Wisconsin @ Maryland (6:00, BTN+)

Fri. 9/24: #20 Penn State @ Rutgers (6:00, BTN+)

Fri. 9/24: Michigan State @ Indiana (6:00, BTN+)

Fri. 9/24: Michigan @ #9 Minnesota (8:00, BTN)

Sat. 9/25: Iowa @ #12 Nebraska (2:00, BTN+...maybe?)

Sat. 9/25: #2 Wisconsin @ Rutgers (6:00, BTN+)

Sat. 9/25: Northwestern @ Illinois (7:00, BTN+)

Sun. 9/26: Michigan State @ Michigan (Noon, no TV)

Sun. 9/26: #7 Purdue @ Indiana (1:00, BTN+)

Sun. 9/26: Maryland @ #9 Minnesota (1:00, BTN+)

Sun. 9/26: #3 Ohio State @ #20 Penn State (3:00, BTN)