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What does a 16-team B1G mean for other volleyball?

Wisconsin swept UCLA in the Sweet 16 last year en route to a national title

You may recall that OTE has proven itself capable of complementing its half-assed coverage of football with half-assed coverage of other sports, too. In that tradition, let’s talk volleyball and wrestling, saving MBB and WBB for a later discussion.

Wait. Neither USC nor UCLA has a wrestling program?

Okay, let’s talk some volleyball!!!

USC and UCLA both have proud volleyball programs that have fallen off a bit lately, but that will still be excellent additions to the B1G meat grinder. USC hasn’t made the NCAA tournament the last two years, but had made it every year from 1995-2019. The Trojans have 3 AIAW titles (1976, 1977, 1980) and three NCAA titles (1981, 2002, 2003) to their credit. Last year they went 15-15, 10-10 in the Pac-12, which placed them 7th in the conference standings. All six teams ahead of them in the standings made the tournament, so USC was hardly a pushover, but their recent trajectory doesn’t suggest B1G title contender, though they were active in the transfer portal (grabbing Skylar Fields from Texas was impressive), so expect a tournament bid this year.

UCLA has two AIAW titles (1974, 1975) and four NCAA titles (1984, 1990, 1991, 2011) to their credit and have been better than USC recently. 2021 saw them finish second in the Pac-12 and advance to the Sweet 16, where they were swept by eventual national champion Wisconsin. There have been a couple of hiccups (missing the tournament in 2013 and 2018), but otherwise, the Bruins have at least made the second round of every NCAA tournament from 1997 to the present. They’re not going anywhere.

Part of the the mild but noticeable downturn from USC and UCLA over the last 15 years is the rise of other Pac 12 programs. Stanford won three titles in four years from 2016-2019, and Washington, Oregon, and Utah have all stepped up their programs. Though neither UCLA nor USC have been on the level of what Nebraska and Penn State have reached in recent years, it’s a similar dynamic at work: an already tough league has gotten even deeper. In that sense, the addition of USC and UCLA just reinforce that the B1G is the premier volleyball conference in the nation, and make feasible the possibility of punching 10 bids to the NCAA tournament some year.

Obviously the biggest impact is likely to be recruiting. Let’s just look at Wisconsin (last year’s national champion) and Nebraska (a lock to be this year’s preaseason #1). On UW’s roster, you have players largely from the Midwest, but also from Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Canada, Turkey, and Poland. The furthest west is Caroline Crawford, who went to HS in Kansas and transferred in from Kansas.

Nebraska hasn’t done much international recruiting, and has gone further west than UW. From last year’s team, all-everything Lauren Stivrins went to HS in Arizona, and the Huskers pulled Lexi Sun out of Encitas, CA. Still, it’s largely a roster built around midwestern talent.

Now, just because USC and UCLA are joining the B1G doesn’t mean it’s open season and all the best California talent will decided to come to B1G schools, but it does seem obvious that more top HS volleyball players out West will give B1G schools a look. At the same time, causation can be complicated. The trend might have already begun.

For example, days before the USC/UCLA bombshell dropped, UW scored a recruiting coup by nabbing the #2 player in the 2024 class (and #1 setter), Charlie Fuerbringer, out of Manhattan Beach, CA. Her dad was an All-American at Stanford and her mom was an All-American at Long Beach State and coached at UCLA. But she chose Wisconsin. Part of that is Wisconsin’s setting tradition (Lauren Carlini and Sydney Hilley), but I would wager that part of it is the visibility of B1G volleyball.

As we’ve noted here a couple of times, BTN really stepped up their VB coverage in recent years, and last year’s ESPN coverage of the NCAA tournament—a tournament that saw two B1G teams square off for the title—set viewership records. Things aren’t perfect (recall the shitty accommodations for the 2020 (i.e., spring 2021) NCAA tournament), so don’t read this as “things are perfect for women athletes,” but college volleyball is on an upswing and the B1G has largely been leading that.

There’s no reason to think either Nebraska or Wisconsin will fall off, and the B1G should be stacked as usual. This “way-too-early” preason top 10 had five B1G squads in the top eight, but USC and UCLA are tradition-rich programs who haven’t been standing pat. There are still two seasons to go before they join the B1G, but I expect each to be in better position in 2024 than they are now, and neither is in shambles. From a volleyball perspective, adding UCLA and USC should really be mutually beneificial.