Before we move on to the NCAA tournament, let’s take a couple of moments to close out the B1G season:
- Nebraska Cornhuskers: 19-1/28-1
- Wisconsin Badgers: 17-3/26-3
- Purdue Boilermakers: 15-5/21-8
- Penn State Nittany Lions: 15-5/21-8
- Minnesota Golden Gophers: 12-8/16-12
- Indiana Hoosiers: 11-9/21-12
- Illinois Fighting Illini: 11-9/16-14
- Northwestern Wildcats: 9-11/15-15
- Michigan State Spartans: 9-11/16-14
- Ohio State Buckeyes: 8-12/11-18
- Maryland Terrapins: 7-13/17-15
- Michigan Wolverines: 5-15/7-22
- Rutgers Scarlet Knights: 2-18/10-19
- Iowa Hawkeyes: 0-20/8-24
Kind of...: @BRT, I think we agree that Nebraska is the worthy champions and/but it was a pretty close race all things considered, given that the Huskers went 3-0 in five set matches in conference play and UW was 0-2. I would further guess that we agree that the match of the year, both for title implications and tension/drama purposes, was Nebraska’s five set win over UW in Lincoln on October 21.
BRT: I’m not sure my evidence for it being close would be the stats you cited - basically, Nebraska was emphatically great in five-set matches and Wisconsin was not. To me, that doesn’t necessarily imply a close race. However, though I’d reason differently, I’d agree that Wisconsin and Nebraska are fairly evenly matched. In terms of the conference race... it didn’t come down to the last weekend, like we all thought it might, so arguably it was a less close race than I expected. At any rate, h/t to Purdue and PSU for doing their part for the Huskers on that one. (Though I think it’s extremely possible that we’re having a different conversation here if Anna Smrek doesn’t miss those matches...)
And yes, the Oct. 21st match was an instant classic and everything that makes this sport great. I also really enjoyed the Huskers’ reverse sweep at PSU.
Kind of...: Fair enough. I didn’t want to bring up injuries, so we actually agree more than I thought. What about UW sweeping Nebraska last weekend. Does that say more about Wisconsin at this point or Nebraska?
BRT: I’m not reading too much into it - it was a match that I expected the Badgers to win (officially, I gave Nebraska a 25% chance of winning.) UW needed the win for seeding purposes, undoubtedly had a revenge angle, and were playing at home. There was really no good reason for Wisconsin to have lost that match.
However, I was disappointed that the Huskers were swept - I thought it would be a four-setter. And I was really disappointed with their play in the third set. The first two sets were pretty evenly matched, though the Husker struggled to close out a set (a tendency we’ve seen at other points this season and which does very much concern me for the tournament.)
So, while I wasn’t surprised that they lost in Madison, I actually thought the Minnesota match was going to be more telling for Nebraska - on the road, coming off their first loss, a young team... how would they respond? Thankfully, they responded fairly well in a tough match. I think that was really critical to have as a rebound before getting to the tournament.
Kind of...: I definitely didn’t read much into the 3rd set of UW/Nebraska. It was like watching a great tennis player just dump a set after their serve was broke to conserve energy. The Friday/Saturday road trip is no joke. Any thoughts on teams other than the top two? I’ll note that after a really poor 2-4 start to conference play, Minnesota is on a 10-4 run, with all four losses coming against tournament teams (Purdue x2, Wisconsin, Nebraska).
BRT: Yeah, Minnesota looked really good on Saturday against the Huskers—they’re way better than their overall record suggests. I also think PSU has more mettle than the numbers might lead one to believe.
Overall, there’s less representation from the Big Ten this year in the tournament, which is kind of a bummer - although I think this is also representative of the sport as a whole continuing to gain more support, visibility, and better teams across the country, which is overall a good thing. Even if I miss watching the Big Ten rule the tournament. :)
Kind of...: Let’s talk NCAA tournament. Nebraska rightly earned the #1 overall seed. How do you feel about their draw? Any possible regional opponent give you pause?
BRT: None are terribly frightening to me, though that’s not the same thing as me thinking Nebraska is unbeatable (I don’t). I think the one that stands out is Kentucky, the #2 seed in the regional. The Huskers beat them in four early in the season, and I think it’s hard to beat any good team twice in a season. I’d still probably take Nebraska against them here too, but that’s the one that leaps out as a potential trouble spot. In general though, I think it’s a pretty good regional for the Huskers, and one which they can hopefully take advantage of.
Kind of...: I’ll say that I don’t mind Wisconsin’s draw. I think it would be better for volleyball if there weren’t so many clusters of conference teams in a single regional (SEC: #2, #3, and #4 seeds in Nebraska’s regional; B1G: #1, #3, and #5 seeds in Wisconsin’s regional), but I actually like that Wisconsin might get a chance to avenge losses to Penn State and Purdue. I don’t take either 2-seed Oregon or 4-seed Kansas lightly, but, frankly, Wisconsin will have home court and should be the favorite. It’s really up to the Badgers to take care of business. I think they’re fresher/more ready than last year, and I don’t think anybody in the regional is as good on paper as the Pittsburgh team that beat them in five sets in the Elite Eight last year. I do think an Oregon/Purdue Sweet 16 matchup could be electric and whoever wins that will be a worthy opponent should UW make the regional finals.
BRT: Co-sign on your frustrations with the conference clusters. I enjoy watching the other Big Ten teams throughout the tournament, and it’s unfortunate that scheduling is guaranteeing that so many are going to be eliminated relatively early in the tournament.
Kind of...: Do you think either Purdue or Penn State has what it takes to make the Final Four? Penn State has won six in a row, including a four set win over UW in Happy Valley. And Purdue has won seven in a row, including five set wins over UW and Penn State, so both are entering with plenty of confidence.
BRT: I absolutely think either of those teams could slay Goliath. Would I be cheering for that to happen? Well... yeah. :)
Kind of...: As I noted above, Minnesota has turned things around. But their slow start means they basically enter the tournament as an 11-seed, opposite 6-seed Utah State. Let’s acknowledge that a Gopher win there wouldn’t be a huge upset. Does Minnesota have what it takes to get by 3-seed Creighton if they meet in the second round?
BRT: I think it’s a tall order for this Minnesota team this year, tbh. On the other hand, they’ve been playing really well of late, peaking at the right time, and I was impressed by what I saw from them on Saturday against Nebraska. I’ll definitely be pulling for them, because screw Creighton.
Kind of...: The 1-seed opposite Nebraska is Pittsburgh. The 2-seed, coached by former Husker great Dani Busboom Kelly, is their ACC rival, Louisville. Would you rather Nebraska and Louisville show down in the Final Four, or avoid all that drama and have Pittsburgh (or a Creighton rematch) await the Huskers should they make the final four?
BRT: Oh, I’d like the drama! Obviously, I’d hope we’d win, but that would probably be the loss that would bug me the least because I’m really happy for her that she’s crushing it.
Kind of...: Okay, closing argument. I’ll make my pitch for why UW is going to win it all and what will have gone wrong if they don’t. You do the same for Nebraska.
If the Badgers win it all it will be because, fully healthy, their offensive attack is irresistible. Their size at the net—6’9” Anna Smrek, 6’7” Carter Booth, 6’4” Sarah Franklin, 6’3” CC Crawford 6’2” Devyn Robinson, 6’2” Temi Thomas-Ailara—is beyond what anybody else has. This is even more pronounced on the block. Six point runs come to feel inevitable. They have a couple of capable servers, and the defense is underrated only because the offense is so potent. Are they the most well-rounded team? Maybe not. But they’re probably the most potent. And that might get it done.
If it doesn’t, it likely will be because their opponent just won’t quit, and digs everything in sight. I go back to the first Nebraska match. It never felt like the Badgers were being thoroughly outplayed, but they lost (they outhit their opponent in two of their three losses). And it didn’t feel like a fluke either. Sometimes you have two or three clean attempts at a kill and the other team just digs them all. It’s part of the game.
BRT: If the Huskers win it all, it’s because they are just disgustingly talented, especially on defense. The one-two punch of Lexi Rodriguez and Laney Choboy is pretty tough to resist, and the offense isn’t so bad either. They’re also gritty - they’ve been on the ropes a lot of times this season, against some very good teams, and every time except for one, they found a way to pull it out when it counts. They’re not a team that’s going to roll over and die, and sometimes, wanting it more matters.
If the Huskers don’t win it all, I’ll attribute some of that to youth. This squad is famously young (Nebraska didn’t even have a Senior Night this year, as there are none on the team), and that has advantages and disadvantages. Part of me is really worried that the disadvantages of youth are finally going rear their heads in the pressure cooker of the tournament. Hopefully, they’ll rise to the occasion and slay those dragons, but I won’t be surprised if things get upended short of the finish line.
I hope not though! They’ve been a friggin’ delight to watch this year, and it would be something to see the arc of a team starting from a crowd of 92,003 fans to kick off the year to finishing the season by winning the entire enchilada.