After a break last week, we’re back just in time to set up the conference race and handicap NCAA tournament chances with three weeks left in the regular season.
Before we get into the conference race, though, let’s just note how popular volleyball is getting now that the suits are giving it some decent opportunities.
First, the #1/#2 showdown between Wisconsin and Nebraska nearly three weeks ago got 612,000 viewers, making it both the most watched volleyball match ever on BTN, and the most-watched regular-season volleyball match ever.
Then, two weekends ago, Wisconsin and Minnesota (and Ohio State/Michigan, there was regional coverage) played on network TV with the Green Bay/Minnesota NFL game as a lead-in, collectively drawing 1.66 MILLION viewers. Only six college football games last week did better ratings than that!
I don’t think the Nebraska/Wisconsin rematch can do 1.66 million, but with Nebraska/Iowa football as a lead-in, beating 612,000 could be in the cards.
Unfortunately, there’s only one game this week on BTN. With basketball season starting, and the men’s soccer tournament being televised, volleyball is crowded out this week. Rest assured, the last two weeks will be a different story.
So, this week, make sure you tune in for:
Sat., 7:00 CST: Wisconsin @ Penn State, BTN
Penn State needs to get back to winning as they’re mired in a 1-4 stretch at present, with some gutting losses. However, UW needs to win to keep pace with Nebraska in the conference title race.
For now, let’s spend of the rest of the report breaking down the state of affairs at at present.
WHERE WE’RE AT
We’re going to look at the standings in reverse order. Anybody who has no shot of making the NCAA tournament won’t get mentioned next week. Sorry, but it’s crunch time (and winter sports are starting, which can be solace).
(14) Iowa, 8-18/0-14: Iowa is staring at an 0-20 conference season. Their best shot at a win was likely the home match with Rutgers, which they dropped in 5 sets on 10/27. Best remaining chance: Sunday, at home vs. Northwestern. LOOK OVER THERE: It’s Caitlin Clark!!!
(13) Rutgers, 10-14/2-12: Rutgers will always have the upset win over Minnesota. And they might beat Michigan and/or Northwestern in the coming couple of weeks. Anything beyond that, though, would be a surprise.
(12) Michigan, 6-17/4-10: The Wolverines are actually on a three match winning-streak. And that includes a four-set win over Ohio State. The next four are on the road (though @Rutgers is winnable), and the ceiling seems to be 10th.
(T-10) Northwestern, 11-13/5-9: Northwestern is good enough to mess up the plans of better teams on occasion, as evidenced by the wins @Purdue and vs. Indiana. With two matches vs. Iowa and one @Rutgers remaining, Northwestern could possibly end up as high as 8th. But tournament dreams have been dead for a while.
(T-10) Maryland, 15-11/5-9: Maryland just finished a road trip to Michigan where they dropped all six sets. Ouch. They Terps seem unlikely to be any better than 2-4 in their last six. The makes 11th the likeliest landing spot.
(9) Ohio State, 9-14/6-8: A really disappointing season for Ohio State. The Buckeyes were sixth in the preseason polls, but the consensus was that they were still part of the upper tier and a pretty safe bet to make the tournament. Alas, a brutal schedule nonconference schedule put them in an early hole, and they just haven’t built any momentum.
(8) Indiana, 17-10/7-7: Two weeks ago the Hoosiers were sitting at 6-4 in conference play, staring down a make-or-break stretch in hopes they could grab a tournament bid. Unfortunately, it broke the Hoosiers. Indiana dropped five-setters @Illinois and @Northwestern, then lost @Ohio State in four on Saturday. The next four are all at home. If they go 4-0, that would mean a titanic upset of Wisconsin. So...Indiana’s tournament dreams aren’t dead, but they can’t lose. The RPI is currently 72, so even a 5-1 finish probably won’t be enough.
(T-5) Michigan State, 16-9/8-6: The Spartans have been the most pleasant surprise of the year. Pegged 12th in the preseason polls, here they sit in 5th late in the season. The schedule has been on the easy side, but the five-set win over PSU on 10/28 is impressive. Four straight matches on the road, but the Spartans have a reasonable shot at finishing .500 or better and in the top half oft he conference.
(T-5) Illinois, 13-11/8-6: Illinois had won six straight to move from 2-5 to 8-5, but a home sweep at the hands of Wisconsin brought the Illini back to earth. Sure, if Illinois wins out, winning @Nebraska and @Minnesota in the process, an at-large bid might find its way to Champaign. Can’t write them off yet, but I don’t know that anybody is betting on it happening.
(T-5) Minnesota, 12-10/8-6: Minnesota in 6-2 over their last eight, and losses @Purdue and @Wisconsin are acceptable. None of the wins are over NCAA-bound teams, but nonconference wins over Baylor and Oregon are doing plenty of heavy lifting. Barring an absolute collapse—and five of the last six are at home—Minnesota is safely in the tournament.
(T-3) #19 Penn State, 15-8/9-5: Just over two weeks ago, Penn State was 8-1 in conference play. But then they dropped a home match to Purdue. Then, following an expected win over Michigan, PSU has dropped three straight five-set matches, each quite painful. The loss to Michigan State because it shouldn’t have happened and really hurt their RPI. The loss to Nebraska because PSU won the first two sets at home, and then let things slip away. And the loss to Purdue because it pretty decisively puts Purdue #3 in the B1G pecking order and means Penn State is unlikely to get to host the opening weekend. Their only shot is to run the table, including a win over Wisconsin Saturday night in State College. That should be a match well worth watching.
(T-3) # 16 Purdue, 15-8/9-5: All things considered, Purdue is in a pretty good spot, about where they were expected to be. The loss at Illinois on 10/28 cost them sole possession of 3rd, but they completed a season sweep of Penn State on Sunday. They’re the only B1G school to take a set off of UW besides Nebraska so far this season, and they get the Badgers in West Lafayette on 11/17. A win there might get them home matched the opening round as they currently sit at #18 in RPI.
(2) #2 Wisconsin, 22-1/13-1: The Badgers dropped a set to Purdue last Wednesday night, but are basically humming along. Oh, look, here’s the challenging part of the schedule: @Maryland, @PSU, @Purdue, @Indiana, vs. Nebraska. To be sure, UW is a heavy favorite in all but the @PSU and vs. Nebraska matches. But if they want the rematch with Nebraska to have conference title implications, they can’t afford any losses over the next two weeks.
(1) #1 Nebraska, 23-0/14-0: The Huskers moved to 3-0 in five-set matches with the comeback against Penn State Friday night. Cue the perennial debate over whether teams know how to “win the tough ones” or are just luckier than normal. Nebraska doesn’t care because they’re undefeated, the consensus #1 in the nation, and have basically already locked up hosting duties for a regional. The next four are either at home or vs. Iowa, so anything short of 27-0/18-0 entering the last week would be a titanic surprise. That last week—@Wisconsin, @Minnesota—is just titanic.