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B1G Volleyball: One More Time!!!

Will we get the Final we all want?

Here we are, the Final Four. Three 1-seeds and the defending champs. Wisconsin is in their fourth Final Four in five years. Texas their third in the last four (and 11th in 16 years!). Pittsburgh, the relative newcomer, is in their third consecutive Final Four. And Nebraska, the most decorated program of the bunch, is back to the Final Four for the 11th time in John Cook’s 24 years at the helm.

With so much pedigree, virtually no result should be that surprising. Texas was the preseason #1, Wisconsin was #1 most of the year, and Nebraska finished the season #1 and is the overall top seed. Given that Pittsburgh was also a 1-seed, it would be ridiculous to view them as an afterthought just because they didn’t ascend to #1 during the year.

Further, these teams know each other well. Each of the last four tournaments have featured at least one showdown among these four.

  • In 2019, Wisconsin defeated Nebraska in the Elite Eight
  • In 2020, Texas defeated Nebraska in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin at the Final Four.
  • In 2021, Nebraska avenged their loss to Texas with an Elite Eight win over the Longhorns, then beat Pittsburgh in the Final Four, before falling to Wisconsin in a five-set national title match.
  • Last year, Pittsburgh came to Madison and knocked off the Badgers in the Elite Eight

Besides the familiarity, note that ALL of these matchups came in the Elite Eight or later. As will all three this year, obviously. We’re talking about the premier programs in the sport.

So, let’s break down the matchups.

Nebraska vs. Pittsburgh (6:00 PM, CST, on ESPN)

Kind of...: So, @BRT, what most grabs your attention about Pittsburgh? It seems weird to treat a team making their third consecutive Final Four appearance as an underdog, but that seems to be the perception. Any matchups or stylistic elements that you think will tell the tale?

BRT: What grabs my attention was their fifth set against Louisville last week. Good lord, it was terrifying. At one point, it was 14-5. Seeing something like that happen to a #2 seed in the Elite Eight... you don’t see that often. That’s not only an insane amount of fire power, it’s a crazy amount of focus. I’d like to believe it was just a lucky streak, but I don’t think that explains it as fully as I’d like. I’m not massively familiar with Pitt - that was the first match of theirs I’ve seen, and I only saw the first few sets and a bit of the fifth because ESPN annoying overlapped all four of last round’s matches. But that kind of run in the fifth set of a big match says experience to me, and spells danger.

They also have one of the best freshmen players in the country in Olivia Babcock. Between her and Nebraska’s slate of excellent freshmen, if you want to see the future of the sport, this is going to be a really fun match for you.

Kind of...: Can’t disagree with anything you say. Spotting Louisville two sets usually doesn’t go well, but they pulled off the reverse sweep. I do tend to think Nebraska’s completeness and their ability to keep so many balls in play will be important. Pittsburgh hit an astounding .425 in the Sweet 16 win over Washington State, and a very impressive .286 against an excellent Louisville team that had seen them twice already this year. I have Nebraska advancing in four, but I’d say Nebraska is only has a 60/40 likelihood of winning. I’ll be surprised if it’s not a really tense match. What say you?

BRT: Admittedly, I’m a pessimist with these things, so I fear Nebraska’s ride ends here. I want to be ok with that - Pitt would be no shameful loss, and given that Nebraska has zero seniors on their team, it’s safe to say that they’ve already exceeded most people’s expectations for the season. Bowing out in the Final Four isn’t anything so bad.

However... once you get to this point, it sure is hard not to want it all, isn’t it? It’s only Tuesday as I’m writing this and Thursday is already stressing me out. What I do know is that this team won’t quit. That’s gotten them through some tough spots during this season (including some fifth sets), and hopefully it will again.

Wisconsin vs. Texas (30 minutes after the first semifinal, on ESPN)

Kind of...: Texas was #1 in the preseason rankings and Wisconsin was #2*, so a Final Four matchup is not a surprise. And it really is a titanic showdown. Wisconsin’s size is much commented on, and for good reason. The Badgers registered twice as many blocks as their opponents, only surrendering 167 blocks on the year (compared to 220, 238, and 241 for Texas, Pittsburgh, and Nebraska respectively). And, while this may sound cliched, they’re the best team in America in thriving off energy and going on runs. In the Sweet 16, they led PSU 8-7 in the 3rd set, tied at a set apiece, and ran off 12 straight points. Then in the fourth set, again leading 8-7, they scored 10 straight. Against Oregon in the Elite Eight, they had an 8-1 run in the second set, and at 8-8 in the fourth, they scored 7 straight to break things open.

*Nebraska and Pittsburgh were tied for 5th. No kidding. Stanford was #3 and Louisville was #4. Both made the Elite Eight. So did #9 Oregon and #25 Arkansas, who qualify as this year’s Cinderella.

But damn is Texas good. 21-1 after a 5-3 start. Tennessee has a really good chance to beat them in the Sweet 16, holding a match point in the fourth, and serving with it 14-14 in the fifth. It seems like Texas survived their scare and is now feels invincible. With Madisen Skinner, Jenna, Wenaas, and Asjia O’Neal anchoring the frontline, they have ever reason to feel that way. @BRT do you see any key weaknesses or edges that make this anything other than a toss-up?

BRT: I am probably bringing a fair bit of bias to this, but based on what I’ve seen of each team (admittedly, that’s a lot more Wisconsin than Texas), I think the Badgers are calmer, more complete, and harder to beat when push comes to shove. You see UT’s survival as a test overcome (which it certainly was) which having passed through it, they’re now ready to roll. I see it as a close survival, and regardless of how Texas is feeling about it, they looked damned beatable when facing a good opponent. And you know who is a not just good, but great opponent? Wisconsin.

Kind of...: I certainly hope your read is right. I really do see it as coin-flip. UW can be targeted in their serve receive, but they also serve better that most recent Badger teams. Texas isn’t as tall as UW, but they’re plenty potent on offense. My head says Texas was the preseason #1 for a reason, but my heart thinks the energy and joy the Badgers played with last weekend will carry over. Feels like a five-setter either way.

BRT: I think Wisconsin wins and makes it look pretty easy. I won’t be shocked if UT wins a set, but I don’t see it going five, and I see some happy Badgers headed into the weekend.

National Championship (Sunday, 2:00 CST, ABC)

Kind of...: If you want to predict a national champion, be my guest. I think Nebraska has the most complete team, but I realize that may feel like I’m trying to pull the old reverse jinx, so we can leave it be if you’d like.

BRT: I’ll be happier to predict after Thursday. ;) Honestly, it feels like another Badger win this year, and that does kind of piss me off. My reverse jinx doesn’t work at all in football (or whatever Nebraska’s regular jinx is is just stronger), but it did work on MSU in basketball this week, so... I guess we’ll see how it goes. I just feel that UW has a slightly easier path to the final, and since they’ve finally gotten the “choking in the final” monkey off their back, I think they’ll block their way to victory. When everyone on your team is 6’8” or whatever, I guess that’s what you should expect.

Kind of...: Either way, we should discuss the fact that the title match was moved away from its typical Saturday night time slot into a Sunday afternoon one. On the one hand, you have to wonder if the crowd will be as energetic on a Sunday afternoon. On the other hand...THE NCAA FINAL IS ON ABC!!!

We’ve both banged the drum for more exposure for the sport. It’s incredibly fun to watch, and, when given the chance, it puts up numbers. Nebraska filled a football stadium. UW/Nebraska’s first matchup set BTN records, and Minnesota/Wisconsin—helped by a Packers/Vikings lead-in—did gangbusters on Fox. So, even if Sunday afternoon feels like a weird time, this is a good thing, right?

BRT: I think it’s a great thing! I know that if either Nebraska or Wisconsin are in the final (...or both...) the fans will travel, and will bring it. I’ve been disappointed with some of the airtime decisions in this tournament, which seemed to privilege inconsequential basketball games, but I like this decision. Viewership-wise, I think the suits should be hoping for an all-B1G final, right? Given how successful both Nebraska and Wisconsin have been at drawing eyeballs this year?

Even if the final ends up Pitt-Texas, I’ll be watching, and hope all B1G volleyball fans will too. Not only will it probably be a pretty good match, but it feels really important for this to pull good numbers and show how viable the sport can be when given a chance to be featured.

Kind of...: Totally agree. Neither of us is 100% happy with the powers that be, but it wasn’t that long ago that the teams that made the tournament were basically being treated like Fyre Festival attendees. Things have improved, but only because pressure was applied (and attendance records were set). I’ll all for whatever keeps that going. Any parting thoughts? I know how you feel about Texas, so I’ll be presumptuous enough to say that I, too, am hoping for an All-B1G championship, and we can keep our differences to ourselves after that...

BRT: I am usually pretty pro-B1G in volleyball, but I have to admit that Wisconsin challenges me in that sentiment. You can mostly blame Dana Rettke for that, and though she’s gone, the bad vibes still linger. Still, Wisconsin’s never yet killed my conference or been, well... looks at what’s going on in the state of Texas right now ... Texas, so yeah, I’m pulling for Wisconsin to send the Longhorns packing.

I won’t lie, I’ll be disappointed if the Huskers aren’t playing on Sunday. I want the narrative arc that begins with 92,003 people in a football stadium and ends with another trophy. It’s just too damn good. It’s a big ask and I know it may not happen, nor even have a very good chance of happening. But, they’ve put themselves in the position where it could happen, and you can’t ask for more than that. I’m still dang proud of this team, and couldn’t be more excited to watch them not just this week, but in the coming years. They are great, and will be greater.