No article last week which means twice the word count this week!
ON TV THIS WEEK
Wed., Illinois at Indiana (BTN 7:00 CDT): two teams who aren’t out of the NCAA tournament race, but who need a strong conference start.
Fri., Michigan State @ Michigan (BTN, 7:00): Don’t feel bad if you pass on this one.
Fri., Ohio State @ Nebraska (BTN, 9:00): Nebraska SHOULD win, but Ohio State has enough talent to make the Huskers work for it.
Sun., Minnesota @ Nebraska (BTN, 6:30): Nebraska SHOULD win, but Minnesota is good enough to pull the upset if Nebraska comes out flat.
SEASON RECAP TO DATE
Overall, the conference has underperformed a bit. Neither Wisconsin nor Nebraska are to blame for this. And, frankly, I think Penn State and Minnesota will improve their position over the next ten weeks. Both had major personnel changes to sort through. But Ohio State was probably hoping for more from their nonconference matches, and nobody who isn’t currently ranked received a single top 25 vote this week, meaning none are deemed to be in the top 40 nationally.
Wisconsin Badgers (#2 preseason, #1 now; 9-0)
Wisconsin has, by far, the deepest collection of impressive nonconference victories in the nation. The Badgers have registered wins over #18 Baylor, @ #16 Arkansas (twice), #14 Tennessee, @ Marquette (receiving votes), and @ #3 Florida. If you want to nitpick, only one of these was a sweep, and three went to five sets. Still, the Badgers are absolutely loaded, especially up front, and Kelly Sheffield has been doing a lot of experimenting trying to find the right lineup. In crunch time, that will almost certainly include 6’9” Anna Smrek (the 2021 MOP), who is hitting .411 on the year, and is unstoppable off a quick set. Sarah Franklin leads the team in kills, and Devyn Robinson is second in kills while hitting .336. Transfers Carter Booth and Temi Thomas-Ailara are contributing as well, with Booth (.439 hitting %) being especially impressive. The Badgers are splitting setting duties between Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hamill, which is working fine, even if neither is Sydney Hilley (few are). The biggest question mark is how to organize the back (and what to do with Julia Orzol). Orzol isn’t a natural libero, but is such a versatile player that she’s hard to keep off the court. However, when UW needs a boost, Gulce Guctekin is usually checking into the game to provide a more defensively minded lineup, as happened in the riveting five set win over Florida on Sunday.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (#5 preseason, #2 now; 9-0)
Nebraska and Wisconsin are the only two unbeaten teams left. The Huskers haven’t quite faced the same strength of schedule as UW, but they’ve been flat-out dominant, dropping only three sets thus far, all three only after grabbing the first two sets against a ranked opponent. In other words, they have yet to be tested, and that includes a decisive victory at #4 Stanford. Lexi Rodriguez is probably the best defensive player in America and the most important single player in the B1G. Offensively, the Huskers have more of a committee approach, with Harper Murray and Merritt Beason leading the way. John Cook has won four national titles. Setting aside the spring 2021 Covid year, when there was no nonconference season, this is the first time the Huskers have emerged from non-conference play unscathed since 2016, right in-between his last two title squads (2015, 2017). This is Nebraska’s best team since 2018, at least, and they’re clearly a national title contender.
BRT: I’d quibble with my colleague’s assertion that the Huskers haven’t been tested after attending the match against Kentucky on Sunday night. I think that was an important win for them, as the emotion of the Stanford win (let’s be honest, the Stanford crushing) could have caused a big hangover. With the first two sets close early before the Huskers pulled away, it seemed like there wasn’t going to be much to write home about. But Kentucky came out and absolutely gave the Huskers everything they could handle in sets 3 and 4. The fourth in particular tested them: they couldn’t get a run going, there was a volley that lasted 1:16, and there were challenges and weird calls, and two starters were out. Kentucky is far better than their record, and I thought this was a really great test for Nebraska—not as pretty as the Stanford win, but a great thing to overcome before starting conference play.
But yeah, I’m excited at how good they look at this point in the season. Cook has a pretty good track record of his teams improving over the season, and that can’t be anything but exciting for Husker fans.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (#7 preseason, #12 now; 4-4)
The record isn’t impressive and they’ve slipped in the rankings, but what loss—#9 Texas, #3 Florida, #4 Stanford, #11 Creighton—do you hold against the Gophers? The Creighton loss was at home last Saturday, otherwise Minnesota is probably sitting close to their preseason ranking. And, by the way, they have a neutral site win over #6 Oregon, which pairs nicely with the win over #18 Baylor. There are no RPI rankings yet, but Minnesota is clearly on target to host the opening weekend. And considering that the Gophers are adjusting to a new coach, and has one of the most portal-affected rosters in the nation, there’s every reason to think their best play is still in front of them.
Penn State Nittany Lions (#8 preseason, #15 now; 6-3)
In a similar position as Minnesota—slow-ish start, lots of change, plenty of potential—PSU’s 0-2 start vs Georgia Tech and Florida was a bit of a bummer, but is clearly no longer cause for concern given that both those teams were undefeated until this past weekend. This is also the case for the third loss, @ Louisville, who was #2 in the nation until getting knocked off this weekend. The only reason for pause is that’s about it for the non-conference schedule. There is a win over #25 Western Kentucky, but, as the #15 ranking indicates, PSU could find themselves on the road to start the NCAAs unless they grab some quality wins in B1G play.
Purdue Boilermakers (#16 preseason, #19 now; 6-3)
There was a rough loss to Loyola-Chicago. And, even though USC is receiving votes, a home loss to the Trojans isn’t great. Otherwise, Purdue has done a good job gutting out quality wins—#17 Kansas, #22 Kentucky, Marquette (receiving votes)...all in five sets. A quick start in B1G play would really help the cause, but the Boilers are competitive for a top-4 seed, and the first weekend hosting duties that come with it.
Ohio State Buckeyes (#14 preseason, #21 now; 3-6)
Yes, OSU is 3-6 and ranked. The losses are to teams currently ranked #4, #6, #9, #11 (twice), and #18. And only one was a sweep. Unfortunately none of the wins juice the profile much. So, even more than PSU, the Buckeyes will need a strong conference showing if they want to host any matches in December.
Illinois Fighting Illini (5-5)
Indiana Hoosiers (10-3)
Maryland Terrapins (10-2)
Michigan Wolverines (2-7)
Northwestern Wildcats (6-4)
Michigan State Spartans (8-3)
Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4)
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-2)
There are a couple of better-than-expected starts above (Michigan State, maybe Rutgers) and a couple not-so-great (Michigan, Illinois), but what you won’t find anywhere is a win over an opponent that is currently ranked. The top of the conference is still elite, but the B1G is more top heavy than usual. It looks to be a six-bid league unless one of these squads can separate from the rest. Illinois probably has the best talent. Indiana is probably best set up to get a seventh tournament bid. The match between the two in Bloomington tonight is pretty intriguing.
BRT: It’s shaping up to be a pretty solid, fun year in the Big Ten again with some big stakes and exciting matches. BTN is airing quite a few matches, and even ESPN seems to be doing a little better. I know we make this appeal every year, but it’s a great time to get into volleyball!