With the Big Ten Title reclaimed by Penn State this past weekend what remains to be decided in the regular season’s final week is whether or not an eighth Big Ten team is headed to the postseason and which conference members will be hosting the first two rounds of the tournament.
Last week we broke down the two remaining Big Ten teams with chances to improve their postseason fates before the conclusion of conference play. Northwestern and Wisconsin both split their weekend matches meaning each will finish with a record above .500, meeting the minimum attractive levels for the NCAA selection committee.
Northwestern is still better situated with an RPI of 47 versus Wisconsin’s 67 but were the Badgers to win against Minnesota and Purdue this week, the committee would have a hard time putting Northwestern in over Wisconsin. On the flip side, the Wildcats have a favorable matchup, in comparison to Wisconsin, with the Illini at home before playing Nebraska on the road to close out Big Ten play. It is unlikely that one league would receive nine bids to the tournament, making the final week of matches all the more important for the Wildcats and Badgers’ appeal to be part of the 64-team field.
Pencil in three Big Ten teams to host the first two rounds of the tournament as the conference’s top three squads are each in line to earn one of the necessary 16 seeded spots to play postseason volleyball at home. No. 1 Penn State, No. 10 Nebraska and No. 11 Minnesota will, barring a two-loss week, be seeded because of their high rankings in the AVCA Poll and top 10 spots in the RPI.
Last season four Big Ten teams hosted the first two rounds with Nebraska being the only one not to advance to the regional semifinal due to a five-set loss to former Big 12 foe Kansas State at the NU Coliseum. Nine of the 16 seeded teams in the field last year advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and all except one team in the regional finals were seeded. A seed is vital to the hopes of Big Ten team’s aspirations of appearing in the Final Four or National Championship match.
Penn State won their 15th Big Ten Title and should close with a staggering 19-1 Big Ten record, leaving no doubt that they will play at least one more match at Rec Hall in 2012. I say “should” because while Penn State plays the two hottest teams in the conference other than themselves this week in Ohio State and Michigan State with both matches being played at Rec Hall, Penn State has won 78 of their last 79 Big Ten matches at home. I expect the nation’s top team to prevail despite the students not being in attendance due to Thanksgiving break.
The Nittany Lions have not lost an NCAA Tournament match in University Park since 2005 when they fell to Tennessee in four sets. If the Lions are victorious in the first two rounds they would head to a venue they are now familiar with in Mackey Arena, where they defeated Purdue on Saturday night in four sets, for the regional semifinal.
Nebraska sees a favorable road in front of them if they can close out this final week with two wins. The Huskers would have the opportunity to end their tenure in the NU Coliseum with NCAA Tournament action on their way to playing the regional semifinal at the Century Link Center in Omaha. The Huskers know that the home court advantage they experience at the Coliseum would be exponentially increased in Omaha giving them the support that could lift them to their first Final Four appearance since 2008. That season a record 17,340 fans were in attendance to see Nebraska play Penn State in the national semifinal in Omaha, an epic five-setter won by the Nittany Lions.
The Gophers were on the bubble of being seeded heading into this past weekend but with a come from behind victory against Nebraska in 5 sets, Minnesota solidified their bid for a third consecutive season of early round NCAA Tournament play at the Sports Pavilion.
Ohio State and Purdue are the only other two conference schools in striking distance of earning a seed. The Buckeyes moved up in the rankings following a defeat of Purdue in Holloway Gymnasium last Friday night, adding to the growing list of impressive victories for OSU. With Mari Hole and Kaitlynn Leary surging on the left side Ohio State has climbed to No. 14 in the poll and has an RPI of 20, winning eight of their last nine matches. Even if the Buckeyes are unable to upset top-ranked Penn State on Wednesday night they should close out the season on a run that would be difficult for the selection committee to overlook when picking the top 16 teams.
Mackey Arena is one of the predetermined sites to host a regional and Purdue would relish the chance to play at home for potentially four matches to get to the Final Four. Currently the Boilermakers are ranked 22nd in the AVCA poll with an RPI of 26. Unfortunately, even with wins against Indiana and Wisconsin this week it is probably too late for Purdue to play in West Lafayette for the first two rounds.
Maryland and Rutgers volleyball join Big Ten
Two seasons ago one of the most storied volleyball programs in the country joined the Big Ten and the addition of Nebraska has made a great conference into the unquestioned top conference. Maryland and Rutgers will not have the same impact but their addition will once again change the landscape of Big Ten volleyball.
In 2010 every conference team played each other twice. With the move to 12 teams, each squad has faced two of the conference members just once the last two seasons. Unfortunately, teams will play each other even less with the latest additions resulting in several teams not getting as many shots against the league’s top programs.
A lot of discussion involves travel but a trip to New Brunswick or College Park is not much longer than a trip to State College. Travel has always been grueling in the conference and would be whether or not the Big Ten expanded.
Both Maryland and Rutgers currently have overall records above .500 but the Terrapins are 7-12 in ACC play while the Scarlet Knights finished 4-11 in the Big East. Maryland’s last trip to the NCAA Tournament came in 2005 while Rutgers has made only one appearance back in 1982.
With the membership at 14 teams a conference tournament could be a possibility for the Big Ten but that would include shortening the regular season to accommodate the week needed to play the tournament.
It will be intriguing to see how the conference adjusts the schedule for the two newest members and how they will fare in the nation’s deepest league.
|About Mike Wolf||Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.|