Seven Big Ten teams are headed to the postseason, tied for the most of any conference in the country. Three teams will host first and second round play this weekend including the number one overall seed, the Penn State Nittany Lions. It has been a grueling schedule for every conference team and now we get a chance to see if the parity of the Big Ten has prepared these squads to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 1 seed Penn State vs. Binghamton, Fri. Nov. 30 Rec Hall, University Park, Pa.
The Nittany Lions closed out the regular season with two decisive victories against what had been the two hottest teams in the conference, sweeping the Buckeyes and the Spartans at Rec Hall. Penn State claimed their 15th Big Ten Title with an expectation defying 19-1 record and was honored with Big Ten Player of the Year (Ariel Scott), Setter of the Year (Micha Hancock), Freshman of the Year (Megan Courtney) and Coach of the Year (Russ Rose) on Tuesday.
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Friday night at Rec Hall Penn State will open with Binghamton, a team with a losing record that won the America East conference to earn their spot in the field. This is the third trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Bearcats and it will be the same result as their first two appearances, losses to the Nittany Lions in 2005 and 2009. No matter the opponent in the second round (Yale or Bowling Green) the five-time national champions should cruise to the regional semifinal in West Lafayette where they could potentially meet Ohio State for the third time this season.
There has been a lot of discussion about Penn State’s favorable road to the Final Four due to a lack of Pac-12 opponents in their region but the West Lafayette section of the bracket houses three other Big Ten teams, each of which have had memorable upset wins this year. Add to it the 9th seeded Florida State Seminoles that have suffered only three losses this season and appeared in the national semifinal in 2011 and it will be anything but an easy task to reach the Final Four for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions began their season at the site of the National Championship, the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, and they will have a good chance to end it there as well.
No. 4 seed Nebraska vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, Thurs. Nov. 29, NU Coliseum, Lincoln, Neb.
Heading into the final few weeks of the regular season Nebraska head coach John Cook said that all of the Huskers’ goals were still in front of them with the exception of winning the Big Ten Title. That remains the case going into the postseason and the mantra of ‘unfinished business’ has added one more match to redeem, defeating the team that was the reason for the mantra in the first place.
With a Husker victory in the first round over UMES and a Kansas State win over Northern Iowa, a rematch of last year’s stunning second round Nebraska defeat could take place in the final match of the NU Coliseum. The Wildcats were unfazed by the imposing atmosphere a season ago after playing years of matches at the Coliseum while Nebraska was a member of the Big 12. Kansas State knocked off the Huskers in front of their home fans in five sets, ending Nebraska’s season on a sour note that has carried over to be an undercurrent of the entire 2012 season. The Wildcats return essentially the same lineup but come into the postseason having lost five of their last six matches.
Only one player on the current Husker roster has experienced a Final Four and that was backup middle blocker Allison McNeal in 2008 when she was a redshirt freshman at the time. Down the road it would seem shocking to look back on the trio of Gina Mancuso, Hannah Werth and Lauren Cook without attaching at least a national semifinal appearance to their legacies.
There will not be many excuses to be made if Nebraska falls short of that goal as this team has the chance to play their way to Louisville in their home state. The competition may be the toughest of any region in the bracket with No. 5 seed Oregon, No 12 seed BYU, No. 13 seed Washington and unseeded Hawaii and Pepperdine potentially in Nebraska’s path but the Huskers play at another level in front of their sea of red fans and there is no doubt they would see that support in Omaha for the regional semis and final.
No. 8 seed Minnesota vs. Liberty, Fri., Nov. 30, Sports Pavilion, Minneapolis, MN.
The final Big Ten team that will play their early round matches at home is a Gopher squad that is carrying a four-match win streak into the postseason. Minnesota lost just one match at home this year and that came against the top-seeded Nittany Lions. For the majority of the 2012 campaign the Gophers looked like a team that could make a Final Four run, with a balanced attack and disruptive serving making them as formidable as the Huskers or Nittany Lions. A fact that was apparent when first year coach Hugh McCutcheon’s team knocked off Nebraska in an epic five set match at the Sports Pavilion in the second to last weekend of Big Ten play.
Liberty comes into Thursday night’s match as the Big South Champion riding a ten-match win streak, however no Big South team has ever won an NCAA Tournament match. Round two should present more of a challenge with Missouri Valley Conference Champion Creighton or Big East runner-up Marquette being Minnesota’s possible foe but at home the Gophers should hold and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Minnesota would also be headed to West Lafayette if they reach the regional semifinal with potential matchups against Purdue on the floor of Mackey Arena or a Florida State team that is familiar with recent postseason success. If the Gophers can reach the regional final, they would relish a chance to face Penn State for a third time this season with a trip to the national semifinal on the line and the bracket favors Minnesota’s hopes for a third meeting.
Ohio State vs. Notre Dame, Fri., Nov. 30, Memorial Coliseum Lexington, Ky.
The Buckeyes had won eight of their last nine matches heading into the final week of the regular season but suffered setbacks to Penn State and Michigan to close out the year. Ohio State will need to refocus heading into a neutral site meeting with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish knocked off two of the tournament’s seeded teams in Louisville and Kansas earlier this year but have lost their last three matches.
If the Buckeyes are to reach their third straight sweet sixteen they will likely need to get past No. 16 seed Kentucky on their home floor in the second round. Ohio State is more than capable of defeating the Wildcats, which could result in a regional semifinal date with Penn State in West Lafayette on Dec. 7th. The Buckeyes fell in straight sets in both meetings with Nittany Lions this season.
Purdue vs. Colorado State, Fri. Nov. 30, Tully Gymnasium, Tallahassee, Fla.
The Boilers have their work cut out for them if they are going to return home to Mackey Arena for the regional semifinal. Dave Shondell has said that he has not had a better collection of talent than the team he has this season and he will need them to be at top form to play more volleyball in West Lafayette this year.
Colorado State has won eight straight matches and is making its 18th straight NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Mountain West Conference. Last season the Rams knocked off Oregon in five sets in the first round of the tournament and earlier this year took defending national champs UCLA to five sets in Fort Collins. The Rams may be the most difficult first round opponent a Big Ten team will face and they do not lack confidence when facing a team from a power conference.
Michigan State vs. San Diego, Fri., Nov. 30, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA.
The Spartans will also be in for a challenging first round match as they will meet the 19th ranked team in the country, the San Diego Toreros. San Diego claimed a Co-West Coast Conference title with BYU after winning their first eight matches in the highly competitive league.
Similar to Ohio State, Michigan State closed the regular season on a down note, being swept in their final two matches against Michigan and Penn State. With Lauren Wicinski and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kori Moster leading the way, this Spartan team has been brilliant at times this season, especially during their six-match win streak when they knocked off Nebraska and Minnesota in consecutive matches. The Spartans have shown they are capable of beating the nation’s top ten teams however defeating the defending national champion UCLA on their home floor in a potential second round matchup might be too much for this talented group from East Lansing.
Michigan vs. Tennessee, Thurs., Nov. 29, Cardinal Arena, Louisville, Ky.
Each Big Ten coach is hoping this is the time of year their team is playing their best volleyball. In 2011, Michigan executed head coach Mark Rosen’s plan as they played their best volleyball in the NCAA Tournament, defeating No. 6 seed Stanford in Palo Alto to advance to their fourth Sweet Sixteen in five seasons. The Wolverines will need a similar effort this year as they begin the tournament with an SEC team in Tennessee that has won 13 of their last 15 matches before potentially facing the No. 10 seed Louisville Cardinals on their home floor in the second round.
The trend may have already begun, as Michigan joined Penn State in knocking off the two hottest teams in the conference to close out the final week of the regular season and setup another tournament run. In a year that began with a lineup in flux, it would seem improbable that the Wolverines could be headed for another regional semifinal but you cannot count out the Rosen crew in the postseason.
|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.|