Two weeks remain in the regular season. Arms are tired, players are sick, teams know each other’s tendencies, and the tournament is on the horizon. The Big Ten title appears to be undecided until the conference’s final weekend and barring shocking upsets, which have been prevalent this season, November 30 should be the long-awaited matchup volleyball fans have been clamoring for.
But with Penn State and Nebraska, the Big Ten’s top teams, not meeting for another week-and-a-half, it’s time to look at the postseason hopes for the rest of the league’s members.
It would seem safe to put the eight teams currently in the Top 25 firmly in the NCAA Tournament; however, with four matches left to play, even those receiving the respect of the nation’s coaches aren’t firm participants yet. No. 20 Illinois has won its last five matches and with one more win will guarantee the .500 record necessary to be considered for the postseason. This weekend’s road trip to Columbus and University Park will not be an easy task, nor will the matchups at home with Northwestern, a team the Illini lost to earlier this year, and Minnesota. That being said, I expect the Illini to pull off at least one win, so count Illinois in (see more below).
No. 25 Purdue has lost four matches in a row and a team that had seemed to secure its postseason position weeks ago appears to be somewhat less solid. Dropping the final four matches of the regular season would be disastrous. That won’t happen. The Boilers have numerous solid wins on the schedule, including handing Nebraska its only home loss this season, and play the Big Ten’s two bottom teams in their next four matches.
Beyond those in the Top 25, there is only one other contender for a tournament spot from the Big Ten, and that is Northwestern. Barring a collapse in the final two weeks, I cannot see how the Wildcats are not returning to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Keylor Chan’s team is currently 8-8 in Big Ten play, is guaranteed a .500 record and has beat three ranked teams this season, including a season sweep of Purdue. Add to that a win over Illinois, which has become one of the hottest teams in the country, and it is tough to make a case against the Wildcats. Playing three of their final four matches on the road while facing three ranked teams likely means Northwestern won’t finish on a win streak but even that should not hold back this group that deserves to be in the postseason.
Nine teams out of one conference would be astounding, but after the season we have seen so far, getting as many Big Ten teams in the tournament as possible can only lead to more exhilarating volleyball.
Prior to Illinois’ match with Michigan two weeks ago, head coach Kevin Hambly said the Illini needed to win five of their last eight to reach the postseason. Not implausible but still a considerable task when matching up with some of the nation’s best talent every night. Illinois felt the anxiety and eventual disappointment of a late-season push to reach the .500 mark a season ago, when, for the first time since 2007, the Illini did not reach the tournament.
What’s been lacking for Illinois up until recently has been consistent fight, and the coaching staff has been trying to emphasize that throughout the season. Down 0-2 against Michigan at home, the Illini did not appear to have enough fight to win a match that was crucial to their hopes to get back to the postseason. But after an extended intermission, which cost Illinois a point to start the third set, the fight has been apparent.
“We’ve been trying to work with them on how to compete and how to fight consistently and finally they are starting to do that,” said Hambly. “They’re playing with a will to win that we haven’t seen from this particular group and that used to be a staple of our program, and I think we’re starting to find that again.”
With the final win necessary for eligibility likely, but not yet a formality, Illini fans can begin to imagine the wild possibilities of the next month. Illinois is hosting an NCAA Regional this year at the State Farm Center, which means that if the Illini could somehow pull off a seeded spot in the tournament, they could play four matches at home to reach the national semifinal. A lot of that depends on matchups and the final two weeks, but with a team that is finding its top form at the end of the season, the possibilities are exciting in Champaign.
There is also not another team in the entire country more prepared for the NCAA tournament than the Illini. Throughout the course of the year the conversation surrounding this team has been about the difficulty of the schedule that put them in a hole coming into conference play. Now that Illinois has fought its way back to .500, the scheduling looks only like an asset to a young team that now can expect to make a tournament run. Hambly’s team has played a hard-to-fathom 18 ranked opponents and will face two more before the regular season completes. The Illini are 9-9 in those matches and have a chance to get their 10th win when they meet No. 2 Penn State on Saturday night. The first meeting went five sets, and you would be hard pressed to find two hotter teams in the country than the Illini and Nittany Lions.
The Big Ten has been known for its iconic programs, which have become mainstays in the Final Four, but it’s also been the surprise conference teams that make a run to the national semifinals that have become commonplace. Illinois appears to be in a position to make a run similar to the one that saw it play for the national title in 2011, but first it needs to get one more win.
|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.|