Volleyball Report: B1G poised to make noise in NCAA

After an unpredictable year that saw possibly the strongest collection of teams in conference history, the postseason has finally arrived. The Big Ten tied a conference record on Sunday when, for the fifth time in league history, eight teams were selected to the NCAA Volleyball Championship.

Penn State took the second overall seed in the bracket, with Nebraska following a No. 8, Minnesota No. 10, Wisconsin No. 12 and Illinois earning the No. 13 seed. Those five will host first- and second-round matches at home, while Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue will play matches on the road.

[ MORE: View official NCAA.com interactive bracket ]

Northwestern ends up being on the outside looking in, as, surprisingly, the Pac-12 earned nine bids to the tournament while the Big Ten, which has consistently had the most teams in the Top 25 of any league this year, received eight. The Wildcats beat three ranked teams, as well as an Illinois team that was receiving votes at the time and ended up seeded in the tournament. The last three teams with bids from the Pac-12 beat a combined three opponents that finished ranked in the AVCA Poll.

The upsets by Arizona State and Colorado of Texas and Washington, respectively, played a part. But Utah, a team that beat one ranked team all season, receiving a bid over Northwestern is difficult to understand. There are other factors involved than simply beating ranked teams, but it’s a shame the Wildcats won’t be rewarded for winning eight matches in the toughest conference in the country.

FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS (Interactive bracket)

  • LIU Brooklyn at No. 2 Penn State – Friday, 7:30 ET
  • Fairfield at No. 8 Nebraska – Friday, 8:00 ET
  • Radford at No. 10 Minnesota – Friday, 8:00 ET
  • Milwaukee at No. 12 Wisconsin – Friday, 8:30 ET
  • Morehead State at No. 13 Illinois – Friday, 8:00 ET
  • Central Arkansas vs Purdue (Columbia, Mo.) – Friday, 5:30 ET
  • Ohio vs Michigan State (Lexington, Ky.) – Friday, 5:00 ET
  • LSU vs Michigan (Seattle, Wash) – Friday, 8:00 ET

TOUGHEST FIRST-ROUND MATCH: Michigan

The Wolverines have to make the longest journey of any Big Ten team to play their first round match, heading to Seattle to meet LSU. This is the only match for a Big Ten team that will feature a power conference opponent in the tournament opener, and Michigan lost four of its last five matches to close out the regular season. However, there is something about a Mark Rosen coached team in the tournament. The Wolverines usually find their top form this time of year and have been known to make runs, like last year’s national semifinal appearance.

TOUGHEST ROAD: Michigan & Purdue

The Maize and Blue, despite what was mentioned above, should still move on to the second round but that is where this year’s journey could end. Michigan will likely face No. 3 overall seed Washington in a home match for the Huskies, where they have not lost all season. Last year’s Michigan team did beat Louisville on its home floor and Stanford in a home-like atmosphere in California to reach the Final Four, but the Wolverines will need to drastically elevate their play to beat Washington in Alaska Airlines Arena. If Michigan could get past the Huskies, a meeting with USC would be another obstacle and multiple upsets of Pac-12 teams on their home turf seems too tall a task for the Wolverines.

The Boilermakers also face a similar potential second-round matchup with a team playing on their home floor where they are unbeaten this season. Purdue is likely to face Missouri in Columbia, and the Tigers are the nation’s only remaining undefeated team. How good is Missouri, though? Mizzou has beat two ranked teams this season twice, Florida and Kentucky; otherwise, the Tigers have not played another ranked opponent, nor gone through a conference season that requires their best every night. Purdue could get past the hurdle of Missouri, but then might face Illinois at Huff Hall, where the Boilers lost just a few weeks ago. If Purdue can knock off the Illini, then Florida could be waiting in the regional final. Though the Boilermakers come in on a four match win streak, the bracket does not line up in their favor to reach the national semifinal.

EASIEST ROAD: Penn State 

Being a top seed has its clear benefits. The Nittany Lions play their first two matches at Rec Hall, where they have not lost a tournament match since 2005, before heading to Lexington for regional play. A matchup with either Kentucky or Michigan State would take place in the third round. The Wildcats hit just .249 as a team, while the last meeting with the Spartans was possibly one of the most lopsided matches of the Big Ten season. A regional final date with Stanford or Minnesota would be next, and if the Nittany Lions do not beat themselves, they will be back in the National Semifinal for the sixth time in the last seven years.

Nebraska also has a favorable road until the regional final, when it could meet No. 1 overall seed Texas. The Longhorns beat Nebraska in five sets back in September, but with the force of the 8,000 Husker fans at Devaney behind it, Nebraska could be headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2008.

SURPRISE TEAM TO MAKE A RUN: Illinois 

The past two years, the Big Ten has witnessed two non-traditional powers reach the national semifinal and shock collegiate volleyball. Illinois, in 2011, reached the National Championship match as the No. 3 seed, while last year Michigan, the Big Ten’s sixth-place team, made its first Final Four appearance in program history before falling to eventual champion Texas.

This year, it could once again be the Illini making a surprise run, as with a potential four matches being played in front of the home crowd and nation’s best student section, Kevin Hambly’s team could make a deep run. The Illini play their first two matches in Huff Hall, before moving to the State Farm Center to host a regional. The team with the nation’s toughest schedule is well prepared for the postseason and will not drop a match at Huff before facing Purdue or Missouri in the regional semis. Home court will play such a large part for the Illini in the tournament and even a matchup with Florida in the regional final shouldn’t faze the Orange and Blue. The only negative is that Illinois is not playing at Huff for all four matches. State Farm Center will be a great scene, but when the fans are right on top of the players like they are at Illinois’ home gym, it can play a large role in the outcome of matches.

HEADED TO SEATTLE: Penn State, Illinois & Nebraska

Projecting three Big Ten teams in the Final Four may seem to be a bit of stretch, but don’t underestimate how important hosting a regional is; Nebraska & Illinois will benefit greatly.

Penn State is the nation’s top team, despite not receiving the top overall seed and will return to the Final Four. Nebraska will be lifted by the Devaney Center and overcome a Texas squad that it fell to in five sets earlier this year. Illinois has not only home court but a favorable bracket without a powerhouse team coming to Champaign. Illinois and Nebraska may not be two of the top four teams in the country, but the way the bracket is set up, both will have excellent chances to reach the national semifinals.

NATIONAL CHAMPION: Penn State

The Nittany Lions defied logic in the regular season by winning 19 matches in a row in what may have been the Big Ten’s best year. Penn State returned every starter this season and features three seniors who have already won a national title. They are the nation’s top blocking team, fourth-best hitting team and have possibly the most balanced attack in the game. A year ago, the Nittany Lions were an ankle injury away from winning their sixth national title, as I believe Penn State would have defeated Texas in the championship match. Unless bitten by the injury bug again, Russ Rose and his team should be hoisting the trophy December 21 in Seattle.

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.

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