The final week of the Big Ten season is upon us, and Penn State has once again claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title. The rest of the conference’s teams, they have secured their plans for the postseason, with the exception of Northwestern.
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.
Penn State may have taken charge of the Big Ten race in recent weeks, but Nebraska made it known this past weekend that the conference crown would not be decided without a fight.
Unpredictable has been the word most commonly uttered to describe this year’s Big Ten women’s volleyball season. Until the past few weeks, there was a genuine sentiment that any team had a chance to pull off a win, regardless of the matchup. However, as so often has been the case in this conference over the past decade, Penn State has asserted itself and begun to separate from the rest of the pack.
Through 10 matches of the Big Ten season, the nation’s deepest and most decorated conference has lived up to its billing. Upsets have been plentiful, top 15 matchups are the norm and contenders have emerged from the pack. The standings have rarely looked the same on any given week, and early-season surprises have struggled to endure the grind of the league.
For years, Big Ten coaches have spouted off clichés about how difficult a grind the conference is week in week out, how there are no off nights, that you’re in for battle in every match, and that there is no margin for error. While accurate in some sense, until the 2013 season, it seemed like a lot of coach speak to pump up the reputation of the league.
“The margin for error in our conference is as thin as it has ever been.” Michigan head coach Mark Rosen made that statement heading into last Saturday night, a night that may have represented a first in Big Ten women’s volleyball. All 12 teams were in action, and at the end of the evening, all but two would play nerve-racking 5-set matches.
Conversations with Big Ten coaches have had one common theme heading into the start of conference play: No one has any idea where his/her team, or any of their fellow members, will end up in the title race come the end of November. The Big Ten has been the strongest conference in the nation over the past few seasons, but in a year that has witnessed the league set a new NCAA record for teams in the Top 25 (9), the Big Ten’s coaches are hesitant to make any predictions.
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.
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.
The Big Ten will once again be well represented in the postseason with seven teams having virtually locked up their spots in next month’s NCAA Tournament. With two weeks remaining in the regular season two conference members are fighting for their postseason hopes as Northwestern and Wisconsin both remain in the chase.
There is little doubt that the Big Ten has the most passionate and largest fan bases of any conference in the nation. Six of the top ten teams nationally in average attendance this season reside in the Big Ten, including four of the top five. Nebraska has the most dedicated fan base in the country with 175 consecutive sell outs of the NU Coliseum, the longest sell-out streak of any women’s collegiate sport.
The difference 48 hours can make is striking. Late Friday night, Nebraska’s Big Ten Title chances seemed distant and the message boards were offering scenario after unlikely scenario for why the No. 4 Huskers had fallen to No. 20 Ohio State in four sets. On Alumni Night in front of more than 60 former Husker players, Nebraska saw their 39-match regular season home winning streak come to an end in part because of a tentative effort by the home team and a season-defining display by the visitors.
We’ve reached the mid-way point of the Big Ten season and very little has been settled in the conference. But that’s about to change in the next week as one of the most critical matches of the year is on the docket, potentially putting an end to the Big Ten Title race by Sunday afternoon.
With the conclusion of the first half of the Big Ten volleyball season upon us, separation amongst the contenders is clear. The two teams that were anticipated to be above the rest have shown it with No. 1 Penn State and No. 4 Nebraska holding the top two spots in the standings through eight matches.
A week ago I asked, where are the upsets in Big Ten volleyball? For a conference with parity from top to bottom it had been an almost as expected start to 2012. Week 3 put that thought to shambles, as one shocking upset and several near misses gave Big Ten volleyball fans the most baffling weekend of the season thus far.
As the Big Ten is the deepest volleyball conference in the nation, it always has a number of teams in the weekly AVCA poll. Through two weekends of conference play, the depth is apparent in the number of close sets and five-set matches that have been played. But while parity brings upsets, the higher-ranked teams have been relatively unscathed so far.
Preseason polls are typically frowned upon by fans and coaches alike, but after one weekend of Big Ten volleyball it appears the coaches knew exactly what they were doing when they picked the conference contenders. Four teams have separated themselves, with three of them going 2-0 to start the Big Ten campaign.
Four weekends of the 2012 women’s volleyball season are behind us and another grueling conference campaign is about to begin. Seven teams came into the year ranked in the AVCA Top 25 and following a month of non-conference foes, the Big Ten remains the nation’s top league. Before the conference race begins here is some of what we learned from the first month.