Mike Wolf, BTN volleyball announcer, December 2, 2014

As anticipated, the Wisconsin Badgers won the 2014 Big Ten title last week by closing out an astounding 19-match win streak for their fifth title in program history.

The celebration was brief as now the larger task for Wisconsin and the five other conference teams headed to the NCAA Tournament begins with first- and second-round matches getting underway Thursday.

Before we look ahead to another postseason of potential Big Ten dominance, let?s consider the snub that shocked the conference on Sunday night. Despite 22 wins, a 12-8 record in the league and being ranked No. 24 in the final regular season poll, Purdue was left out of the field of 64.

I believe the Boilers deserved to be in, but let?s consider what the selection committee based its decision on that kept Purdue out. Comparisons could be made to numerous teams that earned bids as to whether or not they were more worthy. USC and Michigan State are two that come to mind, but it came down to the Boilermakers? poor finish, RPI and weak non-conference schedule.

Purdue lost seven of its final 11 matches, including being swept in its last three. The scheduling did not benefit the Boilers going on the road for those three matches but whether playing on the road or at home, beating teams in tournament contention down the stretch was clearly necessary in the eyes of the committee. The Nov. 26 match with Michigan State might as well have been a play-in match as the Spartans sweep of the Boilers likely put them over the edge; it was the Spartans' only win over a ranked team this season.

The Boilermakers finished the year with an RPI of 56, well behind USC at 22 and just behind the Spartans at 48. The committee has traditionally valued RPI above all else when making its decisions and clearly it was a hindrance to Purdue?s tournament hopes. A portion of a team?s RPI includes strength of schedule, and Dave Shondell?s team faced just one ranked opponent in the non-conference portion of the year. The Trojans and the Spartans both faced three top 25 foes, as well as five and seven teams, respectively, that eventually reached the tournament. Purdue faced four non-conference opponents that would reach the tournament, which is out of the Boilermakers hands but still plays into scheduling and final RPI.

One of the reasons this comes as a shock to those around Big Ten volleyball is that a 12-8 record would usually guarantee a postseason berth. However, with the unbalanced schedule this season, all but one of those 12 conference wins came against unranked league competition. And for those who do not value the ranking system, Purdue did not beat any of the teams that finished in the top 4 of the conference. Traditionally, 12 Big Ten wins would mean numerous victories against AVCA Poll members and conference title contenders, but we are no longer in the traditional Big Ten.


FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS (Interactive Bracket)

Western Michigan at No. 4 Wisconsin - Thursday, 8:30 ET (Watch on BTN2Go)

Lipscomb vs. Ohio State (Lexington, Ky.) - Friday, 5:00 ET

Siena at No. 5 Penn State - Friday, 7:30 ET (Watch on BTN2Go)

Loyola Marymount vs. Michigan State (Stanford, Ca.) - Friday 7:30 ET

Hofstra at No. 14 Nebraska - Friday, 8:00 ET (Watch on BTN2Go)

Murray State at No. 9 Illinois - Friday, 8:00 ET (Watch on BTN2Go)



Teams that are seeded and playing at home for the first round do not qualify as playing a tough first match of the NCAA tournament, so this is between Michigan State and Ohio State.

The Spartans have to go on the road, out west, and play three time zones away from what they are accustom in Palo Alto on Friday night. The match starts early enough that the time change should not be a big factor, but lengthy travel can make a difference for any team. Michigan State?s opponent in Loyola-Marymount is not to be overlooked after starting the season 12-0 and knocking off UCLA and Long Beach State in the process. Three players average over three kills per set for the Lions and LMU will have a considerably shorter trip than the Spartans to get to Stanford.

Ohio State faces Lipscomb in Lexington, Kentucky, on Friday, and while the Atlantic Sun?s regular season champion beat Kansas and Missouri early in the season, the Buckeyes should be able to dispatch the Lady Bisons in round one.


TOUGHEST ROAD: Michigan State & Nebraska

The reward for a first-round win for the Spartans, a likely date with the tournament?s No. 1 overall seed on its home floor in the Stanford Cardinal. Michigan State will have the unenviable task of trying to slow two of the nation?s top hitting middles in Inky Ajanaku and Merete Lutz, as well as three other players who average two kills per set.

Cathy George has had a top 10 recruiting class each of the past two seasons but that young talent is not developed enough to knock off the tournament favorite on its home floor this weekend.

It would seem likely with Nebraska earning the No. 14 seed and hosting the first two rounds in front of 8,000 plus fans at the Devaney Center that the Huskers will be headed to the Sweet Sixteen. That being said, a potential second-round matchup with Kansas State could produce some undesired flashbacks to 2011?s five-set loss for John Cook?s team.

Once regional play begins, though, is when things become more worrisome. The Huskers will have to make the long trip to Seattle and will likely face the tournament?s No. 3 overall seed, the Washington Huskies in their home arena. Few fans who watched the tournament a year ago will forget the performance of Washington?s Krista Vansant in the regional final against USC when the now two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year went off for 38 kills and 30 digs against the Trojans. The Huskies finished second in the Pac-12 this year, at 18-2, and are the only team to beat No. 1 Stanford when they pulled off the four-set upset in Seattle last week. Washington also is one of only two teams to beat Wisconsin this year, a team that outplayed Nebraska in all areas of the game in the teams' only meeting.

This has not been a memorable year for Nebraska. The Huskers have nine losses in a season for the first time since 1981 and the usual home-court dominance was absent this year as Nebraska dropped five matches at the Devaney Center. Following last week?s losses to Illinois and Penn State, the Huskers did not look like a team ready for a deep tournament run, and with Washington looming, it may be another year without a national semifinal appearance for Nebraska.


EASIEST ROAD: Penn State & Wisconsin

When these two teams meet in the regional final, it will be far from easy but outside of playing each other, there are few challengers in the Louisville regional that can keep this matchup from happening.

UCLA has the nation?s leader in kills per set in Karsta Lowe and could give Penn State a challenge in the regional semifinal, but the Nittany Lions already beat the Bruins in straight sets back in September. Lowe will likely have big numbers but without enough balance, UCLA will not keep Penn State from the regional final.

Wisconsin carries it dominant win streak into the postseason, and barring a collapse on its own side of the net, which would be truly shocking from the Big Ten?s most consistent team, the Badgers will take care of their portion of the Louisville bracket. A potential regional semifinal matchup with Kentucky presents a chance to slip up, although the Badgers are too good defensively and the nation?s top setter, Lauren Carlini, will carry Wisconsin to the regional final.

The fans, players and coaches have been clamoring for it all season, and their pleas will be answered when the Nittany Lions and Badgers meet for a second time this season. Despite all of Wisconsin?s success the past two years, it is 0-4 against Penn State since the arrival of Kelly Sheffield and Lauren Carlini. There has been grumbling from around the conference that there was not a true champion this season in the Big Ten, however a regional final win over Penn State would put an end to that kind of talk.

The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, could use a win to make their own unofficial claim to the Big Ten title and prove they continue to be the league?s dominant program. Obviously, each team has to win three matches in the tournament first to get there but it appears the Big Ten will get a de facto championship match between its top two teams in Louisville on Dec. 13.



Illinois was 12-1 at Huff Hall this season, with its only loss coming to Wisconsin in four sets in early October. By earning the No. 9 seed in the tournament, the Illini will host the first two rounds in one of the best volleyball environments in the nation and should be able to advance to the regional semifinals, where they will potentially meet the No. 8-seeded Florida Gators.

After the season that unfolded, Illinois will not lack for confidence against any of its potential matchups in the NCAA Tournament. Kevin Hambly?s team beat Penn State and Nebraska on the road this fall, just the third team in NCAA history to accomplish that feat in the same season, and nearly upset both Stanford and Wisconsin away from Champaign as well.

The Illini have been the surprise team before, making the dramatic run to the NCAA Championship match in 2011. Do not be surprised if the Illini make it back to the Final Four this year by knocking off the Gators and the Cardinal along the way.



The regional final matchup between Penn State and Wisconsin is going to be a classic. Anyone who has watched these two teams this season knows that either is capable of winning and advancing to the national semifinal. But it is impossible to overlook the track record of the Nittany Lions, not only in the NCAA Tournament, but against the Badgers.

Penn State won all three meetings last year, including in the NCAA title match, and then began the Big Ten season by beating Wisconsin in straight sets in Madison. The Badgers have been able to beat every other Big Ten opponent since the resurgence of the program last year, but not the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin is capable of beating Penn State but until it happens, the edge has to go to the defending national champions.



On Saturday night in University Park, we saw what Micha Hancock is capable of when she is emotionally charged to play a match. Last year?s NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player raddled off four aces in an eight-point run that saw Penn State knock Nebraska out of the match in the first five minutes. Imagine what kind of emotional energy the Oklahoma native will bring to the season?s final weekend if the Nittany Lions are able to reach Oklahoma City.

Coming into the year there was a lot of talk about the youth of Penn State, but while Ali Frantti and Haleigh Washington have had exceptional freshman campaigns, the experience of Hancock, Nia Grant, Dominique Gonzalez, Megan Courtney and Lacey Fuller has allowed Penn State to rattle off 14 straight wins. During that win streak, the Nittany Lions have won an incredible 41 consecutive sets, far short of their 111 sets won between 2007-2008, but still a remarkable feat. Penn State carries that win streak into the tournament and the nation?s top hitting team, top serving team and fifth-best team in terms of opponent hitting percentage is capable of extending that streak even further.

Similar to last season, if Penn State can get past its regional final opponent, there may not be a bigger challenge for them in the final two matches of the year. In 2013, it was an unforgettable win over Stanford in the regional final in a fifth set comeback, this year it could be a fifth straight win over Wisconsin that gets the Nittany Lions in position for their sixth title in eight years.

There are teams with collections of great players and better individual stars, but it is hard to find a more talented overall group than this Penn State squad. Add the nation?s all-time leader in career wins in head coach Russ Rose to that talent, and the Nittany Lions could be on their way to becoming the NCAA?s most decorated program with a seventh national title.