Mike Wolf, BTN volleyball announcer, November 19, 2015

The days of the regular season are dwindling in Big Ten volleyball and it is time to take a look at the NCAA tournament hopes of the nation?s premiere volleyball conference.

One team that is a certainty for this year?s postseason is the Minnesota Golden Gophers. After missing out on the tournament for the first time since 1998 last season, Minnesota is poised to win its first conference title since 2002. Hugh McCutcheon?s team avenged its only conference loss last weekend with a straight set sweep of then No. 1 Penn State in overwhelming fashion. It was Minnesota?s first win over the Nittany Lions since 2010 and the first time that Penn State has been swept since 2011. Barring a pair of upsets in the final three matches, the Gophers will be the Big Ten?s top team heading into the postseason. Could this be the year that Minnesota finally returns to the national semifinals? The program is seeking its fourth trip to the Final Four and with a potential 18-match win streak in place heading into December, few would doubt the Gophers chances.

Minnesota leads the way as one of seven Big Ten teams currently ranked in the AVCA poll with six of them owning a place in the Top 30 of the latest RPI. A year ago, six teams reached the postseason with a snub of Purdue shocking Big Ten fans. The Boilermakers were ranked No. 24 in the last AVCA poll before the tournament, yet because of a three-match losing streak in which they were swept in each to end the season and an RPI of 56, Purdue missed out the postseason for the first time since 2009. All of this is to say that a ranking in Top 25 at the end of the regular season is no guarantee of a spot in the tournament. However, with Illinois and Purdue being the only two ranked conference teams without an RPI in the Top 10 and both teams trending upward heading into the final week of the season, it would appear safe for arguments sake to put them both in the tournament.

That leaves three teams that are on the tournament bubble. One of those teams got a significant boost to its cause from an upset win Wednesday night. Below are the cases for the Big Ten?s bubble teams to reach the postseason.

Record: 18-10
Big Ten Record: 8-9
Ranked Wins: 2
RPI: 37

The Wolverines' first win in program history in Rec Hall over No. 4 Penn State was not just a school first, but a huge addition to Michigan?s tournament resume. With back-to-back wins over ranked teams including a Top 5 victory, Michigan?s hopes for a postseason berth seem considerably different than a week ago. Mark Rosen?s team had lost four straight matches and did not have a marquee win on the season. Now the Wolverines will see their RPI rise and have a chance to earn a .500-or-better record in the conference if they can win two of their final three.

This Wolverines team is in the midst of possibly the toughest three-week stretch in the nation this season. On Saturday night, Michigan will play No. 6 Nebraska in the Crisler Center, which will be its seventh straight ranked opponent. A year ago, Michigan was on the bubble heading into the final two weeks but failed to win a match over a ranked team or keep its record above .500. Now Michigan is not only looking like a tournament team but a dangerous one that could be poised for a surprise run similar to the 2012 Wolverine squad that reached the Final Four.


Record: 15-13
Big Ten Record: 7-10
Ranked Wins: 2
RPI: 55

Last year, Michigan State was the surprise team that earned a spot in the NCAA tournament despite not being in the AVCA poll and having just one win over a ranked opponent. This year, the Spartans must win their final three matches and hope for some help to have a chance to appear in the postseason for the fifth consecutive season. Until Wednesday night?s win over Northwestern, Cathy George?s team had lost seven consecutive matches and history has shown us that the committee has passed on teams that have struggled down the stretch.

Similar to last season, the Spartans have few ranked wins to bolster their resume and the victory in East Lansing over then No. 6 Ohio State seems like a distant memory, despite the losing streak coming to an end. Michigan State needs to win at least one match out of the final three to meet the minimum requirement of a .500 record for being considered for the tournament. However, even a Spartan team at 16-15 would still have few marquee wins and would have lost 9 of its final 11 to end the season, which would not make them an appealing choice for the committee. Michigan State needs to win the next three and hope to once again be a surprise pick by the committee to get in the tournament.


Record: 13-15
Big Ten Record: 5-12
Ranked Wins: 1
RPI: 39

The Wildcats make the list because of their RPI, which ranks well ahead of Michigan State and is in line with other Big Ten teams that are likely to make the postseason. However, for Northwestern to have a chance at the postseason, it has to win the final three conference matches to meet the minimum requirement. Keylor Chan?s team has not won three straight Big Ten matches this season, let alone the last two years. With Iowa, Penn State and Maryland on the schedule, all teams the Wildcats have previously defeated this season, Northwestern has hope but even with those three victories the Cats are a long shot for the NCAA field of 64.