Big Ten volleyball preview

With Big Ten volleyball right around the corner, it’s time to check in on one of the elite conferences in the country. The Big Ten is home to more top-25 teams than any other conference in the country. Only the top-heavy Pac-12, with five teams in the top 10, can compete with the talent and depth the Big Ten offers. Conference play kicked off Wednesday night when No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Penn State battled for conference supremacy in State College, but the other 10 teams will take the court Friday night. Let’s take a look at the lay of the land as another conference season begins.

h3. *The favorites*

*Nebraska*

*Record —* 8-1

*National rank —* 3

*Quality wins —* UCLA, Iowa State, Kentucky

*Bad losses* — none

The Cornhuskers held the No. 1 ranking in the country for two weeks before losing to No. 19 Iowa State last Saturday and falling to No. 3. Still, the reigning conference champions are the league’s highest-ranked team and must be considered a strong favorite until proven otherwise.

*Penn State*

*Record — *10-1

*National rank —* 4

*Quality wins —* Louisville, Stanford, Texas

*Bad losses —* none

There was something unnatural about the Big Ten standings at the end of the 2011 season: The Nittany Lions weren’t on top. For the first time in eight years, a team besides Penn State claimed the conference title. With an attack led by outside hitters Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott, this year’s Nittany Lions are looking to climb back to the top of the mountain.

h3. *The contenders*

*Purdue*

*Record —* 9-2

*National rank —* 17

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* Washington, Louisville

Penn State and Illinois made bigger splashes nationwide, but the Boilermakers tied with both teams for a second-place finish in the Big Ten last season. Purdue performed well in nonconference play this year, but dropped its only two matches to ranked teams in straight sets. The going doesn’t get much easier in the Big Ten, so the Boilermakers will have to find their groove against tough competition.

*Minnesota*

*Record —* 9-2

*National rank —* 12

*Quality wins —* Texas, Dayton

*Bad losses —* none

The Golden Gophers took off under new head coach Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. women’s national team during the London Olympics. Minnesota won its first six games of the season and raced into the top 25 after starting the season unranked. With its only losses coming at the hands of No. 9 Texas and No. 11 Kansas State, Minnesota figures to play a central role in the Big Ten race.

*Illinois*

*Record —* 6-4

*National rank —* 20

*Quality wins —* Texas, Iowa State

*Bad losses —* none

Illinois played a rigorous nonconference schedule, with six out of its 10 games coming against ranked opponents. The Illini finally put it together last weekend at the Texas Invitational, winning all three games, including a win over No. 9 Texas on the Longhorns’ home court. Illinois enters conference play flying a bit under the radar in relation to last year’s undefeated squad this time last year.

*Ohio State*

*Record —* 9-3

*National rank —* 23

*Quality win —* Dayton

*Bad losses —* none

Like Illinois, Ohio State played a tough nonconference slate, with all three losses coming against teams ranked in the top 15. The Buckeyes will be looking to improve on a 2011 season that saw them fall to the bottom half of the Big Ten with a losing record in conference play.

h3. *The unknowns*

*Michigan State*

*Record —* 12-0

*National rank —* 25

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* none

The Spartans have been untested during a relatively easy nonconference schedule. The competition will stiffen significantly in conference play, but their string of 12 wins, nine of which came in straight sets, should not be overlooked.

*Wisconsin*

*Record —* 12-1

*Rank —* Unranked

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* none

The Badgers only loss came in the first weekend of the season. Since then, Wisconsin has reeled off 11 straight victories and dropped only four sets along the way, albeit against no notable opponents.

*Michigan*

*Record —* 12-2

*Rank —* Unranked

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* none

Michigan was ranked as recently as last week before a loss to No. 24 Western Kentucky knocked the Wolverines out of the top 25.

*Northwestern*

*Record —* 11-0

*Rank —* Unranked

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* none

Like Michigan State, the Wildcats have compiled an impressive record without being tested by a ranked opponent. Now lying on the fringe of the top 25, Northwestern will have to prove it can win against ranked teams to move up any further.

h3. *The rest*

*Indiana*

*Record —* 8-4

*Rank —* Unranked

**Quality wins —* none

Bad losses —* Stephen F. Austin, Butler, Valparaiso

Indiana won just a single game in Big Ten play last year, and with the strength of the conference this season, the Hoosiers will be fortunate to do much better.

*Iowa*

*Record —* 8-5

*Rank —* Unranked

*Quality wins —* none

*Bad losses —* Southeast Missouri

Iowa tied for last in the Big Ten with Indiana last year. The Hawkeyes showed promise in a five-set loss against in-state rival No. 19 Iowa State but don’t figure to contend in a stacked conference.

_Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @danielmillermc._

volleyball

(Click to enlarge)