The Big Ten had no problem living up to its billing Sunday night as the top women’s volleyball league in the nation.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12 each have eight teams in the NCAA Tournament field of 64 — or 25 percent of the entire bracket.
But Big Ten teams occupy the top three positions with Nebraska as the No. 1 seed, Minnesota No. 2 and Wisconsin No. 3. Minnesota outlasted Wisconsin Saturday in the Big Ten finale for both teams.
Overall, six Big Ten teams earned top-16 seeds, meaning all will host the first two rounds.
Also hosting are No. 9 seed Michigan State, No. 12 seed Michigan and No. 16 seed Penn State (which has won a record seven NCAA titles). Purdue and Ohio State also are part of the field. Illinois, which several observers noted was qualified to be in the tournament, did not make it.
“Potentially, this weekend might be the first weekend in 11 weeks we haven’t played against a ranked top-25 team,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “That shows how tough the conference is. We know the grind you have to go through. We are battle-tested. We’ve been in really tough matches. You get a toughness about you.”
We start with top seed and defending national-champion Nebraska and its freshly minted win over Michigan that secured the Big Ten title outright (with an assist from Minnesota’s five-set win over Wisconsin Saturday).
The Huskers (27-2) roll into the Bob Devaney Center on campus Friday as the winners of 15 of their last 16 matches (the lone setback coming in five to Minnesota). It’s Nebraska’s 12th year in a row that it will host the first two rounds.
“We’re super happy about getting the No. 1 seed,” Nebraska junior setter Kelly Hunter said. “You know your hard work has paid off and you are known technically as the best team in the country at that time. Like coach (Cook) said, being No. 1 has a lot of pressure behind it, but that’s fun. We love getting everybody’s best shot and getting to play at home is really exciting.”
Nebraska junior outside hitter Briana Holman, who sat out last season after transferring from LSU, added there is the dangling carrot of staying at home beyond this weekend.
“It will be a great start in front of our home crowd,” Holman said. “Hopefully we can take care of business and can stay here for regionals as well. It helps us to have that Husker energy and our Husker fans helping us out and cheering us on. Coach does a really good job teaching us point-by-point mentality. We’re focused on this point and this game and then the next game.”
Nebraska faces 21-10 New Hampshire (America East Conference champion) in Friday’s second match, while TCU (14-12, No. 25 NCAA RPI, 7-9 Big 12 record) squares off with Missouri Valley Conference-champion Wichita State (24-7) in the first match in Lincoln. The two winners play Saturday for a spot in the regionals against the winner of the Penn State portion of the bracket.
“I’m surprised we didn’t get more teams from the Big Ten in,” Cook said. “This has been the most competitive season I’ve been part of. I’ve had several texts from coaches across the country that it might be the hardest championships to win, the Big Ten volleyball conference.”
Cook also offered his thoughts on how the bracket shook out. There is a possibility three Big Ten teams could make one of the regional semifinal brackets (Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan State).
“From a historical perspective, in 2009 there were four Big 12 teams in the same regional in Omaha,” he pointed out. “It would be nice if they would mix it up more so you are playing other teams instead of potentially playing teams from your conference. The committee has to do what they have to do and I’m sure they have their reasons where they put them. It’s their tournament and we are happy to be in it and are excited to play.”
No. 2 Minnesota finds itself in an interesting bracket in Minneapolis at the Sports Pavilion, where it has gone undefeated in the regular season the last two years.
The 25-4 Golden Gophers play Friday at 8 p.m. against first-time NCAA entrant and Big Sky Conference champion North Dakota (26-9). The 5:30 p.m. contest pits USC (18-13, No. 43 RPI) against Hawaii (22-5, No. 28 RPI) — two programs that are no strangers to NCAA tournament play. The winners play Saturday for a spot in the regionals against the winner of the Missouri portion of the bracket.
Minnesota, which defeated North Dakota 3-1 at the Sports Pavilion in September, is coming off a grueling stretch where it played four ranked teams in a row and came away with four five-set victories against Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“We were able to play four ranked teams in a row and that really tested us,” Minnesota senior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite said.
Teammate and senior middle blocker Paige Tapp added: “It’s a better opportunity to prepare for the tournament going up against tough competition and proving ourselves in five-set matches.”
Golden Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon saw his team prevail under trying circumstances, which he believes will benefit it in the long run.
“I think there is a decision that has to be made whenever you get into a tough moment of the season,” he said. “I always say championship teams are defined in moments of adversity. It’s easy to be good when it’s easy to be good. What do you do when it gets tough? Our athletes were tired and emotionally drained after a lot of consecutive big matches. We continue to find ways to win and find ways to connect and help each other out. That opportunity will serve invaluable for us moving forward in the tournament.”
No. 3 seed Wisconsin finds itself at home in Madison at the Field House against MEAC champion Howard (26-5) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Before that, Marquette (23-8) squares off against Washington State (21-11). Marquette (No. 36 RPI) counts NCAA qualifiers USC, Kentucky, Iowa State and Missouri State among its victories this season. Washington State (No. 45 RPI) holds wins over Pac-12 heavyweights Washington, UCLA, Stanford and USC. The winners play Friday with the victor advancing to face the Kansas State portion of the bracket.
Badgers standout setter Lauren Carlini admitted she was concerned about the team earning a top-4 seed after losing to Minnesota. The No. 3 seed for Wisconsin is the highest in program history.
“We wanted a top 4 seed because it has so much more weight on it,” Carlini said. “We get to play at home for two weeks hopefully. This was nerve-racking because of the loss. We were hoping they (NCAA committee) saw the strength of schedule. I was very nervous. I didn’t sleep well. We were pumped (when the announcement came).”
Carlini likes her team’s chances.
“We have a chance to win this thing,” she said. “We know we have the capability to do so. It’s not about who is on the other side of the net. It’s about playing our best volleyball. If we play our best volleyball it’s really tough to beat us. We’ve improved as a team. We have a few more weeks to keep improving and to lay it all out there because we know it could be our last match.”
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield offered his take on the composition of the bracket.
“There are a lot of good teams in a lot of these pods,” he said. “It’s certainly not a balanced bracket. Some seeded teams have a much tougher road to get to the second weekend than other seeded teams. It’s the way it operates. This isn’t a ‘woe is Wisconsin’ thing. The seeds themselves made sense to me and are probably about right. It should be a great tournament.”
No. 9 seed Michigan State (24-8) welcomes MAAC champion Fairfield (28-5) to East Lansing at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The first match at Michigan State Friday pits Horizon League titlist Cleveland State (25-5) against Pac-12 entrant Arizona (18-14, No. 31 RPI). The winners play Saturday and the survivor gets the winner of the Washington regional.
Another grouping to keep an eye on is the action occurring in Ann Arbor, Mich., Thursday and Friday. No. 12 seed Michigan (22-10) hosts Patriot League winner American University (27-7) while Oregon (20-9, No. 21 RPI) and MAC runner-up Miami-Ohio (24-6, No. 42 RPI) meet. The two winners play Friday for a chance to face the winner of the Kansas portion of the bracket.
Penn State has a Friday date at Rec Hall with Northeast Conference kingpin LIU Brooklyn (16-14). Pitt (24-8, No. 37 RPI, 15-5 ACC) plays Atlantic-10 champion Dayton (which sports the nation’s top record at 30-1; its only loss was to Loyola Marymount) meet before that. Saturday’s winner meets the winner of the Nebraska part of the bracket in the regionals.
Ohio State (No. 38 RPI) is part of the Kansas State pod. The Buckeyes (25-12) face Missouri Valley runner-up Missouri State (26-8) on Friday with the winner facing either Atlantic Sun champ Lipscomb (22-7) or host Kansas State (20-9, No. 19 RPI; 9-7 Big 12) on Saturday for a trip to meet the winner of the Wisconsin portion of the bracket. Kansas State is a host for the first time since 2007.
Finally, Purdue (18-13, No. 22 RPI) is part of the Missouri bracket in Columbia. The Boilermakers have the Big 12’s Iowa State (18-10, No. 30 RPI) on Thursday and the winner faces either host and SEC champion Missouri (25-5, No. 7 RPI) or MAC champion Northern Illinois (25-5) on Friday. The winner of the Missouri bracket faces the winner of the Minnesota bracket in the regionals.