The Big Ten Invitational, also known as the State College Regional — the third and fourth rounds of the NCAA Tournament — includes top-ranked and top-seeded Penn State and league rivals Michigan State and Illinois.
And Missouri of the SEC.
Third-year Maryland coach Steve Aird — who was a Penn State assistant for two of its NCAA titles — is certainly familiar with the B1G three and will analyze them for us in a bit. And LSU coach Fran Flory gives her take on SEC rival Missouri.
Penn State was going to be there all along, provided the Nittany Lions won their first two matches, which they did, beating Howard and Pittsburgh.
As a result, Penn State (31-1) plays Missouri (22-11), which upset Kansas in the first round and then knocked off 16th-seeded Wichita State in the second.
In the other matchup, Michigan State (23-8) faces Illinois (23-10). Michigan State thumped Missouri State in the first round and then upset ninth-seeded Creighton in the second. Illinois got past Hawai’i in five to open the tournament and then stunned eighth-seeded Washington on its home court, winning in five again.
In their only meeting, Michigan State swept Illinois in East Lansing on November 10.
Maryland, which finished 18-13, 7-13 in the B1G, had a tough time with the three teams Aird analyzed. The Terps were swept twice by Michigan State and Penn State and was also swept by Illinois in their only meeting.
Aird started by pointing out the huge home-court advantage Penn State has in raucous Rec Hall and in B1G player of the year Simone Lee, the senior outside hitter who leads the Nittany Lions in kills (3.87 per set), is second in digs (2.23) and averages .59 blocks.
”I don’t think anyone in that bracket has a player like Simone Lee who can just flat-out take over matches,” Aird said. “The thing that has really separated Penn State this year is there’s never really a rotation where they’re one dimensional. I think going into the year you didn’t know if Heidi would develop and you didn’t know how good Tori would be.”
Senior right side Heidi Thelen and sophomore middle Tori Gorrell, have, of course, had tremendous seasons.
“I coached Tori overseas this summer with the Big Ten all-star team and she was tearing teams apart,” Aird said. “She had an unbelievable tour. And I told Russ coming back that I thought she would be a really big key for them. You knew about Simone, you knew about Haleigh Washington, and obviously when (Ali) Frantti’s right and playing well she’s really, really good. But the two pieces offensively you didn’t really know about both had really good years.”
Aird said Penn State’s 6-2 with Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher has “been solid.”
“They can do a lot of things offensively that a lot of teams can’t do and it’s not like you can serve them into trouble or serve them into a rotation where they don’t have an outlet.
“That’s their strengths. Their weaknesses? I’m not sold on their serve-receive. If they pass well they’re scary. If you can get them out of system, that’s obviously one of the ways you’ve got to challenge them. But Simone is so good out of system, that’s kind of the equalizer there.
“I think they’re a good serving team, not a great serving team, and they’re a good blocking team. Probably should be a little bit better for how physical they are and what they are. But they’re the No. 1-ranked team for a reason, right?”
Aird has been an assistant to Penn State coach Russ Rose, who’s been there 39 years and has won it all seven times.
“The bigger the matches the more loose he gets teams to be,” Aird said.
Illinois and first-year coach Chris Tamas are on a big run. Tamas came from Nebraska, where playing for it all was routine.
“I think teams in the first year with a new head coach always have a bump,” Aird said. “Chris has obviously been there and won so he knows what it’s like to be in tournament and he’s had some really good role models along the way. “
Illinois has what some say is the best setter in the country in junior Jordyn Poulter, whose assists are complemented by .86 kills per set, 2.43 digs and .90 blocks and she has 15 aces. And junior middle Ali Bastianelli has averaged 2.48 kills and 1.61 blocks.
“That class when Poulter and Bastianelli came in was the No. 1 class in the country,” Aird said. “So the one thing people might be overlooking is it’s not like when he took the job the cupboard was bare. It was a really good team.
“They hit a skid a little bit when (senior libero Brandi) Donnelly was out, because I think she’s one of the elite liberos in the Big Ten. Poulter is the difference in general. She’s another kid I got a chance to coach this summer and she’s really physical and she can move the ball. The thing about setting in my mind is that great setters have great location. And her location is just spectacular. She can run all over the place and locate the ball in windows where the hitters can do good things with them. She’s got a few young pieces around her, but with the Poulter-Bastienelli connection is so strong and they’ve got some good physical arms at the pins, when you have elite setting you’re always in the conversation.”
So no one should be surprised by Illini.
“They have a really good libero, one of the best setters in the country and a lot of good arms,” Aird said. “They’re built to have success. They’re probably right where they should be.”
Michigan State might be the most experience team in the tournament. There are three redshirt seniors in outside Autumn Bailey, middle Megan Tompkins and right side Brooke Kranda and four true seniors in outside Holly Toliver, middle Alyssa Garvelink, setter Rachel Minarick and DS Abby Monson.
“When Michigan State is scary is when they’re serving the ball really well,” Aird said. “The Kranda kid, going back again to my experience this summer because I got to coach her, would go on strings against really good national teams. Five, six, seven aces in a row. She can win a game in a rotation for you.”
Kranda has 38 aces this season. Toliver has 41, Minarick 35 and Bailey 25.
“Toliver has been, I don’t want to say the heart of it, but she plays with an edge. And she plays with a chip on her shoulder that I really liked and respected. The setting’s been fine. Minarick does some pretty good things and obviously she has a pretty good serve. She’s physical enough that you have to worry about at the net and can’t over the top of.
“Autumn Bailey (State’s leading attacker at 3.55 kills per set) I’m obviously partial to being Canadian. I think she’s a hell of a player. She’s only 5-10-ish, but she has all the tools and can defend and offensively when she has a hot night she’s an issue.”
Garvelink, Aird said, sometimes gets overlooked in the Big Ten, “a conference with some elite middles.
“And their libero (Jamye Cox) is a freshman and full disclosure, I thought she’s be somebody we could kind of attack and she’s made a believer out of a lot of people. She’s been steady enough in serve receive and defensively she’s made more plays than I thought she would be able to her and that’s a credit to her. It’s a hard league to come into as a freshman at that position and hold your weight and she’s certainly done that.”
Missouri of the SEC got hot the second half of the season. After getting swept by Georgia, the Tigers have won 10 of 12, losing only twice to SEC co-champion Florida, the second seed in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri is led offensively by senior right side Kira Larson, who averages 2.43 kills, has 39 aces, averages 2.3 digs and .73 blocks. Junior middle Alyssa Munlyn averages 2.16 kills and 1.47 blocks. Freshman middle Kayla Caffey averages 1.52 kills and 1.01 block and has 22 aces.
“They’re young kids have matured,” said Flory, whose Tigers finished fourth behind third-place Mizzou in the SEC standings. “Their middles have always been good and Larson is the real deal. She’s probably underrated nationally but she’s pretty significant in our league and she’s just a really good volleyball player.
“They’re just a good volleyball team.”
Missouri is one of the most versatile teams in the country and has dealt with injuries and absences during the season. Sydney Deeken averages 2.33 kills and .61 blocks. Darianna Hollingsworth averages 2.05 kills and .68 blocks. And two players who missed time this season but who can change a match are freshman outside Leketor Member-Meneh and senior outside Melanie Crow.
“They know how to play the game,” Flory said, “they know how to score, they know how to manage situations.”