Steve Aird has been there.
Twice as an assistant coach when Penn State won NCAA championships.
And plenty of times the past three seasons as the head coach at Maryland when he had to play the six Big Ten teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament:
No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 12 Michigan, No. 16 Penn State and Ohio State.
The tournament’s round of 16 continues Friday and we asked Aird, also a two-time captain of the Penn State men’s team, to give his thoughts and analysis of his league counterparts.
Penn State at Nebraska: “It is one of the most difficult places in the country to play. That’s without question. Penn State got swept by Nebraska the last time they played there. They went five at Penn State. I think at a neutral site, it’s more likely to be a match than it will be at Nebraska.
“But my thing, and I’m obviously very biased, but if you give Russ (Rose) enough time to get together a plan and get the team to believe they can do it, he’s the best at it.
“The last match I was with him that was like this was when we played at Washington (in the 2013 NCAA semifinals). And there were probably 14,000 people who were all for Washington. And I think that match was over in an hour. I think that was one of the great performances by a team from top to bottom that I’ve seen. They’re going to need that type of effort and that type of commitment to pick off Nebraska on the road.
“If I had to predict I think Nebraska wins 3-1, but I’m obviously as an alum and former coach there, I’m hopeful.
“Nebraska is so balanced. The addition of the two transfer kids, (Andie) Malloy on the pin and (Briana) Holman in the middle plugged some holes … They really do start All-American players. Holman and Malloy are in that category, the Rolfzens obviously are, (Mikaela) Foecke was MVP of the final four, (setter Kelly) Hunter is really good and Justine (Wong-Orantes) might be the best libero in the country. I don’t think that’s a stretch to say that.”
Missouri at Minnesota: “I don’t know a lot about Missouri but what I know about Minnesota is that after we played there (and was swept on Sept. 23) they were the most complete team we had seen up to that point. Minnesota, what they do so well, is they make very few errors. They make you play volleyball. They serve receive well, the setting is elite, and they just don’t make many errors. If they’re at three or four errors a game, you have to play flawlessly to beat them. And then you have to repeat that two more times. They play so clean.”
Ohio State at Wisconsin: “Ohio State is the only team to beat Nebraska (in Lincoln) and middle Taylor Sandbothe is one of the elite players in the country. And it’s not just about skill as it is her fire and competitiveness. She might be my favorite player this year that we’ve played against and I’ve watched. She’s so dynamic and plays with such a chip on her shoulder and she’s the kind of kid that every coach wants to coach in terms of how competitive she is.
“They recently went to a 6-2 and their setter started to hit some balls on the right side. They made that change and got hot and Taylor Hughes is a really good player.
“But Wisconsin is a legit top-four team and (setter Lauren) Carlini is as good as it gets and I have a hard time believing that with them being at home, well, for Ohio State on the road against a setter like that with that supporting cast, it’s the same thing I said about Penn State. It’s not that Ohio State isn’t capable, but the No. 1 thing that Russ taught me is that you have to prepare for the event. It’s not really the match, it’s the event and can you get the kids to understand that the volleyball is part of it. But can you manage the emotion, can you manage the intros, if the other team goes on a three- or four-point run out of the gate can you be poised and settled enough to make plays and trust your training? That’s the key to playing matches like that on the road. It’s easy to say but hard to do.”
Michigan-Creighton at Texas: “Obviously Creighton is coming off an amazing victory over a really good Kansas team. That regional is in Texas, a neutral site. Michigan is battle tested from the Big Ten and they showed flashes of being really, really good at times. They beat Penn State at home and had a couple of other really good wins.
“Abby Cole is a real important part of Michigan, but the other middle, Claire Kieffer-Wright, she’s really cagey, doesn’t make many errors and has all the shots. The combination of those two, upperclassmen who have been in big matches, they understand the dynamics of it. I don’t think Creighton will scare them and they’ll have a lot of respect for them because they know what they did at Kansas. But they’ve got to love the fact that it’s on a neutral site. And for both of them, the fact that you can get to an elite eight by either beating Creighton or beating Michigan, you’ve got to like that draw because a lot of the draws are a lot more gnarly than that.”
Big Ten has 6 of 16: “And I thought Purdue had a really tough match on the road having to play at Missouri and I think Missouri did a great job. And Michigan State, they went five and were probably really disappointed to lose to Arizona because they were at home.
“I was thinking we would get six or seven but you had a feeling that someone would get upset. But when you look at it, obviously we’re going to have at least two elite eight teams because Penn State plays Nebraska and Ohio State plays Wisconsin. And Minnesota’s favored and the chance of having a couple in the final four are pretty high. I think the Big Ten has showed itself really well in the tournament.”