The Big Ten has seven teams in the tournament which is more than any other conference. Let’s talk about those teams and their first and second round matches.
First of all, the Fighting Illini. It really sticks out that Illinois was one of the last teams in the tournament. Illinois plays Utah (22-9) in the first round. While there are lots of tough first round matches, this one is perhaps the toughest.
Utah beat Kentucky, UCLA, Washington and USC this season. They played really well in their Pac 12 schedule and ended the regular season ranked 18 in the RPI. Illinois finished 50. Meanwhile, while they did struggle some this year, Illinois was a final four team last year, losing to Nebraska in that round.
The top right side of the bracket, where Illinois and Utah are, is just stacked. The winner of the Utah vs Illinois match most likely plays BYU. The Cougars played to the final four last year and stayed in the top 25 all of this year. They are, and have been, a consistently good team. Add to this mix #3 Stanford, #6 Pittsburgh and Penn State. A tough bracket, no doubt.
Next, let’s look at Penn State. Seeded at #11, PSU plays the Ivy League champion Princeton in the opening round. I don’t expect Princeton to cause PSU too much trouble. The second round PSU plays the winner of American and Towson. I don’t think either of these will push the Nittany Lions, either.
Minnesota is in the bottom right of the bracket and the only Big Ten team in that bracket. They play Fairfield in the first round and the winner of Creighton vs Iowa State in the second round. I think they will beat Fairfield but either Creighton or Iowa State will give them a challenge.
Creighton played high level volleyball all season staying in the middle of the top 25. Iowa State beat Creighton in five sets early in the season and then beat everyone in the Big 12 except Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech. This is another one of the tougher first round matches.
Over on the top left of the bracket U of Michigan is a tough draw for anyone. They are playing fast, and high on the net. They meet Northern Kentucky (19-12), the winner of the Horizon League. After that, they would then most likely see Kentucky in the second round. This second round match should make for some real fireworks. These two teams match up well with each other.
Let’s look at the Boilermakers, who earned a #16 seed. Purdue joins Michigan in the top left bracket. They play Wright State (24-5) in round one. Purdue should win and move on to play the winner of Marquette and Dayton.
Marquette was close to being seeded in this tournament. They are a quality team who spent most of the year hovering around the top 15 rankings!
The last corner of the bracket is the bottom left with Big Ten teams #5 seed Nebraska and #4 seed Wisconsin. Nebraska should get a quick win over the MAC champion Ball State in the first round. They then play the winner of UNI and Missouri. Nebraska should earn two wins in front of the sold out Devaney Center this weekend without too much trouble. I don’t see a tough matchup here.
Meanwhile Wisconsin plays Illinois State in the first round as the winner of the Valley Conference. Again, should be an easy win for the Badgers who would then move on to play the winner of UCLA vs Notre Dame. I expect UCLA to win and give Wisconsin a challenging match in the second round. Ultimately, the very tough serving and block of Wisconsin will win against UCLA.
As you can see below some shifts in conferences. The SEC was stronger this year and the Big West who used to be a POWER HOUSE has TWO, only two teams in the tournament. The Pac12 sees its numbers dwindle this year too as a few of their perennial powerhouses are struggling.
You never want to make major proclamations based on limited data, but the national diffusion of volleyball talent continues this year as indicated by the bracket. This is good for the sport. That said, 12 of the 64 teams (18%) are from Texas and California alone. These traditional volleyball heavy states are still the class of the nation.
The conference breakdown:
Big Ten- this year 7 (last year- 7)
- Pac12- 6 (8)
- SEC- 6 (4)
- ACC- 4 (5)
- Big12- 4 (2)
- WAC- 2 (3)
- West Coast Conference- 2 (3)
- Big East- 3 (2)
The breakdown by state:
- Texas - 6
- California - 6
- Florida - 3
- Colorado - 3
- Kentucky - 4
What sticks out to me is that there are some new faces at the top of the pack. In a sport that is full of habitual powerhouses, seeing a new face is rare. This year Baylor is the #1 seed. In 39 years of the tournament Baylor has earned a spot in just 7 of the tournaments. By way of comparison, Penn State and Stanford have been in all 39.
Pittsburgh is new to the top level as well. Sure, they’ve been in the mix (they hosted last year), but Pitt is now a consistent top flight team, which is a new development.
Also, what the heck is happening in Kentucky?? Four teams from Kentucky in the field. Of all the states to be good at volleyball... I must be missing something there.
The first round watch information is here.