The Big Ten Season Starts Friday

All 14 Teams Will Be In Action

By Lincoln Arneal

After the nonconference season, the Big Ten Conference turns its attention inward as a 20-match marathon kicks off this week. 

Entering conference play, all 14 Big Ten teams are at least .500 or better. 

However, not all schedules are equal as Ohio State is .500 but has played seven of its eight matches against ranked opponents, including four matches against teams now in the Top 5. The Buckeyes set forth a challenging nonconference schedule and will play all eight regional finalists from a year ago to help them prepare for the Big Ten season.

“Looking back at the opening weekend of the Big Ten last year, we just weren’t ready,” OSU coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg said at Big Ten media days. “As (the schedule) all shook out, it got better and better and better. I said, All right, let’s go, and we’ll see what we’re about before we hit the Big Ten so that when we get to the Big Ten we’re ready to go.”

At the end of the year, the league has benefited from the grueling schedule come tournament time. A Big Ten team has advanced to the Final Four every year since 2006, including two teams in six of the past seven seasons.

Here is how the Big Ten teams stack up based on their performance entering conference play:

1. Nebraska (8-1, AVCA Poll, No. 3)

Best win: No. 13 Kentucky, 3-0, Sept. 18

Nebraska has tinkered a lot with its offensive system, but the Huskers still have the best defense in the league. They have wins over two ranked teams (three if you count the non-ranked Pepperdine team) but couldn’t get over the Stanford hump. Once they figure out who is playing setter or settle into a system, they could have a high ceiling. Getting more out of Kaitlyn Hord should unlock a more potent attack. 

2. Penn State (11-0, No. 9)

Best win: No. 11 Stanford, 3-2, Sept. 11

Under a new coach, the Nittany Lions haven’t shown any hiccups in the Katie Schumacher-Cawley era. They are one of six undefeated teams left in the NCAA. After getting through the first two weeks unscathed, PSU proved they are legit by knocking off a lethargic Stanford team and then surviving against No. 18 Oregon. They are buoyed by a pair of transfers, Zoe Weatherington (Utah) and Kashauna Williams (Long Beach State). 

3. Wisconsin (6-2, No. 6)

Best win: No. 14 Kentucky, 3-0, Sept. 9

If the Badgers don’t have to face the No. 16 ranked team in the country. They’ve lost to Baylor and Florida, who were both ranked No. 16 when they beat Wisconsin. They replaced a lot of players but have reloaded. Sarah Franklin (transfer from Michigan State) has been the best attacker, while they’ve run a two-setter system with Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill. Senior Danielle Hart is back after missing most of last year with an injury and is second in the nation with 1.81 blocks per set.

4. Ohio State (4-4, No. 7)

Best Win: No. 3 Louisville, 3-1, Sept. 4

The Buckeyes have been through a gauntlet to start the year. They started the season by losing twice to now-top-ranked Texas. They were also swept by now No. 4 San Diego and No.10 Pitt. OSU is the only team to beat Louisville so far, plus it has wins over BYU and Georgia Tech. We will learn how that will pay off in the Big Ten when they take on Nebraska on Saturday. 

5. Minnesota 5-3, No. 8

Best win: No. 13 Florida, 3-1, Sept. 4

The Gophers own three wins against rated teams, Florida, Oregon, and Baylor. They’ve suffered losses to Texas, Stanford, and Pepperdine, all on their home court. Out of eight matches, only one has ended in three sets, a sweep over TCU during the opening weekend. Taylor Landfair returned from an injury last year and is playing at an elite level. She’s second in the league with 4.35 kills per set. Perhaps it is a sign of their demanding schedule, but the Gophers rank in the bottom two of the Big Ten in all opponents’ statistics: kills, blocks, digs, assists and hitting percentage. 

6. Purdue (9-1, No. 11)

Best win: RV Utah, 3-2, Sept. 2

Eva Hudson has been a revelation for the Boilermakers. The freshman outside has already won three Big Ten freshman weekly awards. She leads the league with 4.85 kills and 5.51 points per set. She’s reached double-digit kills in every match and is hitting .323. Purdue could be good, but they’ve only played one top-notch team so far, losing to Louisville in straight sets. 

7. Northwestern (11-1, RV)

Best win: No. 24 Pepperdine, 3-0, Sept. 9

The Wildcats have played a fairly soft schedule but rose to the occasion and swept the Waves in one of their two matches against rated teams, losing to No. 13 Washington in four sets. Two other Northwestern players have won weekly awards, including setter Alexa Rousseau, the first NW setter award since 2013, and outside hitter Hanna Lesiak, the first player of the week award since 2015. In addition, Temi Thomas-Ailara is averaging 3.81 kills per set and was named the Big Ten player of the week as the Wildcats won the Chicago Cup last week.

8. Michigan (9-1, RV)

Best win:  RV Mississippi State, 3-1 Sept. 16

The Wolverines haven’t played any ranked teams and just three teams from major conferences. They lost in four sets to Duke but defeated Mississippi State and North Carolina. Jess Robinson is hitting a cool .534, tops in the nation, while Michigan leads the Big Ten with a .301 clip. Saturday’s match against Penn State might prove how much progress they’ve made.

9. Illinois (5-5, RV)

Best Win: Ole Miss, 3-1, Aug. 28

The Illini played a tough schedule with losses coming against Georgia Tech, Washington, and Marquette. However, Illinois stumbled against Illinois State and lost in five sets. Raina Terry has been a solid attacker, but the IIllini’s offense has been error-prone and has the second-worst hitting percentage in the league at .225.

10. Maryland (9-3)

Best win: Virginia, 3-0, Sept. 17

The Terrapins have played just four teams with winning records and lost three of those but fell in five sets twice. Rainelle Jones is doing Rainelle Jones things. After finishing No. 1 in the country in blocking last season, she is back on top with 1.83 blocks per set. While they lead the league in blocks and aces, they are last in kills and assists. 

11. Michigan State (9-2)

Best win: Louisiana, 3-2, Aug. 26

The Spartans won their first six matches of the season before hitting a stumbling block on Tobacco Road against North Carolina and Duke. MSU has eased into the Leah Johnson era as it has just two wins over teams with winning records. They’ve done it with defense, led by Texas transfer Nalani Iosia, leading the league with the fewest kills, assists and digs given up. 

12. Indiana 7-5

Best win: Texas A&M, 3-1, Sept. 16

The highlight of the Hoosiers nonconference might have been taking the first set off No. 21 Western Kentucky. Indiana knocked off Texas A&M in four sets before the Aggies upset WKU. Sophomore Mady Saris leads the team with 3.78 kills, the fifth best in the conference. 

13. Iowa (6-5)

Best win: Northern Iowa, 3-0, Sept. 17

The Hawkeyes also started over with a new coach this offseason and loaded their roster with transfers. Iowa has beat up on a soft schedule and has earned just two wins against teams with winning records this season. The offense isn’t overwhelming as no Hawkeye players average more than three kills per set. However, the defense has lots of opportunities.  Mari Hinkle leads the Big Ten with 4.76 digs per set. 

14. Rutgers (6-6)

Best win: The Citadel, 3-2, Aug. 27

Rutgers started strong by winning its first three matches (Fresno State, The Citadel and College of Charleston) to reach 3-0 for the first time since 1998. It didn’t get to four as it dropped the next match against Radford (now 4-8). After that, they pushed undefeated Towson to five sets, which No. 7 Pitt couldn’t even manage. It’s going to be another long season in East Rutherford, N.J. The good news is all home matches are free to attend.

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