Going into the volleyball season, all signs pointed to the Big Ten being the deepest league in the country.
But with the nonconference schedule wrapping up for most teams last weekend and the conference openers on tap for this week, the Big Ten’s excellence is now statistically verifiable. Big Ten teams comprised nearly a third of this week’s AVCA coaches poll with eight teams earning spots in the top 25. A ninth, Wisconsin, is 11-1 and sits third among teams also receiving votes.
Nebraska coach John Cook pointed out earlier in the year that nearly every star player within the league last year returned in 2013, and even teams thought to be rebuilding like the Badgers and No. 13 Ohio State have gotten off to hot starts.
The Huskers’ close call, five-set defeat at defending national champion Texas on Sunday proved NU can hang with one of the nation’s most talented teams. But with the Big Ten loaded from top to bottom, Nebraska is going to have to replicate that effort twice a week to land in the upper ranks of the conference.
Here’s a look at some of the Big Ten’s highlights from the first month of the season:
» Top-ranked Penn State is 9-1 and has swept every opponent except for its lone defeat, a five-set loss at Texas. Penn State bounced back the next night to sweep No. 3 Florida and have dominated despite a bumpy start from its two best players.
Opposite hitter Ariel Scott has missed time because of injury and Deja McClendon is hitting a tepid .239. Yet, the Nittany Lions are third in the country with a .340 attack percentage, thanks largely to middle blocker Katie Slay, who is second nationally at a .520 clip. Penn State is allowing opponents to hit just .095, the lowest among Big Ten teams.
» Thanks to a tournament-heavy nonconference schedule, Minnesota already has played 13 matches, and Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon is making an early case for the league’s player of the year. Dixon has been named the league’s player of the week once and defensive player of the week twice. She ranks in the top four in the Big Ten in kills (4.26 per set), blocks (1.36 per set) and attack percentage (.471).
» No. 10 Michigan (10-1) has the toughest opening weekend in conference play with matches at No. 13 Ohio State and No. 1 Penn State, but the Wolverines are battle tested already with a home sweep of No. 12 Oregon, a five-game loss to No. 16 Florida State and a 3-2 win over No. 24 Ohio. Four Wolverines average at least 2.42 kills per set, and highly touted 6-5 freshman middle Abby Cole has lived up to the hype so far by hitting .362.
» No. 13 Ohio State may not have built its 12-0 record against a rugged schedule, but the Buckeyes enter Big Ten play undefeated after losing two of its top attackers from 2012. The bulk of the offense has gone through senior outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary, who is third in the country with an average of 5.31 kills per set. Junior setter Taylor Sherwin leads the Big Ten with 12.16 assists per set.
» Michigan State, ranked No. 15, will get a chance to hand the Buckeyes their first loss this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, in a matchup of the Big Ten’s top two attackers. Lauren Wicinski, the Spartans’ senior outside hitter, is second to Leary in kills with 4.44 per set. Senior middle blocker Alexis Matthews continues to be one of the league’s most efficient hitters, ranking third in the Big Ten with a .468 attack percentage.
» No. 20 Purdue (9-2) is getting it done with balance — five Boilermakers are averaging at least two kills per set. Purdue already had one of the league’s best middles in junior Kiki Jones, who is fourth in the league with a .468 hitting mark, but redshirt freshman Faye Adelaja is a surprise at the other middle blocker spot. Adelaja is second in the Big Ten with 1.39 blocks per set.
» How good has No. 24 Illinois’ nonconference schedule been? The Illini are at the tail end of the top 25 despite a 4-6 record because eight of their 10 opponents are ranked in this week’s top 25. Illinois owns a 3-0 win over No. 17 Florida State, beat No. 16 Arizona State in five sets and swept No. 24 Iowa State in Ames. The Illini also dropped a five-set match to No. 5 Texas at home, lost 3-1 to No. 2 Washington and were swept by No. 14 North Carolina.
Nebraska visits Huff Hall in Champaign on Saturday afternoon following a Friday night match at Northwestern and will become the fourth top 15 team to play on Illinois’ home floor this season. It figures to be a stiff challenge for the Huskers to start the Big Ten schedule, but then, a look around the conference shows that’s something Nebraska will have to get used to quickly.