LINCOLN — While waiting for the NCAA bracket to be revealed later that night, Nebraska coach John Cook spent Sunday exchanging texts with Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield recapping the just-finished regular season.
After the Badgers and Huskers emerged atop the Big Ten Conference, the two coaches reflected on the difficult path they traveled during the season. Sheffield called the conference gnarly. Cook called it brutal.
The Big Ten finished second in the conference RPI standings, behind the Pac-12, and the NCAA selection committee rewarded the Big Ten with seven postseason berths, the most of any league.
“It’s a war every week,” Cook said.
Here is how those battles sorted out in the final edition of the power rankings before the NCAA tournament kicks off this weekend.
(22-6 overall, 18-2 Big Ten; nonconference ranking: 5; midseason ranking: 1)
Wisconsin was picked No. 1 in the preseason and overcame some early stumbles to live up to that prediction. The Badgers’ celebration was delayed by a night after a loss at Penn State, but they claimed their sixth conference title on the final day. Dana Rettke finished league play first in blocks, fifth in hitting percentage and kills and sixth in aces. The Badgers welcome Illinois State, Notre Dame and UCLA to Madison for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
(25-4, 17-3; 3; 4)
The Huskers had the best record of any team in the final half, going 9-1 down the stretch. NU went 2-0 against the other two teams that shared second place in the league. The Huskers weren’t flashy and earned only five weekly individual honors, but relied on a stingy defense that limited Big Ten opponents to a .156 hitting percentage, 20 points better than second-place Wisconsin. The Huskers could face Missouri in the second round for the second straight year.
(23-5, 17-3; 1; 2)
The Gophers knocked off Penn State a night after they swept Rutgers. Their three losses were to the two teams ahead of them in the standings. Minnesota was the league’s best blocking team, averaging 2.94 stuffs per set. The Gophers would play the winner of Creighton-Iowa State in the second round.
4. Penn State
(24-5, 17-3; 2, 3)
The Nittany Lions were one win against Minnesota away from tying Wisconsin for the league crown, but fell short. Penn State, which is ranked eighth, earned the 11 seed in the NCAA tournament and a potential third-round showdown with Pittsburgh, which suffered its only loss of the year at home against the Nittany Lions. Should PSU survive, a potential rematch with No. 3 Stanford awaits in the regional final.
(22-7, 14-6; 4, 6)
The Boilermakers went 8-2 down the stretch and will be hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. Beating Nebraska remains the high point for Purdue. It will host a motivated Marquette team, which was hoping to spend the first weekend at home.
(20-10, 13-7; 7, 7)
Paige Jones emerged as the Wolverines’ dominant threat as she won the conference’s kills crown, averaging 4.27 per set. She will lead UM against Northern Kentucky before a possible second-round showdown against Kentucky. Michigan stumbled down the stretch, losing three of its final five matches, including twice against Purdue.
(16-13, 11-9; 6, 5)
The Illini were one of the last four teams to make the NCAA tournament and did themselves no favors by losing to Northwestern. Jacqueline Quade finished second in the league with 3.96 kills and 0.45 aces per set. Illinois will travel to BYU for the first round to take on Utah.
(14-18, 5-15; 10, 14)
The Wildcats lost their first 10 matches in league play, then rallied and went 5-5 in the second half, including a win over Illinois to end the year. Their only loss to any team in the bottom half of the Big Ten was a five-set setback at Michigan State. Northwestern swept Ohio State on the road on Nov. 22. Freshman Temi Thomas-Ailara finished third in the league with 3.91 kills per set.
9. Ohio State
(15-17, 8-12; 11, 9)
The Buckeyes scored one of the biggest upsets in the conference this year when they knocked off Wisconsin on Nov. 8. However, OSU won just two of its next seven matches and missed the postseason again. Ohio State fired Geoff Carlston after 12 years; he had a 235-170 record and seven postseason appearances.
10. Michigan State
(15-15, 6-14; 9, 8)
The Spartans broke a five-match losing streak with a win over Indiana in the season finale. They pushed Purdue and Michigan to five sets but fell short. MSU finished ranked in the top 10 nationally for average attendance with 3,099 fans per game.
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(10-21, 4-16; 12, 11)
The Hawkeyes also stumbled down the stretch, losing every match in November until knocking off Maryland in the season finale. During one stretch, Iowa lost 16 straight sets before pushing Nebraska to the limit. Courtney Buzzerio emerged as a threat at setter and recorded triple-doubles against Nebraska and Ohio State.
(13-19, 5-15; 13, 10)
A win over Indiana was the only positive for the Terrapins during the second half of the league schedule. Maryland’s last home win came on Oct. 16.
(14-19, 3-17; 8, 12)
The Hoosiers snapped a nine-match losing streak by winning at Rutgers. They also beat Michigan State at home. The good news: Indiana has a nice new home facility in Wilkinson Hall.
(8-23, 2-18; 14, 13)
Yes, Rutgers finished at the bottom of the standings again, but the two league wins for the Scarlet Knights were one more than they had in the past five years combined. Progress! Except Rutgers fired CJ Werneke on Tuesday after 12 years. Werneke faced a tall task as Rutgers didn’t fully fund 12 volleyball scholarships until recently.