LINCOLN — The race for the Big Ten championship is far from over, but the pool of teams that has a chance has winnowed. After 10 of 20 conference games, schools have divided into four tiers.
The top four teams — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State and Nebraska — have proved to be in a class of their own and are likely the only teams that can win the title. The next group -- Illinois, Purdue and Michigan -- are frisky but haven’t consistently played at an elite level.
There is a big gap between the top half of the league and bottom. These teams haven’t beaten any of the top seven. Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State have proven to be competitive and they’ve cleaned up on the bottom tier and beaten each other once.
Here’s a ranking as the second half of league play begins.
(14-4, 10-0 Big Ten, preconference ranking: 5)
A so-so preseason resulted in a dominant conference play. The Badgers have dropped five sets in the first half of league play and have three players averaging at least three kills per set. They have the inside track to the conference crown but play one more match against each of the next three teams in the rankings.
(15-3, 9-1, 1)
The Gophers only loss came in a sweep at Wisconsin, but they haven’t been as dominant as their record indicates. Minnesota only has two sweeps in league play (dropping sets to Iowa and Rutgers), but it beat Illinois twice in 10 days. The Gophers also feature the top two blockers in the conference: Regan Pittman and Taylor Morgan, who each average 1.41 blocks per set.
3. Penn State
(16-3, 9-1, 2)
The Nittany Lions have been taking care of business with the only slip coming at Wisconsin (sense a theme?). Penn State isn’t flashy statistically but gets the job done behind hard-hitting middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord, third in blocks per set and fourth in hitting percentage. The next big test is this weekend against Nebraska before hosting Wisconsin and Minnesota the final weekend of the season.
(16-3, 8-2, 3)
Nebraska has one of the easiest schedules among the top teams. It plays the teams ranked above them a combined four times. The Huskers lost the first meeting against Wisconsin, but have shown improvement since playing the Badgers in early October. Nebraska has a high ceiling, but little room for error.
(10-9, 5-5, 6)
The Illini have had a brutal schedule, opening league play against Nebraska then playing at Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State in a six-day span. They have yet to be swept and took Nebraska and Minnesota to five sets. Illinois has one more match against Penn State but should be favored in every other match the rest of the way.
(14-5, 6-4, 4)
The Boilermakers are the only team to knock off one of the top four teams after beating Nebraska in five sets Saturday, which was their best performance of the year. They also had to win fifth sets against Indiana and Ohio State. Purdue relies on a big block (2.97 per set, second in the conference) to compensate for an average attack (.195, 10th). The ingredients are they for Purdue to make noise in the league, but it needs more consistency.
(13-7, 6-4, 7)
The Wolverines have lost four of the five matches, but all four came against the top four teams in the league. Michigan showed promise, extending Minnesota to five sets Friday before dropping the deciding set 15-13. Then it started strong and took the first set from Wisconsin, but couldn’t muster anymore. It has a favorable path ahead with Illinois twice and hosting Purdue.
8. Michigan State
(13-7, 4-6, 9)
The Spartans lead the bottom half. They have a solid defense, and are second in opponent hitting percentage and third in blocks per set. Outside hitter Biamba Kabengele has been named the league freshman of the week twice after moving into the starting lineup at the beginning of conference action.
9. Ohio State
(11-11, 4-6, 11)
The Buckeyes have a higher RPI than Michigan State (50-53) but lost head-to-head in straight sets. Kylie Murr leads the league in digs per set with 4.67. Ohio State hosted its first sellout in program history Oct. 6 against Michigan as 3,994 packed into the Covelli Center, which opened up this year.
(12-10, 4-6, 13)
The Terrapins have been a mild surprise after a nondescript nonconference season. They have wins over the bottom three teams as well as a five-set win over Michigan State. Wins might be harder to come by in the second half with six matches against the top six teams. Sophomore Katie Myers is No. 9 in the nation with a .429 hitting percentage.
(9-12, 3-7, 12)
Two of the Hawkeyes’ wins came against Indiana. The bad news is they double up against Nebraska in the second half. Vicki Brown signed a five-year contract to become Iowa's permanent coach Sept. 26, removing the interim tag she has had since May 20.
(12-11, 1-9, 8)
The Hoosiers’ lone win came against Northwestern on Oct. 5. They’ve taken sets off of Wisconsin and Nebraska, but have little else to show for the season. Indiana has the league’s worst hitting offense at .122, but they have a new area that is hosting some of the largest home crowds in program history. It’s too bad those fans haven’t had more to cheer for.
(7-14, 1-9, 14)
Perhaps nothing was a bigger surprise in the first half of league play than Rutgers' win over Northwestern on Sunday. The victory broke an 80-game league losing streak for the Scarlets Knights that spanned over four years. Rutgers has won two Big Ten games since joining the conference in 2014.
(9-13, 0-10, 10)
The Wildcats feature the league’s best attacker in freshman Temi Thomas-Ailara, who averages 4.56 kills per set. The rest of the season has been a disaster, highlighted by the loss to Rutgers. Northwestern has won six sets in conference play and the road doesn’t get easier. The good news is they host the Scarlet Knights for a rematch Nov. 15.