LINCOLN — Now it counts.
After going through the nonconference season, the Big Ten turns its attention inward as a 20-match marathon kicked off Wednesday night. Entering conference play, six teams are ranked and all 14 teams are .500 or better.
Wisconsin, which made the regional final last year, sits on the bottom of the standings after going 4-4 in nonconference.
Nebraska coach John Cook called this one of the hardest championships to win in college sports.
“Now is when the ante goes up and we start keeping score,” Cook said. “It’s 10 weeks playing sometimes back-to-back and on the road. We have a lot of good teams in our conference for volleyball.”
The league has benefited from the grueling schedule in the postseason. A Big Ten team has advanced to the Final Four every year since 2006, including two teams each of the past four seasons.
Here is how the teams stack up based on their performance entering conference play:
(6-2; AVCA ranking: No. 7)
Best win: No. 1 Stanford 3-1, Sept. 14
The Gophers were upset in the opening weekend by Florida State, which was unranked at the time but is now No. 23. Minnesota also lost to Texas in Austin, then ran off three straights wins versus top-10 teams: Florida, Oregon and Stanford. Senior Kylie Miller leads the nation with 12.08 assists per set.
2. Penn State (8-2; No. 5)
Best win: No. 4 Pittsburgh 3-2, Sept. 22
The Nittany Lions dominated the early season and won their first 16 sets, including the first one against No. 1 Stanford. Their middles are hitting efficiently as both are above .430. Penn State has allowed just 16 aces, which leads the conference.
3. Nebraska (8-1; No. 3)
Best win: No. 14 Creighton 3-1, Aug. 30
The Huskers’ only loss came against Stanford, which was one of the best matches so far this season. They are hitting .235, which is 12th in the conference, but the good news is they are limiting opponents to a league-best .135. Nebraska is quite young with no seniors on the roster, and while it has shown glimpses, it has to find more consistency.
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4. Purdue (8-1, No. 15)
Best win: No. 16 Kentucky 3-2, Sept. 18
The Boilermakers’ lone loss came in five sets at Notre Dame in front of a crowd of 247. Purdue has excelled at the net so far as it has the most blocks in the conference and the fewest amount of its attacks blocked. Senior Blake Mohler leads the league with 1.66 stuffs per set.
5. Wisconsin (4-4, No. 13)
Best win: No. 23 Florida State 3-0, Aug. 30
The Badgers have struggled out of the gate and lost all three home matches so far. Wisconsin will have to improve its defense, which is allowing opponents to hit .255, by far the highest in the conference. The Badgers allowed Washington to hit .457 in a sweep on Saturday.
6. Illinois (5-4, No. 20)
Best win: No. 10 Marquette 3-2, Sept. 14
The Illini started the year ranked No. 6 and have yet to sweep an opponent in nine matches. After a pair of wins against then-No. 19 Tennessee, Illinois lost its next four matches, including setbacks against Illinois State and Central Florida. Injuries have plagued the Illini as three starters have missed time during nonconference play.
7. Michigan (8-3, receiving votes)
Best win: Notre Dame 3-1, Sept. 22
The Wolverines were ranked as high as No. 14 this year but fell out after losses to Missouri and Dayton. They are starting two freshmen, including middle blocker Jess Robinson, who is hitting .400.
8. Indiana (11-2, RV)
Best win: No. 16 Kentucky 3-2, Sept. 14
The victory against Kentucky was the Hoosiers’ first nonconference win over a ranked team since 1998. Indiana added nine newcomers to its roster, including five transfers. Senior middle blocker Deyshia Lofton is hitting .454, which is second in the conference.
9. Michigan State (9-2)
Best win: Cincinnati 3-1, Sept. 6
The Spartans have a nice-looking record but have played a pretty easy schedule. Their wins have come against teams with a combined .480 winning percentage. Michigan State is hitting .281 (third in the league) while allowing opponents to hit .135. Those stats might not mean much against their schedule.
10. Northwestern (9-3)
Best win: Texas Tech 3-2, Sept. 6
The Wildcats returned all 17 players from last year’s roster and added five newcomers. Eighteen players have seen action this year. Freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara leads Northwestern with 3.98 kills per set, which is fourth in the conference.
11. Ohio State (7-5)
Best win: Illinois State 3-0, Sept. 20
Freshman libero Kylie Murr, the Big Ten defensive player of the week, leads the conference with 5.32 digs per set. The Buckeyes are third in kills per set (14.09) but are second to last with a .218 hitting percentage.
12. Iowa (6-5)
Best win: Washington State 3-0, Aug. 31
The Hawkeyes gave Washington State its only loss this season during the opening weekend. Sisters Meghan and Courtney Buzzerio have 40 percent of Iowa’s kills. Meghan is fifth in the conference with 3.97 kills per set.
13. Maryland (8-5)
Best win: Arkansas 3-1, Sept. 13
The Terrapins only have two victories against teams with winning records. They have lost to sub-.500 teams Texas-Rio Grande Valley, George Mason and Houston. Maryland leads the league with 1.91 aces per set.
14. Rutgers (6-6)
Best win: Virginia 3-1, Sept. 7
The Scarlet Knights strung together six wins in a row for their longest winning streak since 2012, but then lost to American (7-6) and Howard (3-11). Senior libero Karysa Swackenberg was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week on Sept. 8, the first league honor for a Rutgers player.