The Big Ten volleyball race started Wednesday with a heavyweight bout between No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Penn State and continues Friday as the conference's other 10 teams play their league openers. College volleyball beat writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines on what may be the NCAA's best — and certainly is the deepest — conference in the sport.
1. Phase II
The preconference portion of the schedule is now history for Big Ten volleyball teams, and their body of work had to put a smile on commissioner Jim Delany’s face.
The league’s 12 teams combined to win 82 percent of their matches against nonconference opponents (114-25). Seven teams are ranked in the current Top 25, more than any other league — the Pac-12 is second with five — and two others received votes on at least two ballots. The Big Ten also boasts two of the eight NCAA Division I teams that entered the week undefeated: Michigan State (12-0) and Northwestern (11-0).
Now the conference will get down to the business of deciding a champion. Given their national rankings and performance to this point, No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Penn State appear to be the favorites.
“I think there’s two teams that have kind of separated themselves,” said Illinois coach Kevin Hambly, whose team begins Big Ten play against Minnesota at 7 p.m. Friday (BTN, WDWS 1400-AM).
Still, the rest of the Big Ten can take some comfort in the fact that the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions have shown they’re not invincible. Penn State, which beat Nebraska on Wednesday, lost to unranked Oregon State in a neutral-site match. Nebraska fell at Iowa State — an opponent the UI split two matches with at Huff Hall.
“I think everyone’s beatable,” Hambly said of his Big Ten brethren, “but everyone’s really talented, and we’re going to have to show up for every match.”
2. Hugh's this?
Even the casual volleyball fan who watched any U.S. women's matches at the London Olympics (and we're not talking the sand version) likely now is familiar with Hugh McCutcheon — if not by name, then by sight. He's the towering (6-foot-5) guy with the shaved head who coached the Americans to a silver medal. Having fulfilled his obligations to USA Volleyball, McCutcheon immediately turned his attention to coaching the Minnesota Gophers — an assignment the school first announced on Feb. 10, 2011, but agreed to delay until after the London Games. The New Zealand-born McCutcheon seemingly hasn't missed a beat, guiding the Gophers to a No. 12 ranking and a 9-2 record, including 2-2 against Top 25 opponents. If anyone in the Big Ten knows McCutcheon, it's Hambly. The two were volleyball teammates at BYU for two seasons, once shared an office at USA Volleyball headquarters and even were in each other's wedding parties. Like McCutcheon, Hambly went from USA Volleyball coaching duties into the college game without a break, so the UI coach can relate to the grinding, nonstop workload the new Minnesota coach continues to shoulder. In Hambly's case, after serving as a women's assistant coach in the 2004 Athens Olympics, he traveled directly to Champaign to join the UI staff as a volunteer assistant, arriving one day before the season opener. "Your head's spinning, for sure," Hambly said. "I know (McCutcheon will) sleep in December (after the season ends) very, very well. I did (the move to college) as an assistant on the national team. And to be the head coach and go through that (Olympic) run and get to the gold-medal match and do what he did — which was fantastic with his team — he's got to be exhausted."
3. Remember the ... Longhorns
OK, it's not as catchy or familiar as Remember the Alamo, but for the 2012 Illini, last weekend's performance at the University of Texas might turn out to be a season-turning battle cry. Arriving in Texas with a 3-4 record and barely clinging to a spot in the Top 25, Illinois stunned the then-No. 6 Longhorns in a five-set tug of war. The Illini went on to win all three matches — and the title — of the Texas Invitational. "We're toughening up," Hambly said. "We were tough in Texas. We started to see the team we wanted to see early in the year start to come out." Considering the Illini now are plunging into the 20-match marathon that is the Big Ten race, the breakthrough seemingly couldn't have come at a better time. Before the trip to Austin, Illinois (6-4) not only had not won as many as three matches in a row; it had never been above .500 this season. The performance drew comparisons to the springboard that the 2011 Illini experienced en route to second place in the NCAA tournament. Hambly has pointed to last November's four-set loss at then-No. 11 Purdue — an encouragingly strong performance that came four days after an ugly three-set home defeat to Minnesota — as the turning point for that team. Those Illini won 11 of their next 12 matches before losing to UCLA for the NCAA title. Might the Texas trip be a similar turning point for these Illini? "Time will tell," Hambly said. "It's too early to tell, but I feel like we found ourselves in Texas, for sure."
4. The RPI factor
Not all nonconference schedules are created equal. The 2012 Big Ten is proof of that. Three conference members did not face a single nationally ranked opponent — including the league's two unbeatens, Michigan State and Northwestern — and three others played against one. In contrast, Illinois faced five ranked foes (as well as current No. 22 Dayton when it was unranked); Ohio State and Minnesota each faced four; and Purdue and Nebraska took on three. Why is this significant? Because strength of schedule is a big factor in a team's NCAA Rating Percentage Index. In turn, a team's RPI is a major consideration when the NCAA tournament selection committee picks its national seeds and decides which non-automatic qualifiers are deserving of at-large berths. A year ago, with a similarly challenging schedule, Illinois held the nation's No. 1 RPI at the end of the regular season and was awarded the tournament's No. 3 national seed. Of course, all Big Ten teams can count on their RPI receiving a boost simply by being a member of this powerful conference. Their strength of schedule can't help but make a climb when facing all those Top 25 opponents in the league. But teams like Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State already have built a solid RPI base, and as the 2011 Illini learned, that can pay major dividends when the NCAA tournament committee fills out its bracket in December. The first RPI of 2012 is scheduled to be released the week of Oct. 1.
5. Fresh(man) talent
One of the fun-to-follow storylines each season is to see which freshmen emerge as impact players. The Big Ten annually recruits some of the top prep talent in the nation. If circumstance and opportunity allow, some will be thrown right into the competitive fires, and a special few not only will beat the heat but also burn opponents. Based on the first one-third of the season, Nebraska middle blocker Meghan Haggerty — a two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week — has made a strong case to be considered for the league's Freshman of the Year award. Illinois appears to have a strong candidate, too, in Jocelynn Birks. The redshirt freshman outside hitter not only is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week but the league's Player of the Week after earning MVP honors at the Texas Invitational. Entering the week, the LaGrange Lyons graduate ranked third in the Big Ten in kills per set and sixth in points per set. If Birks can remain among the league's most consistently effective attackers, she could become the UI's first Big Ten Freshman of the Year since Michelle Bartsch in 2008. "Jocelynn did a great job and carried us at times offensively," Hambly said of her performance in Austin. "I expect her to do that the rest of the year, and I expect her to get a lot of recognition for it. And she deserves it. She's going to be, and (currently) is at times, a great player."