Big Ten tilts the balance of power

The conference is tied for the most teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament.

by Kent Erdahl

TBhey’ve been talking about it all year. But, after the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Big Ten volleyball coaches can finally have some evidence to back it up.

When the Sweet 16 gets under way this weekend, Big Ten schools will have four teams competing to make it to the Final Four – No. 2 Penn State, No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 14 Wisconsin.

The Pac-10 is the only other conference with that many teams still competing. But after playing catch-up to that powerful conference for years, the Big Ten finally looks like the strongest volleyball power in the nation.

“I think there’s still a partisanship towards the West Coast teams that just isn’t relevant anymore,” coach Mike Hebert said. “I did expect the Big Ten’s

success. Now, it’s just great to

see the conference playing so strongly.”

With three of the top five teams in the tournament, it’s easy to see why Hebert expected the conference’s success.

But the top-ranked conference teams aren’t the only ones that have found success.

Wisconsin is not only still playing; it has swept its way to the Green Bay, Wis., regional with wins over Loyola (Ill.) and Notre Dame.

“We’re really just happy to see all of the teams doing so well,” Wisconsin coach Pete Waite said. “It really just reinforces the quality of the conference and the fact that it is one of, if not the, best in the nation.”

Waite has reason to praise the conference. Wisconsin (21-9, 13-7 Big Ten) finished fourth in the conference, but it is set to face No. 3 Hawaii on Friday.

Other lower-seeded Big Ten teams also made progress in the tournament before eventually falling to higher-ranked teams.

Purdue (17-15, 9-11) handed first-round host Colorado State only its fourth loss of the season before losing to Hawaii. Purdue was a distant seventh in the conference.

Michigan (20-13, 9-11) finished sixth in the conference. But it disposed of Rice and nearly knocked off sixth-seeded Texas.

Because the four remaining Big Ten teams are spread across three of the regional sites, there is a legitimate chance three conference opponents could face one another in the Final Four.

Minnesota and Ohio State are the exceptions, because both will play in the Minneapolis regional this weekend – meaning either team’s Final Four run could be blocked by the other.

Ohio State plays No. 12 Tennessee at 5 p.m. Friday, and Minnesota hosts Georgia Tech at 7 p.m. Friday. If both teams win, they will play at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“I’d be happy if it turned out that way, because obviously, it would mean that we got by Tennessee first,” Ohio State coach Jim Stone said. “It would certainly make scouting easier.”