On a weekend when the Big Ten could have celebrated the halfway point of a season unlike any other, more than half the teams didn’t play — four of the seven series were postponed because of COVID-19. The Huskers, who haven’t had any positive tests during the season, could have prevented an idle weekend by moving up matches against Illinois in place of Wisconsin, and making up matches against Northwestern next weekend, but the Big Ten didn’t shift any matches. Now, the season looks like it will be a battle of survival and which team can remain healthy. Four teams have played all 12 scheduled matches so far — Iowa, Purdue, Indiana and Rutgers. Ohio State had a series postponed and will play a makeup match Wednesday. On the other side, Michigan has played five matches after sitting out the first three weekends of the season.
With five weeks left before the end of the regular season, teams will try to get in as many matches as possible. But there could be quite a disparity in matches played.
1. Wisconsin is second in the nation among teams that have played at least four matches with a hitting percentage at .351, 90 points better than the second-best Big Ten team — Nebraska. The Badgers, who have dropped two sets in 10 matches, also have stood out defensively. They top the league by allowing the fewest kills, blocks, digs and assists per set as well as the lowest hitting percentage by opponents. The Badgers’ biggest opponent during the rest of the regular season will be COVID, as they had a spate of positive tests and already postponed matches against Iowa for the upcoming weekend.
2. The Huskers might have shown the benefit of this year’s scheduling format against Minnesota. After a lackluster performance in the first matchup against the Gophers, NU rebounded and reestablished itself as a contender two days later. The Huskers get the nod over the Gophers because the second match was a beating. NU looked overmatched early in the first match but still made it competitive. It appears that the Huskers have settled on their ideal lineup and Lauren Stivrins has imposed her will on foes.
3. The Gophers also spent the weekend at home after their series against Michigan was postponed. Minnesota will have a tough next three weeks, playing Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin. Senior outside hitter Stephanie Samedy is playing as well as anyone in the country, averaging 4.53 kills per set. She’s been the conference player of the week twice and can terminate from anywhere.
4. The Buckeyes have been the surprise of the Big Ten and are off to their best league start since 1991. While they have largely beaten up the bottom half of the league, they own a win against Penn State. OSU hasn’t been dominant; the Buckeyes have recorded four sweeps and needed five sets to escape against Maryland (twice) and Rutgers on Saturday. A pair of freshmen have led the offense for first-year coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg. Opposite hitter Emily Landot is averaging 3.76 kills per set, and middle blocker Rylee Radar is hitting .396. We’ll find out if the Buckeyes are legit; their next five matches are against Penn State, Minnesota and Nebraska.
5. In the previous rankings, the Nittany Lions hadn’t played a match. Now that we’ve seen them, they look to be in the top tier but have only one sweep so far. They fell short in a pair of hard-fought battles with Minnesota, then were upset by Ohio State in a midweek makeup match. They have a balanced attack. All five starting attackers average better than two kills per set.
6. The Boilermakers have battled through a gauntlet — Wisconsin and Minnesota the first three weeks. They earned wins over Michigan and Northwestern and swept Indiana twice to retain one of the few volleyball rivalry trophies, the Monon Spike. They have the distinction of sitting atop the only defensive statistic not owned by Wisconsin, allowing .67 aces per set.
7. The Illini are the lynchpin of the rest of the rankings, which includes six teams with two wins. All of their losses come from teams above them. The schedule has been rough for Illinois — Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State, while series against Northwestern and Michigan State were postponed. It doesn’t get easier with Nebraska and Minnesota up next. Taylor Kuper leads the league in digs (4.39 per set) and aces (21 total).
8. What a strange season. Michigan sat out the first three weeks dealing with COVID-19. In the five matches it has played, none have been decided in three sets. In perhaps the biggest upset in the Big Ten this year, the Wolverines lost to Maryland in five sets without their coach and associate coach. Now, Michigan is back in limbo as it faces more COVID-19 issues.
9. The Wildcats were out of action three weeks after a positive test before their match with Nebraska. On Friday, Northwestern dropped a five-setter against Iowa, which featured a 39-37 second set, but bounced back the next day. Their matches against Michigan State next weekend were postponed.
10. Three times this season, the Hawkeyes have won the Friday match against a bottom-half team in the league. But each time they failed to earn the sweep as they split series against Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers, all of those losses in five sets.
11. Rutgers had the chance to earn the best win in program history Saturday against Ohio State. The Scarlet Knights led 12-7 in the fifth set and had match point at 14-13, but the Buckeyes scored the final three points to escape.
12. The Hoosiers split with Iowa and Rutgers, but the rest of the season hasn’t been kind. Indiana won one set against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.
13. The Spartans are dealing with COVID-19 in the middle of a two-week pause, along with their women’s gymnastics team. Both their wins came at Maryland. The bright spot so far has been freshman outside hitter Sarah Franklin, fifth in the league with 3.81 kills per set. Fellow freshman Celia Cullen has taken over as starting setter.
14. The Terrapins own the best win of the bottom-tier teams by beating Michigan on Feb. 19, but that is their only win of the year. They have a lot of firepower and lead the league in blocking, but that hasn’t translated to results. Now COVID-19 concerns have sidelined their series against Penn State.