Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin perfectly positioned heading into Big Ten showdowns
Nonconference play is over, so we'll dive right in this week with a look at how the top teams have fared thus far, starting with the giants in the Big Ten.
Minnesota (11-0) maintained the top spot in the AVCA poll for the third week in a row and escaped the nonconference season unscathed, though Boise State barely cooperated.
The Broncos were the first team in 2017 to take the Golden Gophers to five sets. No surprise it was freshman Stephanie Samedy's 26 kills, including the clincher to close out the match 15-12, that kept Minnesota perfect.
Then there's Wisconsin, winner of 27 of 28 sets played en route to its 9-0 mark. The Badgers' sweeps have included Arkansas, Kansas State and North Carolina. Marquette took the lone set on Thursday.
Minnesota hosts No. 20 Michigan while No. 5 Wisconsin welcomes Michigan State to open conference play on Friday.
The other unbeaten in the Big Ten is second-ranked Penn State, whose nonconference achievements include a pair of wins over defending national champion Stanford. Penn State has abandoned its standard 5-1 rotation, a staple under coach Russ Rose, for a 6-2 that relies on setters Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher. The Nittany Lions host No. 14 Nebraska in the Big Ten opener for both teams on Friday.
Penn State, No. 13 Purdue and Wisconsin are 1-2-3 nationally in hitting percentage.
Eight Big Ten teams reached the NCAA tournament last season; three (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska) advanced to the quarterfinals.
Looking out west
A year ago, the Pac-12 also sent eight teams to the NCAA's field of 64. Stanford took home the program's seventh national championship.
The Pac-12 might have even more depth this season.
Kathryn Plummer continues to hammer the ball for Stanford, amassing a conference-best 148 kills. Merete Lutz, who returned to the lineup last week after an ankle sprain, has 39 kills in four matches. Stanford opens conference play hosting Cal on Wednesday before traveling to No. 25 Colorado on Sunday.
But don't overlook No. 7 Washington, No. 8 Oregon, No. 11 UCLA or No. 21 USC. The Bruins were the last conference team to beat Stanford, a five-setter in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 12. UCLA meets USC on Wednesday to open Pac-12 play. The Bruins swept the series a year ago; the Trojans' 8-3 mark includes victories over No. 20 Michigan and No. 15 Creighton.
Speaking of the Bluejays, they are the lone team to defeat Washington thus far. In their 10 wins, the Huskies have dropped just one set. Washington travels to Washington State (11-1) on Wednesday. The teams split their series last year, each winning in the other's gym.
Oregon, which opened its season by taking down Nebraska, boasts a 7-1 mark and will face Oregon State on Tuesday with UCLA awaiting Friday. The Ducks' No. 8 ranking is their highest since the preseason 2013 poll.
Elsewhere in the Power 5
The SEC almost always belongs to No. 3 Florida, which has won or shared 22 conference championships. It seems easy to pencil in the Gators for another after a nonconference season that saw Florida dismiss Texas and Nebraska back-to-back to open the season. Mary Wise, who has coached 27 of her 31 years at Florida, won her 800th career game at Florida last weekend. She is the fourth coach in NCAA history to reach that mark at the same school (joining Penn State's Rose, Hawaii's Dave Shoji and Long Beach State's Brian Gimmillaro).
The Gators meet in-state rival No. 19 Florida State Tuesday night in Gainesville, a game that had been moved due to weather. It marks the debut of Florida's 3D arena projection system, which should make for a crazy light show inside the O'Dome.
No. 10 Kentucky (9-2), which beat Florida last season in their lone meeting, will also challenge in the SEC. Arkansas (10-2) is dangerous behind redshirt senior Pilar Victoria, who over the weekend registered her third 30-kill outing of the season, this time over SMU. Her 6.31 kills per set and 6.83 points per set lead the NCAA.
In the Big 12, NCAA runner-up and No. 6 Texas started the season No. 1 but lost its season opener to Florida and was beaten by top-ranked Minnesota in Gregory Gym. The Longhorns finish their nonconference schedule at Texas-San Antonio Tuesday before going to West Virginia (11-2) this weekend to open conference play.
The Big 12 is likely to, once again, be a showdown between the Longhorns and defending champion Kansas, ranked 12th. Don't be surprised to see Jayhawks senior Kelsie Payne, the conference kills leader with 222, win league player of the year honors again.
Baylor and No. 18 Iowa State are additional contenders. The Bears (10-3) won their own tournament over the weekend, getting a lift from Katie Staiger, who became the program's career leader in kills in the rally-scoring era in the win over St. John's.
Check out our espnW player of the week below to read more about the Cyclones' nonconference success.
In the ACC, North Carolina was picked to defend its league title, but the Tar Heels don't look like the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Swept by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida, the Tar Heels also lost to Auburn and Loyola Marymount. Julia Scoles remains sidelined due to a concussion. The reigning ACC freshman of the year has only played in two matches thus far.
The Tar Heels dropped out of this week's poll. The Seminoles are the lone ranked team in the ACC.
Notre Dame is receiving votes. The Fighting Irish are 10-1, the most regular-season nonconference victories for the program since 2005. Miami, also receiving votes, is unbeaten, though the team has only played six games due to Hurricane Irma.
espnW player of the week
Iowa State punctuated its nonconference season by winning a pair at the Shocker Volleyball Classic, stunning No. 8 Creighton in five sets and sweeping host Wichita State. MVP honors and our player of the week nod goes to Jess Schaben. The outside hitter combined for 29 kills, 26 digs and six blocks in the two matches.
In a chat during the Cyclones' six-hour bus ride back to campus from Wichita, the junior from Defiance, Iowa, shared her thoughts on:
That crazy second set against the Shockers (ISU prevailed 37-35): "Last year when we played [Northern Iowa], we had a couple games that were in the 30s. So we have been through that before. At that point in a game, you just have to be relentless. Both teams want it really bad. It's how composed you can stay. It was really good volleyball."
The Big 12 being more than a race between Texas and Kansas: "It would be nice for them to be talking about us. I hope after this weekend, they will. Last year we did beat Texas at home."
The word on her wrist: "Strong. It's for a fan in Harlan (Iowa), [near] where I grew up. She passed away from ovarian cancer my senior year. She always would tell us to be strong. She had a quote, 'I'm strong, but together we are stronger.' Ever since then, my whole high school team would write that on our wrists. I still do it."
How small her hometown really is: "We don't have a grocery store or a restaurant. I think there's a gas station. There's a Smitty Bee Honey. In elementary school, we took a field trip there."
Growing up on a farm: "My parents breed dogs. We have six dogs right now -- six Vizslas. Right now at our house we have 30 puppies because three of them had 10 puppies. It sucks not being home to see them!"
When she graduates: "I want to be an elementary school teacher -- first grade."
Her special joy: "I rescued a dog, a Chihuahua. She's kind of mean, but I like her. Her name is Betty."
Form didn't hold for many of the teams in the Top 25. Among the more notable upsets last week:
• Northern Iowa racked up its fourth win over a ranked opponent this season, defeating Nebraska 3-1. UNI had never won more than a set against the Cornhuskers in seven previous meetings. The Panthers have also beaten USC, Missouri and Iowa State en route to a 10-4 record. They moved into the poll at No. 22.
• Western Kentucky downed then-No. 25 Ohio State, the program's first sweep of a Top-25 opponent in history.
• Santa Clara prevailed in five to upset a Kansas team that came in at No. 9. The Broncos had never beaten an opponent ranked that high in their home at Leavey Center.
• Wichita State stunned Creighton for the Shockers' second ever win ever over a top-10 team. The Shockers move back into the poll at No. 24. The Bluejays did not have starting setter Lydia Dimke for the Iowa State match due to an ankle injury.
• Colorado rallied from 0-2 down to win at Colorado State for the first time since 1995.
• Seven teams remain undefeated. Two are from the Colonial Athletic Association: James Madison (9-0) and Towson (14-0). We've noted the other five (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, Miami and Florida).