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2014 Big East Women's Volleyball: Where Are We Now?

As we did with women's soccer, we take a swing through the conference as league play gets started to see what everyone has been up to so far in 2014...

Marquette was the regular season and tournament champs a year ago.  Can they do it again?
Marquette was the regular season and tournament champs a year ago. Can they do it again?
Marquette Volleyball Facebook

This will serve as our preview for Marquette's matches against Providence on Friday and St. John's on Saturday, so let's deal with some of the particulars for those matches first of all:

At Providence

When: Friday, September 26, 2014, at 6pm Central
Where: Alumni Hall in Providence, RI
Audio/Visual: Providence is un-American and will make you pay for streaming video.  Live stats should be here.

At St. John's

When: Saturday, September 27, 2014, at 4pm Central
Where: Carnesecca Arena in Jamaica, NY
Audio/Visual: St. John's has a weird deal with ESPN, so this match will be on ESPN3.  Live stats will be here.

Of course, you can always check in with @MarquetteVB on Twitter for in game updates as well.

For each team, you'll see their record, and for the eight teams that have already gotten started, you'll see their conference record so far.  We'll touch on each team's leader in four major stats, and if you see an item in parenthesis, that's their ranking in the Big East, too.  The NCAA hasn't released an RPI listing for this season yet, so we can't assess Best Win/Worst Loss like we did for women's soccer.

Butler (8-4)

Kills Leader: Belle Obert, 3.91/set (4th)
Assists Leader: Makayla Ferguson, 10.62/set (2nd)
Digs Leader: Jadyn Yarling, 3.89/set (9th)
Blocks Leader: Kayla Bivins, 1.55/set (1st)

The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the Big East this season, but their non-conference schedule was a bit of a mixed bag.  Nothing wrong about losing to Kentucky, who is currently ranked #14 in the country, and Colorado's a bit of a rough out, as they're used to going against high quality Pac12 competition.  Butler also has losses to Wichita State (7-5) and a Buffalo squad that might actually have to point to the Bulldogs as their best win so far this season.

Still, Belle Obert is off to a wonderful start, and setter Makayla Ferguson has already been named Freshman of the Week twice this season.  Kayla Bivins is averaging just barely under two kills per set to provide some action on both sides of the ball, and four Bulldogs, including Obert and Ferguson, average more than 2 digs per set.  It's a well rounded team that won't back down from a fight.

Creighton (8-6, 1-0 Big East)

Kills Leader: Kelli Browning, 3.51/set (7th)
Assists Leader: Maggie Baumert, 9.96/set (3rd)
Digs Leader: Kate Elman, 4.28/set (6th)
Blocks Leader: Kelli Browning, 1.21/set (4th)

Don't be fooled by the record. Creighton's losses, in order, with rankings at the time of the match: #22 Kansas, #6 USC, #16 Kentucky, #9 Nebraska, #16 Illinois, South Dakota.  Ok, if you want to dismantle the 3-2 loss to 6-6 South Dakota, where the Jays only hit .191 and committed 12 errors while winning the fourth set 34-32, okay, go nuts.

Since losing to USD, Creighton's won two matches in straight sets, including the Big East opener against Georgetown.  It's a deep team, with four attackers averaging more than 1.9 kills per set and four players averaging more than 2.1 digs per set.  They were the preseason favorite in the Big East for a reason, and go ahead and pencil them in for a trip to Milwaukee for the Big East tournament in November.

DePaul (2-10)

Kills Leader: Saige Gallop, 3.33/set (8th)
Assists Leader: Colleen Smith, 7.74/set (8th)
Digs Leader: Lexi Chanos, 2.82/set
Blocks Leader: Randi Leath, 1.00/set (10th)

Saige Gallop has to be a fake name, right?  The junior transfer from VCU has jumped in to replace Vesela Zapryanova at the top of the Blue Demon stat sheet, but the wins haven't been there for DePaul.  This is a squad that went 13-0 coming into Big East play in 2013 before completely self-destructing and finishing 16-14 on the season.  Zapryanova and Natalie Rizzo were seniors and Abbie Fleener transferred to UCF.  Now DePaul's picking up the pieces and only has wins over Bradley and Chicago State so far this season.

DePaul's coming into league play on a seven match losing streak, and with St. John's high powered offense in front of them to start with, it's a safe bet that they'll make it at least eight in a row before snapping that run.

Georgetown (6-8, 0-1 Big East)

Kills Leader: Terese Cannon, 2.78/set
Assists Leader: Caitlin Brauneis, 9.35/set (T-4th)
Digs Leader: MacKenzie Simpson, 4.33/set (5th)
Blocks Leader: Dani White, 1.12/set (7th)

I like that the Hoyas literally have a Cannon leading their offense.

Their wins are nothing remarkable, and while two of the losses are to teams that were ranked at the time, there's nothing really here to show that they were trying to build something long term here.  Creighton mowed through the Hoyas in relatively short order in their league opener, so it's gonna take a bit of doing to get Georgetown past their predicted 8th place finish.  The Hoyas have had two players, Lauren Saar & Ashlie Williams, earn spots on the Weekly Honor Roll so far this season, so it's not all massive bummers.

Marquette (9-3)

Kills Leader: Autumn Bailey, 3.64/set (5th)
Assists Leader: Gabby Benda, 6.20/set (10th)
Digs Leader: Lauren Houg, 4.36/set (4th)
Blocks Leader: Meghan Niemann, 1.24/set (3rd)

Bailey was the preseason Player of the Year for the conference, and she's holding up her end of the deal so far.  She's second on the team in digs behind Houg, and second in the Big East in service aces.  At first glance, it might seem like it's a problem that MU's passing is so far down after Elizabeth Koberstein was the 2013 Player of the Year, but Benda had been splitting time with Mary Nilles to start the season.  That platoon has tipped in favor of Benda lately, and I would expect to see her average jump way up over the next few weeks.

Niemann's blocking has been the most notable part of Marquette's season.  Last year, the Golden Eagles were not a blocking oriented team, only averaging 2.0 per set and only a late season burst by Teal Schnurr gave MU a blocker over one per set.  Niemann has boosted her average by about half a block per set, which matches the team's improvement over 2013 as well.

Providence (4-11, 0-1 Big East)

Kills Leader: Kayla Fitzgerald, 2.85/set
Assists Leader: Jordan Wiesler, 8.11/set (7th)
Digs Leader: Michelle Cruz, 5.12/set (1st)
Blocks Leader: Nicole Fletcher, 0.70/set

Well, good news for you, Friars: You're not the worst team in the conference right now.  You've got DePaul dragging around behind you, and at least you've got a statistical leader in one category in Cruz.

Providence actually started their season on a nine match losing streak before firing off four straight wins against Fairleigh Dickinson, Quinnipiac, NJIT, and Central Connecticut.  Ok, so that's not actually that impressive.  But this is the Friars' return to the Big East after a decade of independence and membership in the America East Conference, so as long as they find a way to win a match here and there during the conference slate, I think they'll be okay in the long term.

Well, as long as they don't start with those wins on Friday night against Marquette.

St. John's (11-5, 0-1 Big East)

Kills Leader: Aleksandra Wachowicz, 4.05/set (1st)
Assists Leader: Deniz Mutlugil, 10.67/set (1st)
Digs Leader: Shawna-Lei Santos, 4.12/set (8th)
Blocks Leader: Briana Guzman, 0.98/set

I can't go any further in discussing the Red Storm without pointing out that Karin Palgutova has the second best kills average in the conference, not to mention that she's been named Player of the Week twice already this season.  That's a heck of a 1-2 punch with Wachowicz, and it certainly explains why 1) Mutlugil gets a boatload of assists and 2) why Santos is lower on the list of liberos in the Big East.  Simply put: the ball lands on the other side of the court an awful lot.

With that said, St. John's is going to have to figure some things out following their five set loss to Villanova on Wednesday night.  In Nova's three victorious sets, they calmly built a small lead and held on tightly to it to pick up the win.  The Red Storm actually won the second set 25-11, but weren't able to recreate that kind of magic in the rest of the match.

Seton Hall (11-3, 1-0 Big East)

Kills Leader: Stacey Manthorpe, 3.06/set (9th)
Assists Leader: Shelbey Manthorpe, 9.35/set (T-4th)
Digs Leader: Tessa Fournier, 4.72/set (2nd)
Blocks Leader: Ashani Rubin, 1.35/set (2nd)

With their league opening win over Providence, the Pirates are on a five match winning streak.  SHU has found themselves in this position before.  Back in 2012, they were 11-1 when league play started, but scuffled to a 6-9 conference record and missed the Big East tournament.  The Manthorpe sisters were sophomores on that team, so we'll see if they've learned enough about Big East action to propel the Pirates to a postseason berth this season.

As you can kind of guess from reading this, Marquette and Creighton are in desperate need of anyone else in the conference stepping up to be more competitive on a national level to help bolster the Big East's reputation.  Last season, based purely on RPI, Marquette was more than deserving of hosting the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but because the Big East lacks respect, it didn't happen.  Getting one (or two or three) more teams to the point where they can compete for a tournament slot would be beneficial to everyone involved.  Can the Pirates be that team this year? We'll have to wait and see.

Villanova (8-8, 1-0 Big East)

Kills Leader: Lauren Carpenter, 4.00/set (3rd)
Assists Leader: Emma Pettit, 7.55/set (9th)
Digs Leader: Allison Fitzgerald, 4.39/set (3rd)
Blocks Leader: Cara Cunningham, 1.15/set (6th)

I wouldn't have picked the Wildcats for the win against St. John's, but here we are.  That five set thriller gives them victories in four of their last five matches and is a welcome sight coming off of a four match losing streak.  In VU's defense, though, three of those matches were against Kansas, Penn State, and American, all of whom should be NCAA tournament teams this year.

Carpenter was actually leading the Big East in kills before Wednesday's contest against St. John's, which I only figured out because the NCAA only updates their national statistics page once a week.  Carpenter's also the main focus of the offense (74 more attacks than anyone else), but they play defense as a team.  Five Wildcats average at least 2.3 digs per set, and six average at least one-third of a block per set.

Xavier (7-5)

Kills Leader: Abbey Bessler, 3.60/set (6th)
Assists Leader: Aubree Smith, 8.52/set (6th)
Digs Leader: Jesse Earl, 4.17/set (7th)
Blocks Leader: Alex Blair, 0.98/set

After a Big East tournament semifinals appearance last year, Xavier's struggling coming into conference play this season.  They've lost five of their last seven, including three in five sets.  The most recent loss was to #15 Kentucky, which is understandable, but the overall slide is a problem.

Last year, Alex Smith, Aubree's sister, was Big East Player of the Week twice and made all-Big East First Team without finishing top 10 in any statistical category.  I don't know if they're struggling to replace her, as the offense and defense are both well balanced, but as we mentioned with the Pirates, the Big East needs quality teams.  After last season, I thought Xavier was going to be one of them, but the Musketeers are going to have to turn this slide around to get back to the Big East tournament.