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

Holy crap, it's time for the Big East schedule to start.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

That seemed fast.

Then again, it's been four weeks of the regular season already, and Marquette does have 18 Big East games to play between now and Thanksgiving, so I guess it all makes sense.

This look around the conference is going to double as our preview for tonight's contest against Xavier, so let's get to the specifics about that one.

Big East Match #1: vs Xavier (4-6)

When: Wednesday, September 23, 2015, at 7pm Central
Where: Al McGuire Center
Audio/Visual: Big East Digital Network has the free streaming video, and live stats will be here.
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

We'll go team by team here, identifying each squad's record, and their statistical leaders to this point of the season.  If you see a number in parentheses next to a player, that's their ranking on the Big East stat sheet.  The NCAA doesn't release RPI numbers this early in the season, and there's no KenPom type website for volleyball, so we'll have to go without pointing out each team's best win and worst loss on their schedule thus far.

Butler (3-9)

Kills Leader: Anna Logan, 2.88/set (#11)
Assists Leader: Makayla Ferguson, 7.33/set (#9)
Digs Leader: Kodi Smith, 2.69/set (#16)
Blocks Leader: Briana Lily, 1.10/set (#4)

Butler lost six seniors to graduation after last season, including Player of the Year candidate Belle Obert.  The Bulldogs went 20-10 a year ago, and now they have eight freshmen and they're 3-9.  I guess that's how that goes sometimes.

The Bulldogs do have two losses to teams that were ranked at the time of the match.  They went five sets with #19 Michigan State in East Lansing before finally falling to the Spartans, and they also lost 3-0 to #14 Ohio State in a tournament hosted by Wyoming on the first weekend of the season.

Butler doesn't have a lot of firepower when it comes to their top attacker, but they are a diverse offense.  Six different Bulldogs are averaging at least one kill per set, including setter Makayla Ferguson.  Speaking of Ferguson, her assist stats are down from last year, but it's not because the team is struggling.  While Ferguson has played in every single set thus far this season, head coach Sharon Clarke has inserted freshman setter Meghan Cotant in 42 sets across every single match this season, and she's averaging 2.4 assists.  That doesn't add up to the number that Ferguson had a year ago, of course, but it at least explains why some of her production has disappeared.

Creighton (6-7)

Kills Leader: Jaali Winter, 3.42/set (#6)
Assists Leader: Kenzie Crawford, 10.28/set (#5)
Digs Leader: Kate Elman, 3.83/set (#6)
Blocks Leader: Lauren Smith, 1.21/set (T-2)

Well, where to start with the Jays.... let's go with their setter position.  Crawford has made nine starts this season, and played in 29 sets.  Maggie Baumert got the other four starts, and has played a little bit more off the bench, and she's averaging 9.29 assists in the 21 sets that she's played so far this season.

Ok, with that out of the way, we have to turn our attention to the record of the preseason favorites to win the Big East.  Creighton has losses this season to teams that held the following AVCA Top 25 rankings at the time of the match: #8, #8, #4, and #11. They also have a loss to a Pacific squad that's now up to #21 in the country, and a road loss to Northern Iowa.  Yeah, I'm sure that head coach Kirsten Bernal Booth isn't excited about having a losing record at this point of the season.  But that team has also gone to hell and back again this season based on the level of competition, and according to Creighton SID Rob Anderson, they have an unofficial RPI of 42 even with the losing record.

They're still the favorite to win the league, and even with their current record, I'm not going to be surprised if they win the league by at least two games.

DePaul (11-1)

Kills Leader: Caitlyn Coffey, 3.19/set (#7)
Assists Leader: Colleen Smith, 10.33/set (#4)
Digs Leader: Tyler Graham, 3.64/set (#8)
Blocks Leader: Caitlyn Coffey, 0.84/set

While Creighton has an ugly record in a difficult schedule, DePaul is the exact opposite.  Yes, the Blue Demons have won 11 straight matches since dropping their opener.  But they've dropped just 10 sets in those wins, earning sweeps against SIUE, Toledo, Grambling, and Bradley.  This is not a difficult schedule for DePaul, and they have a very shiny non-conference record to show for it.  This reminds me of the 2013 season, when DePaul opened up with a program record 13 consecutive wins.  They promptly went 2-14 in Big East play, including losing 11 of their final 12 matches of the season.

Now, maybe this is a different team.  Coffey leads the Big East in hitting percentage this season, rifling kills to the floor with an astounding hitting percentage of .468, and Brittany Maxwell (2.91 kills) and Callie Huebener (2.09 kills) provide a solid secondary attack.  The Blue Demons do have a unique schedule that could benefit them in the long run.  They have a chunk of conference games where they will play seven straight games at home, going over a month without heading out on the road.  If DePaul is for real this season, then they've got to make hay in that run.

Georgetown (6-7)

Kills Leader: Alyssa Sinnette, 3.73/set (#4)
Assists Leader: Paige McKnight, 9.46/set (#7)
Digs Leader: Kenzie Higareda, 4.67/set (#2)
Blocks Leader: Symone Speech, 0.81/set

The good news is the Hoyas are scattered amongst the statistical leaders in the Big East.  The bad news is that this isn't turning into wins.  I mean, yeah, they've got six of them, but it's Howard, and Morgan State, and Norfolk State.  Balance that with losses to George Mason, Fordham, George Washington, James Madison... eh.  I'm not holding out a lot of hope here for the Hoyas this season.

The good news is that they're young.  Sinnette, McKnight, Higareda, and Speech are all freshmen, and Lauren Saar, who plays only a minor role on this team thus far, is the only senior.  Maybe they're scuffling a bit because they're figuring a few things out still.  They've got three more players averaging more than two kills per set in addition to the production from Sinnette, so maybe they'll challenge for one of the four Big East tournament spots by the end of the conference slate.

Marquette (8-4)

Kills Leader: Taylor Louis, 5.38/set (#1)
Assists Leader: Sara Blasier, 10.90/set (#3)
Digs Leader: Lauren Houg, 5.33/set (#1)
Blocks Leader: Jenna Rosenthal, 1.21/set (T-2)

I am totally shocked that Marquette is this good.  Three of the four losses came in five set matches, and those shortened fifth sets are essentially a coin flip.  The fourth loss came to a ranked opponent, and that makes MU 1-1 against ranked teams this season.

Everything is working out for head coach Ryan Theis.  Redshirt freshmen Taylor Louis and Jenna Rosenthal are immediate impact players, almost to the point where you're wondering what the hell Theis was doing last year by sitting them down.  Sara Blasier has come in from Rice and is already clicking with her teammates, providing them with high quality passing.  Even Lauren Houg is better than she was last year, and she was a surprise to me to end up with the libero job.  They're still going to have to gut their way through the Big East schedule, but this team is definitely on track for an NCAA tournament appearance.

Providence (9-5)

Kills Leader: Kayla Fitzgerald, 4.00/set (#2)
Assists Leader: Jordan Wiesler, 10.93/set (#2)
Digs Leader: Michelle Cruz, 3.67/set (#7)
Blocks Leader: Allison Impellizeri, 0.91/set

Hey, look at the Friars! If it wasn't for those jerks at Colgate (the university, not the toothpaste company), Providence would be riding an eight match winning streak right about now.  Why am I impressed by this?  Well, mostly because Providence went 6-26 last year, which was their first year back in the Big East after nearly a decade and a half away.

There's not a lot of impressive wins on the slate, to be honest.  They've played a selection of teams from across the northeast, with the exception of getting Eastern Washington and New Orleans in a tournament that UNO hosted.  But, when you're bouncing back from 6-26 last year and 1-30 back in 2012, getting wins of any kind is the important part.

So, on top of having a wildly successful season already, the Friars actually have an early Player of the Year candidate on the team.  Kayla Fitzgerald is one of three players to be named Big East Player of the Week thus far this season, and in the other three weeks of the season, she's been on the Weekly Honor Roll each time.  She chips in nearly three digs a set and leads Providence in total service aces this season, too.

St. John's (10-5)

Kills Leader: Karin Palgutova, 3.96/set (#3)
Assists Leader: Deniz Mutlugil, 9.63/set(#6)
Digs Leader: Delane D`Amore, 3.34/set (#10)
Blocks Leader: Danisha Moss, 1.46/set (#1)

A slight disclaimer on Delane D`Amore's status as digs leader: Shawna-Lei Santos, one of the best liberos in the Big East has only played nine sets so far this season.  Santos still has the best digs average on the team, but since she hasn't played since the opening week of the season, we have to give the official nod to D`Amore.

Can we talk about how generally St. John's has been a disappointment in volleyball since I've started paying attention?  Senior Karin Palgutova's been one of the best attackers in the Big East for her entire career, and for the past three seasons, she had been paired with Aleksandra Wachowicz, and generally speaking, the Red Storm have nothing to show for it, at least in terms of a postseason appearance.  20-12, 16-16, and then 19-14 last year.  I mean, I realize that having two good attackers doesn't guarantee anyone anything, but when the Big East is as weak as it is, you'd think that they'd be able to wander into the NCAA tournament somehow.  I mean, Seton Hall did it last year, and speaking of the Pirates...

Seton Hall (6-6)

Kills Leader: Cherise Hennigan, 2.78/set (T-12)
Assists Leader: Sophia Coffey, 8.89/set (#8)
Digs Leader: Tessa Fournier, 4.53/set (#4)
Blocks Leader: Abby Thelen, 0.89/set

The end of the Manthorpe era is not suiting SHU well.  They had to get wins over Cornell and Binghamton this past weekend to get back to .500 heading to Big East play, and there's nothing in this schedule that jumps off the page to get you excited.  They did go 1-1 against teams that went to the NCAA tournament a year ago, and both the win over Hofstra and the loss to Utah went to five sets.

Hennigan's kills average isn't lighting the world on fire, but Seton Hall does have four attackers averaging at least two kills per set, so perhaps a multi-headed attack will end up working out for them.  For that to work, though, they're going to have to start hitting the ball more reliably.  SHU has the second worst hitting percentage in the Big East to this point, and they're one of just three teams that are hitting under .200 as a team.  In shinier news, Tessa Fournier is turning in a reliable performance at libero, and believe it or not, she's averaging nearly an assist per set, too.

Villanova (10-3)

Kills Leader: Allie Loitz, 3.67/set (#5)
Assists Leader: Emma Pettit, 11.56/set (#1)
Digs Leader: Michelle Adams, 4.06/set (#5)
Blocks Leader: Gabby Pethokoukis, 0.95/set

The Wildcats come into league play having won seven straight matches.  That's pretty good!  Much like Providence, Villanova is looking to bounce back from a shoddy 2014 where they finished 13-20, not to mention 2013, when they were 12-17, or 2011 when they struggled to get to 11-19.  Hey, at least they're getting better each year, right?  At least Providence has the excuse of essentially defunding the program to go independent and then meandering around in the America East conference.  What's Villanova's excuse for dragging down the whole conference?

As you could kind of guess from Pettit's assist numbers, Villanova's got a pretty diverse offense, with five regulars averaging at least 2.4 kills per set.  Only senior Lauren Carpenter is hitting under .200 amongst that group, so they're all fairly dangerous, leading to VU ranking fourth in the Big East in hitting percentage as a team.  The more impressive thing about what they're doing is on defense.  Obviously Adams and Pethokoukis aren't lighting the world on fire with those numbers, but the Wildcats do have the lowest opponent hitting percentage in the Big East at a meager .163.

Xavier (4-6)

Kills Leader: Abbey Bessler, 3.05/set (#8)
Assists Leader: Mackenzi Humm, 4.65/set 
Digs Leader: Meredith Klare, 4.63/set (#3)
Blocks Leader: Lauren Frilling, 0.80/set

I suppose we need to address the issue that's most obvious from that stats package.  McKena Estes is second on the team in assists with 4.40.  Both Humm and Estes have played in all 40 sets so far this season for the Musketeers, with Humm getting the starting nod in six of their 10 matches.  So, in short: Not a statistical powerhouse for the Musketeers, but capably covered within the context of their system.

When the Big East reformed with Creighton, Butler, and Xavier, I was excited to see all three teams come in for volleyball, as they all presented themselves as superior to every non-Marquette team in The Seven.  They've backed this up by making the foursome of teams that qualified for the Big East tournament each of their first two seasons in the league, but this start this season is not encouraging.  To a certain degree, the Musketeers are merely a victim of circumstance.  They've lost their last two matches to ranked teams (#19 Florida State & #24 Kentucky) to slip two games below .500 on the season, but the bigger issue is that they were at .500 in the first place.

If Xavier's going to be on the edge of challenging for a Big East title or an NCAA tournament spot (they were the only BE semifinalist that didn't make it last year), they probably can't find themselves losing to Cincinnati and Michigan and Ohio and LSU.  Maybe one or two, but blowing chances against quality opponents repeatedly is going to come back and bite them in the butt eventually.