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2017 Big East Volleyball: Where Are We Now?

While the league still isn’t particularly strong this season, it’s not a total disaster like it has been in previous years.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

IT’S TIME FOR LEAGUE PLAY FOR VOLLEYBALL IN THE BIG EAST!

Well, it is for Marquette Golden Eagles, at least. Providence and St. John’s will play a mid-week non-conference game, but MU kicks off their conference slate on Wednesday with a visit to Indianapolis and Butler. It’s kind of weird, from a certain point of view, because the Golden Eagles won’t be following the usual travel partner schedule for this match. For most of the season, Marquette will be visiting Villanova, then Georgetown, or hosting Seton Hall then St. John’s. The Butler/Xavier partnership is broken up, with the trip to Indy this week, followed by a trip to Cincinnati next week Wednesday. Very odd.

In any case, we’re going to take a swing around the league to see what everyone’s been up to so far this season. Hopefully, this won’t turn into an exercise in frustration like last year’s edition. Below you’ll find a capsule look at each of the teams in the Big East. You’ll see their current record and their national ranking according to BennettRank on HeroSports.com. A small disclaimer on that, though: it’s apparently slow to update, as it’s not recognizing Marquette’s Friday win over Southern Miss as of Monday morning. I’d use a different ranking system but Real Time RPI is lagging behind as well and the NCAA hasn’t released an official RPI quite yet.

Past that in each capsule is the team’s statistical leaders in each of the important categories, and if you see a number in parenthesis next to it, that’s their rank in the Big East where applicable. There’s also the team’s best win and worst loss, again according to BennettRank. As you look at those rankings, please remember that there are 333 Division 1 volleyball teams.

Onwards and upwards, then....

Butler Bulldogs (10-2, #65)

Kills Leader: Whitney Beck, 3.93 (3rd)
Assists Leader: Makayla Ferguson, 10.30 (5th)
Digs Leader: Taylor Takeda, 4.70 (1st)
Blocks Leader: Rachel Klitzing, 1.50 (3rd)
Best Win: vs #82 Ball State, 3-2
Worst Loss: vs #180 Eastern Michigan, 3-1

Let’s start our discussion of the Bulldogs with Rachel Klitzing, the 6’2” freshman that I’ve marked as leading the team in blocks. Technically, she’s not. I made a judgment call and removed junior Bri Lilly (1.57/set) from the top of the chart because she’s only played in 23 sets this season, which is just barely over half of BU’s total of 44. Lilly missed the first three matches of the year, played in the next seven, and then missed the last two. When she’s active, she’s really good, good enough to lead the Big East in blocks and give the Bulldogs two of the top three blockers. But she’s only played half the season. So we’ll wait and see what happens.

If Lilly is going to end up playing more, then this Butler defense is going to be a beast. Two of the three best blockers in the conference to this point, plus the league’s most active libero is one hell of a cornerstone. Even with Lilly as a part-timer, Butler already has the best defensive hitting percentage in the league, holding foes to just .143. The only caveat to that? Butler hasn’t played the world’s toughest schedule with seven of their 12 games against sub-150 opponents, and while there’s no shame in losing on the road to a Big Ten team like they did with Michigan, that Eastern Michigan loss is a pretty big question mark on the resume. Remember that this is the team that was picked to finish second in front of Marquette in the preseason poll, by the way.

Creighton Bluejays (7-4, #9)

Coaches Poll Rank: #15
Kills Leader: Jaali Winters, 3.16 (10th)
Assists Leader: Lydia Dimke, 10.45 (4th)
Digs Leader: Brittany Witt, 3.79 (7th)
Blocks Leader: Marysa Wilkinson, 0.97 (9th)
Best Win: at #2 Washington, 3-1
Worst Loss: vs #27 USC, 3-0

My reaction every time I see anything about the Creighton team this year:

DEAAAAAAATH Frinkiac.com

Sweet Christmas, this team is frightening. Their losses are all to top 27 BennettRank teams, and all of them are currently ranked in the AVCA’s newest top 25 poll. Winters, who looked like she could dominate the league for years as a freshman, is now merely the primary cog in a lethal attacking machine with three hitters in the top 14 in the league in kills. Dimke only needs to be fourth in the league in assists because CU also has three of the top eight in the league service aces. Can’t record assists if the other team never returns the ball, y’know. FUN FACT: Dimke is one of the three, as well as one of the three Jays in the top 18 in blocks per set.

One possible note of worry for Creighton as they enter league play: Lydia Dimke injured her ankle late in the loss to Wichita State on Friday. The senior from Ham Lake, Minnesota, was on crutches for CU’s loss to Iowa State on Saturday. Dimke is the defending Big East Player of the Year, and while the Jays probably have enough firepower to win the league if she misses significant time, a season ending injury could cost Creighton a shot at the best year in program history.

DePaul Blue Demons (6-6, #179)

Kills Leader: Brittany Maxwell, 3.26 (#11)
Assists Leader: Kelsey Horvath, 7.75 (#8)
Digs Leader: Haley Bueser, 4.00 (6th)
Blocks Leader: Caitlyn Coffey, 0.80 (T-14th)
Best Win: at #109 Illinois-Chicago, 3-1
Worst Loss: vs #249 Indiana State on a neutral floor, 3-0

The Blue Demons are currently on a four game winning streak, and roughly on pace to finish the season over .500. That is actually a compliment, since they didn’t do that last season, and they’ve done it just twice since qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2001.

However, they’ve lost to the three best teams that they’ve played (Indiana, Ball State, and Northwestern), and the four match winning streak consists of three sub-200 teams and SLU, who sits at #197. It’s possibly that the Blue Demons are, in fact, sneaky bad. They don’t have anyone that’s setting the world on fire statistically, and they’re not going to impress anyone by being eighth in the league in hitting percentage nor fifth in opponent hitting percentage.

Georgetown Hoyas (6-6, #140)

Kills Leader: Symone Speech, 3.54 (5th)
Assists Leader: Paige McKnight, 9.17 (7th)
Digs Leader: Kenzie Higareda, 4.21 (4th)
Blocks Leader: Symone Speech, 0.83 (13th)
Best Win: vs #128 American on a neutral floor, 3-2
Worst Loss: vs #201 Buffalo, 3-2

The Hoyas are rolling into league play in the opposite direction from DePaul. Georgetown has lost five of their last six matches, including that loss to Buffalo on the McDonough Arena floor. They played just three top 100 teams in the non-conference slate, and they lost all three of them: one neutral, one home, and one road, including their last outing on a visit to Rice.

It seems to be a pattern over the past few seasons, but I feel like Georgetown is wasting production from the trio of Speech, McKnight, and Higareda. They’re juniors now, and the Hoyas has yet to finish over .500 in a season with them on the team. The good news, I suppose, is that this is their best non-conference record of the three seasons, easily surpassing 6-7 and 4-9 the past two years. Heck, I’m not even sure that this is surpassing 6-7 in 2015, given that they only played 12 games.

I suppose there’s reasons for optimism here, as the Hoyas were picked to finish ninth in the preseason poll, but they scuffed together a .500 non-con record by losing to every team in the top 105 that they played. With four more of those teams looming in league play for GU, it doesn’t bode well for a .500 league record.

Marquette Golden Eagles (6-5, #48)

Kills Leader: Allie Barber, 4.66 (#1)
Assists Leader: Lauren Speckman, 11.85 (#1)
Digs Leader: Martha Konvodoff, 4.29 (#3)
Blocks Leader: Jenna Rosenthal, 1.12 (#6)
Best Win: at #44 Hawaii, 3-2
Worst Loss: vs #19 UCLA on a neutral floor, 3-1

Hey, look, a team that’s trying to win.

Ok, I shouldn’t be so mean to Butler. Their schedule might be bordering on trash, but they won a whole bunch, so good for them. Anywho, Marquette is in a weird place where they went out and scheduled incredibly tough, but lost five of the six matches against quality foes. Worse, the match that they won was against the quality opponent that’s playing the worst of the six. That’s not great!

MU’s strength of schedule is pretty bulletproof, but they just don’t have wins to go along with it. That puts Ryan Theis and the Golden Eagles in the situation of not being able to afford screwups in league play, and unfortunately for them, nearly every single team in the league is a potential screwup loss. I’m not kidding here: Marquette may need to go 14-4 at worst to make the NCAA tournament.

Providence Friars (11-3, #157)

Kills Leader: Addison Root, 3.51 (6th)
Assists Leader: Allison Barber, 11.04 (2nd)
Digs Leader: McKenzie Lydon, 3.71 (8th)
Blocks Leader: Lindsey Schaible, 0.69
Best Win: vs #200 Fairfield on a neutral floor, 3-0
Worst Loss: vs #270 Akron on a neutral floor, 3-1

Ok, credit where credit is due: With 11 wins on the season already, Providence has more wins than all but two out of the last eight seasons. For their best season since 2008, all PC has to do is win five Big East games.

With that said, they’ve played just three top 200 teams and lost twice, with the win coming against the aforementioned #200 on the button Fairfield. Do they have a very shiny win-loss record? Yep. Did they win 11 straight to start the season, which given their recent history is damn near a miracle? Sure did. Did they do it against the bottom third of Division 1? Absolutely. Do I blame head coach Margot Royer-Johnson for scheduling like that? Not a chance.

St. John’s Red Storm (8-6, #142)

Kills Leader: Julia Cast, 3.96 (2nd)
Assists Leader: Erica Di Maulo, 10.30 (6th)
Digs Leader: Delaney D’Amore, 3.64 (9th)
Blocks Leader: Danisha Moss, 1.53 (2nd)
Best Win: vs #105 Colgate on a neutral floor, 3-0
Worst Loss: at #231 Cornell, 3-0

Hey, here’s some good news for St. John’s: They only have the third worst loss in the Big East so far this season.

Why isn’t St. John’s better? They have the second best attacker in the league behind Marquette’s Allie Barber, and two of the four best blockers in the conference. I guess the reason is that no one other than Cast is contributing to the offense. I mean, okay, Jordan McCalla is at 2.83 kills/set, but she’s only hitting .153. As a team, St. John’s is hitting just .222, which is 7th in the Big East. They’ve played a big bag of nothing in terms of their schedule, with #41 Baylor hosting them in a tournament to give the Johnnies their only top 100 opponent of the season. This is turning into a trend coming out of Carnesecca, where SJU has one of the best attackers in the league but it means absolutely nothing because there’s no team backing her up.

Seton Hall Pirates (6-7, #155)

Kills Leader: Abby Thelen, 3.85 (4th)
Assists Leader: Sophia Coffey, 5.58 (11th)
Digs Leader: Sarah Kenneweg, 3.57 (10th)
Blocks Leader: Amanda Rachwal, 1.02 (7th)
Best Win: at #89 Illinois State, 3-2
Worst Loss: vs #181 Bowling Green on a neutral floor, 3-2

Hey, remember when Seton Hall beat Marquette in the Big East tournament and qualified for the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history? Boy, that was a thing, huh?

Since that happened in 2014, the Pirates are 36-39 overall and 18-18 in Big East action. I’m not really expecting them to vary that far from their .500 neighborhood this season, either. Hell, it’s actually impressive that they’re hovering around .500 right now because they have the worst hitting percentage in the Big East (.190) and the worst defensive hitting percentage in the league, too (.225). Then again, they have lost five straight including that loss to Bowling Green in their most recent outing.

I can’t even be critical of what head coach Allison Yaeger did with her schedule here. SHU played six top 100 teams, so that’s a pretty solid test. They just went 1-5 against that slate.

Villanova Wildcats (7-4, #91)

Kills Leader: Mallory Potts, 3.38 (8th)
Assists Leader: Emma Decker, 10.74 (3rd)
Digs Leader: Regan Lough, 3.84 (5th)
Blocks Leader: Amanda Pedersen-Henry, 0.66
Best Win: vs #80 Georgia Tech on a neutral floor, 3-1
Worst Loss: at #147 Lehigh, 3-0

A small note regarding Villanova’s lineup: Potts and Allie Loitz are VU’s top attackers, with both women averaging over three kills per set. However, they haven’t been available all season. Potts has only played in 26 sets while Loitz has only seen action in 27 of the 38 that they’ve played. Only five Wildcats have played in every match this season, and only four of them have played in every set. It’s kind of a weird deal, and it’s kind of impressive that they’ve performed as well as they have given the tumult in the rotation.

Villanova’s schedule is a little on the soft side, and a little on the short side, with only 11 non-conference matches scheduled. I realize that there’s sometimes nothing you can do about it, and bravo to head coach Josh Steinbach for signing up to be the mark in a tournament with Texas, San Diego, and Georgia Tech. A gold star for salvaging a win out of that trip, too. Hopefully VU’s solid play continues into league play, if for no other reason than to give Marquette another chance at two quality wins.

Xavier Musketeers (5-8, #161)

Kills Leader: Kristen Massa, 3.47 (7th)
Assists Leader: Mackenzi Humm, 5.95 (10th)
Digs Leader: Meredith Klare, 4.35 (2nd)
Blocks Leader: Alexis Newsome, 1.12 (5th)
Best Win: vs #109 Illinois-Chicago on a neutral floor, 3-1
Worst Loss: vs #250 North Florida on a neutral floor, 3-1

At some point, I’m going to need someone to explain to me the benefit of having a system where you use multiple setters. Three teams in the Big East — DePaul, Seton Hall, and Xavier — are doing this in 2017, and to me, as someone who has watched two different Marquette coaches earn multiple NCAA tournament appearances by running their offenses through one setter, I don’t get the benefit. What’s the upside here? It would seem that the hitters wouldn’t get comfortable with the rhythm of either setter and that would lead to dysfunction.

It’s not helping the cases of these three teams that none of them are particularly good this season, by the way. Xavier just barely missed coming into the league slate on a seven match losing streak by scoring a 3-1 win against still winless Albany on Saturday. In their defense, four of the six straight losses were to top 100 teams, including two top 30 squads last weekend, but that’s not exactly winning over hearts and minds with this two setter system.

Unless something significant changes, this season is going to be a major step backwards for the Musketeers. They’ve finished in the top four in each of their four years in the Big East, which earned them a conference tournament slot each time. They’ve won at least 18 games in each of the past eight seasons and haven’t finished under .500 since 1997. They’ll need to finish at least 11-7 in league play to pull that off this season, and that might be a big ask from them.