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2018 Big East Volleyball: Where Are We Now?

With most of the league kicking of conference play on Friday, let’s see what everyone has been doing this season.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Creighton
The Jays are ranked #10 in the country. I’ll give them the picture spot here.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

HEY!

GUESS WHAT SURPRISING FUN FACT I LEARNED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT?

THAT’S RIGHT! For whatever godsforsaken reason, we had ACTUAL BIG EAST VOLLEYBALL CONTENT as Seton Hall and St. John’s went out on the road to kick off the conference slate against Villanova and Georgetown respectively. Those aren’t even travel partner matches! That would have made sense!

In any case, Marquette begins league play against Providence on Friday night (like a normal team), so that means it’s time to take a whiparound look at the rest of the league and see what everyone has been up to since mid-August. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not so good, some of it is actually bad. The very good news is that we will be starting the conference schedule with two — count ‘em, TWO — teams ranked in the AVCA top 25. That’s pretty good. Even more fun? They’re going to play each other on Sunday afternoon.

Here’s what’s up for each capsule. You’ve got the team name (natch), followed by their record so far and their Bennett Rank in parenthesis. We’re getting Bennett Rank from HeroSports.com because the NCAA has not seen fit to grace us with an RPI quite yet. Such is life. These rankings were just updated on September 18th, so we know they’re piping hot and fresh.

Beyond the start there, we’ll rattle off each team’s leader in the four major stat categories. Things wrap up with each team’s best win and worst loss of the season so far, as determined purely by Bennett Rank. You’re not going to believe this, but some of the teams in the Big East have altered their best win OR their worst loss merely in Wednesday night’s activity. More on that as we get to it. We wrap up with a blurb of some level talking about what each team has done with their non-conference schedule to this point. SPOILER ALERT: A LOT OF IT IS NOT GOOD. I’M LOOKING AT YOU, DEPAUL AND XAVIER.

Onwards!

Butler Bulldogs (3-9, #156)

Kills Leader: Natalie Ravenell, 2.95/set
Assists Leader: Megan Ramseyer, 8.96/set (6th)
Digs Leader: Elizabeth LaBue, 3.46/set
Blocks Leader: Bri Lilly, 1.37/set (1st)
Best Win: vs #160 Santa Clara
Worst Loss: vs #148 Cleveland State

I’ll say this much for the Bulldogs: Thank goodness they picked up two wins at home right before Big East play started. Coming into the tournament they hosted last weekend, Butler was just 1-8 on the season, so they really needed the wins. That includes that season best win over Santa Clara, but they also snagged their worst loss of the season.

That worst loss brings me around to the possibility that they might actually be a lot better than their record, though. Before rolling back into Indianapolis to finish off non-con action, Butler had played seven of their nine matches against top 75 opponents. Now, yeah, they lost those matches, all of them. But as you’ll see as we progress through the rest of the league, there’s quite a few teams that can’t say that they challenged themselves like Butler did and ended up with similar records. Don’t be surprised to see this team in the top half of the league standings in mid-November, and maybe even contending for a conference tournament berth.

Creighton Bluejays (8-4, #14)

AVCA Ranking: #10
Kills Leader: Taryn Kloth, 4.24/set (2nd)
Assists Leader: Madelyn Cole, 10.78/set (1st)
Digs Leader: Brittany Witt, 4.60/set (5th)
Blocks Leader: Naomi Hickman, 1.03/set (4th)
Best Win: vs #20 Kentucky on a neutral floor
Worst Loss: vs #41 Northern Iowa on a neutral floor

Hey, look, we got through all of the Jays’ stat leaders without mentioning Jaali Winters. That was a slightly unexpected twist. I say slightly because Winters is still second on the team in kills per set at 3.76, but she does lead the team in total attacks with 40 more than Kloth. Winters is seemingly everywhere on the floor for the Bluejays, as she also has the second best digs average on the roster. Her all-around play will be enough to put her on the all-conference team at the end of the season, but the question becomes whether it’s enough to earn her Big East Player of the Year.

If you’re wondering how Creighton has lost four times but still finds themselves ranked #10 in the AVCA top 25 poll and #14 in Bennett Rank, well, here’s their losses in terms of Bennett Rank: #4, #8, #16, #41. It should be noted that they also avenged that loss to #41 Northern Iowa, as somehow the Jays and the Panthers found themselves invited to the same tournament twice this season. Creighton has five top 100 wins already, and three of those are in the top 50. They’re not to be trifled with, and Marquette is going to get a crack at them right out of the gate in league action.

DePaul Blue Demons (2-9, #277)

Kills Leader: Emma Price, 2.22/set
Assists Leader: Natalie Hayward, 5.00/set
Digs Leader: Isabelle Banez, 4.27/set (7th)
Blocks Leader: Isabell De La Rosa, 0.44/set
Best Win: at #237 Northern Illinois
Worst Loss: vs #250 La Salle on a neutral floor

Hey, remember when I said that Butler challenged themselves and it just didn’t work out for them in terms of wins? DePaul did not do that. The Blue Demons have just three matches against top 100 opponents on their docket. Hilariously, this is not the worst schedule that we’ll talk about, but at least the other teams had the decency to win matches against low ranked foes.

DePaul is coming off a season where they went 8-22 overall and 2-16 in league play. Somehow, things appear to not be getting better for them, as I believe that they’re going to struggle to get to six wins against conference foes. The good news, such as it is, for the Blue Demons is that they’re on the young side of things. Hayward, who is splitting time at setter, is a freshman, while Price, Banez, and De La Rosa are all sophomores. Does this mean better things are in the future for DePaul? Maybe? I’ve been expecting good things to come for a while for Georgetown as they had a young core two years ago, and it seems to not be coming together for them quite yet.

Georgetown Hoyas (8-5, 1-0 Big East, #256)

Kills Leader: Iva Vujosevic, 3.65/set (5th)
Assists Leader: Margo Pivonka, 9.10/set (5th)
Digs Leader: Kenzie Higareda, 4.48/set (6th)
Blocks Leader: Symone Speech, 1.05/set (3rd)
Best Win: vs #153 St. John’s
Worst Loss: vs #303 Penn

Shoutout to the Hoyas for kicking off league play on Wednesday night by recording their best win of the season. That’s a good way to get things started, even if it’s actually something of an indictment of their non-conference schedule.

Before beating the Johnnies on Wednesday, we were going to have to declare GU’s best win of the season to be against #221 Idaho State. Between that being the case and the Hoyas also finding a way to clank a home match against a sub-300 team like Penn, I wouldn’t have expected them to be able to pull off the W against the Red Storm. It took them five sets to do it and even went to extra points in the fifth, but they’re still standing atop the table to start things off.

Will they be able to build off of this? Well, that’s up for debate. There’s a lot of sub 200 opponents in their non-conference schedule, and just one top 100 opponent as well. They’re going to get tested in conference play to a degree that they were not tested in their first 13 matches. With that said, they answered the call in their first test. We’ll get a better idea of what the Hoyas are about on Saturday when they tangle with Villanova, their travel partner.

Marquette Golden Eagles (9-3, #7)

AVCA Ranking: #21
Kills Leader: Allie Barber, 4.39/set (1st)
Assists Leader: Lauren Speckman, 7.26/set (8th)
Digs Leader: Martha Konovodoff, 5.05/set (2nd)
Blocks Leader: Jenna Rosenthal, 1.02/set (5th)
Best Win: vs #8 USC
Worst Loss: at #18 Baylor

I know, I know. That #7 up there is a little silly looking, especially since the Golden Eagles are ranked just 21st in the AVCA poll. That’s strength of schedule in the Bennett Rank working in their favor. Marquette has played just one opponent outside the top 100 this season, and that’s because Saint Louis (#244) hosted the tournament in week #2. MU’s losses this season are all to top 20 teams, with two of them coming in the top six. I don’t know if it’s quite fair to call this team underrated at this point, but there’s definitely reason to believe that they can wrest the regular season crown away from Creighton.

I feel like we should provide a Jenna Rosenthal update here, as most of you reading this are generally familiar with the ins and outs of MU volleyball. Rosenthal came into the season needing 43 assisted blocks to break Meghan Niemann’s career record, and 35 total blocks to break Niemann’s mark in that category.

She already has the total blocks record.

Rosenthal tied Niemann with her second of two assisted blocks against Tulsa last Saturday, and then went zooming past her with seven more in the nightcap against Illinois State. That brings her to 42 total blocks on the season and 461 for her career. Rosenthal sits two assisted blocks short of that record and three away from breaking it with 40 on the season after that Illinois State match. Since she averages just over a block per set, the math of six guaranteed sets this weekend says that she’ll return to Milwaukee on Sunday night with the record in hand.

Providence Friars (6-5, #231)

Kills Leader: Allison Impellizeri, 3.36/set (6th)
Assists Leader: Allison Barber, 10.05/set (2nd)
Digs Leader: Mackenzie Taylor, 4.79/set (3rd)
Blocks Leader: Allison Impellizeri, 0.90/set
Best Win: vs #188 Southeast Missouri State on a neutral floor
Worst Loss: at #220 Bryant

Providence comes into league play with just 11 matches played, tied with DePaul and Xavier for the fewest in the league. While that was a choice made by those two, the Friars had three matches yanked away from them by Hurricane Florence. They were supposed to be in Wilmington, North Carolina, for an event hosted by UNC-Wilmington that would have given them three more matches. Instead, they’ve been inactive since September 11th when they took their worst loss of the season in a home date against Bryant.

Their reward? Opening Big East action against the #21 team in the country. Not.... ideal.

It seems that the Friars, like DePaul, have taken a step backwards this season. They tallied 17 total wins last season, including six in league action. With just six wins already, it seems unlikely that they’ll get to 17 again. Getting to 14 wins — 17 minus the three possible victories that they might have gotten in NC — will be a pretty stern task for PC. However, it stills looks like they’re building the program up to be relatively competitive in the Big East, which is important. Remember: Providence volleyball was an associate member of the America East conference before The Reformation and they didn’t immediately move over to the Big East afterwards, either.

St. John’s Red Storm (11-5, 0-1 Big East, #153)

Kills Leader: Efrosini Alexakou, 3.00/set
Assists Leader: Erica Di Maulo, 9.52/set (4th)
Digs Leader: Amanda Sanabia, 4.78/set (4th)
Blocks Leader: Hanna Wagner, 1.00/set (6th)
Best Win: at #174 Connecticut
Worst Loss: at #256 Georgetown

I’m just gonna throw it out there: When you start off league play before everyone else and IMMEDIATELY post your worst loss of the season, that’s bad.

AND ANOTHER THING: How did the Red Storm jam 15 matches in before Wednesday night? I mean, the answer is “playing mid-week one-off non-conference matches instead of just waiting for weekend events,” but that’s still a ton of contests. I guess it’s easier to pull off when you can jaunt off down Long Island for an hour to play Stony Brook or tell Hofstra to run on over on a Tuesday night, but still.

A mild disclaimer for St. John’s statistics: Efrosini Alexakou has only played in nine of their matches, but they are the last nine that they’ve played. Thus, she goes in as their leading attacker. Rachele Rastelli is #2 on the chart at 2.83/set, and even Rastelli hasn’t played in every set so far this season. St. John’s best attacker that’s done that is Nia Diaz, averaging a mere 1.84 kills to stand fifth overall. From a certain point of view, it’s actually really impressive that they have twice as many wins as losses.

Then again, they have seven wins against sub-220 teams, and W’s over Eastern Michigan (#193) and Cornell (#196) aren’t exactly impressive either. Combine that with the fact that they had to win a fourth set against Georgetown merely to force the fifth set that they lost, and league play is looking like it might be a rough go of things for the Red Storm.

Seton Hall Pirates (5-9, 0-1 Big East, #170)

Kills Leader: Abby Thelen, 3.67/set (4th)
Assists Leader: Sophia Coffey, 5.31/set (9th)
Digs Leader: Eden Dolezal, 4.06/set (8th)
Blocks Leader: Amanda Rachwal, 0.84/set
Best Win: vs #122 VCU
Worst Loss: at #142 Buffalo

Hey, remember when Seton Hall advanced to the Big East tournament title game and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament? SHOUTOUT TO 2014!

What have the Pirates done since then? Well, coming into the year, they went exactly one game under .500 over the past three seasons (46-47) and made the conference tournament just once. They’re off to a 5-9 start this year, and I’m getting the sense that one of the two non-Marquette/Creighton Big East tourney spots are not going to them.

Things started out mostly okay in 2018 for the Pirates, as they opened with a 4-3 record that included losses to two top 70 teams. Their third loss in their first seven matches was the aforementioned “worst loss” of the season, and that was a road game up in Buffalo. That’s not all bad. They had a bunch of top 100 teams in the back half of their non-con slate, and that’s where the losses started to stack up. They opened up Big East play with yet another loss to a top 100 team which, again, isn’t all bad. Is it going to translate to a over .500 record in league play like they had last year at 10-8? We’ll have to wait and see.

I guess we have to give credit to the Pirates for at least pulling their own weight in terms of making the conference overall better. They went out and scheduled a bunch of quality opponents, it’s just that none of them turned into wins for them.

Villanova Wildcats (8-5, 1-0 Big East, #92)

Kills Leader: Mallory Potts, 2.74/set
Assists Leader: Emma Decker, 9.67/set (3rd)
Digs Leader: Regan Lough, 5.52/set (1st)
Blocks Leader: Allie Olsonoski, 0.94/set
Best Win: vs #26 Utah
Worst Loss: vs #96 Little Rock on a neutral floor

Here’s the good news for Villanova as they get conference play started: They don’t have any sub-100 losses. That’s a good way to start building a postseason profile. Here’s the bad news: With the exception of their win over Utah, the Wildcats lost to every top 100 team that they played. That is not a good way to start building a postseason profile.

Part of the reason why the Wildcats don’t have a top 10 hitter in the Big East right now is because they’ve been dealing with some roster inconsistency. Each of their top four attackers by average has missed at least four sets this season. #3 Sanaa Barnes has only played 44 of 50, and #4 Darcy Wolf has only appeared in 19 sets while missing just three matches altogether. They’ve been making it work, as VU has the third best team hitting percentage in the league behind Marquette and Creighton.

Josh Steinbach had his squad in the NCAA tournament in 2015, their first appearance in the field since 1997. They haven’t been back since. Can the Wildcats impress enough during Big East play or is it already too late for them with a lack of quality wins?

Xavier Musketeers (2-9, #217)

Kills Leader: Laura Grossman, 3.14/set (9th)
Assists Leader: McKena Estes, 5.19/set
Digs Leader: Meredith Klare, 3.78/set (9th)
Blocks Leader: Jayda Carlton, 0.95/set
Best Win: at #237 Northern Illinois
Worst Loss: vs #198 Towson on a neutral floor

I don’t know whether to be annoyed at Xavier or not. Generally speaking, the Musketeers have been one of the best performers in the Big East since The Reformation. With that in mind, it’s hard to be bothered by a down year for them. They actually appear to have scheduled pretty well, with seven top 75 foes on the schedule. It just hasn’t turned into a win unless they dipped down into the sub-200 are for them this season, which accounts for just two of their matches but both of their wins.

Here’s the really troubling part for the Musketeers if you want to think long term about them: They have five seniors, including Grossman, Estes, and Klare. They have just one junior, little used defensive specialist Madi Kutruff. The rest of the roster is all freshmen and sophomores. This might not be a one year stumble for the Musketeers, unless the freshmen get their feet underneath them fairly quickly to help push things along going forward.