Well, here we go.
The 18 match Big East schedule begins on Wednesday, which means that Marquette volleyball has two intertwined quests laid out in front of them. First, the most obvious one: A Big East regular season championship. The Golden Eagles have never won the regular season title, as the banner in the McGuire Center only marks Marquette’s 2013 tournament title. Last year, Marquette was the preseason pick to win the league, but ultimately fell short. They lost both regular season matches to eventual champion Creighton, and with a cancelled late season match against Seton Hall, Marquette finished at 15-2 behind the Bluejays’ perfect 18-0 record.
Under the guidance of both Bond Shymansky and Ryan Theis, Marquette has qualified for eight straight NCAA tournaments, culminating in last year’s first ever Sweet 16 appearance. Through all of that, a regular season conference championship has eluded them. The two matches with Creighton are the big ones when it comes to determining who will win the regular season title, of course, but the other 16 matches are not off days in the slightest. Marquette has to take each and every one seriously if they are to be able to stand atop the standings when Thanksgiving weekend rolls around.
The other quest is one that is tied together with that quest for a regular season title, but isn’t as direct. As of Monday, Marquette is the #10 team in the country according to the AVCA top 25 poll. MU has spent the last two weeks as a top 10 team in the country, and they were #11 in the country before that. While the poll is not the same thing as the RPI calculations that go into the NCAA tournament selection process, the indication from the poll is that Marquette is on track to earn a top 16 national seed for the second straight season and thus host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament again.
However, that requires a lack of missteps in the regular season. The NCAA hasn’t released an RPI calculation for this season yet, but last year, after the season was over, Marquette and Creighton were the only two top 100 RPI teams in the Big East. Both squads were in the top 15, and the next best conference squad was St. John’s at #106. Villanova was the only other top 150 team, and only Georgetown and Xavier stayed in the top 200. We don’t know where teams will end up this year, of course, but the general trend of the Big East is that the dispersal will remain about the same.
If you want to be a top 16 team and host those first two rounds, you can’t take on sub-200 losses, and sub-150 isn’t great. Using last year’s numbers as an example, 12 of Marquette’s 18 Big East matches are shaping up to be possible sub-150 matches. That’s a minefield of problems when it comes to securing that top 16 spot.
Whether you want to look at it through the lens of a regular season conference title, or through the lens of making your path to the Sweet 16 go through your home gym, the Big East schedule will require Marquette to come out and play their best every single night.
Or, in the case of match #1 on the slate, every single morning.
Big East Match #1: vs Butler Bulldogs (3-9)
Marquette is 14-7 all time against Butler. The Golden Eagles have won each of the last three encounters with the Bulldogs as well as nine of the last 10.
Guys, Butler might be bad at volleyball this season. Let’s put it this way: They went 1-2 at their own invitational tournament. Their sweep of Belmont over this past weekend is a full one-third of their wins this season, and let’s just say that Southeast Missouri State and Tennessee State aren’t putting the fear of God into anyone. In fact, it’s very easy to say that Marquette will absolutely be the best team that Butler has played all season and with the way the league schedule plays out, they won’t play another team at that level until late October when they go to Omaha to see Creighton.
I guess the good news for Butler is that they make their opponents work for it. Teams are hitting just .191 against the Bulldogs this season. Of course, Butler is only hitting .157 themselves, which is how you get that far underwater with your record so fast.
Butler has a trio of attackers averaging over two kills per set this season, led by Anna Logan putting down 2.73 per set. The 6-foot senior from Indianapolis is hitting just .136 while averaging more than four attacks per set more than anyone else on the team. If MU can disrupt Logan’s attacks, that seems like it’s a pretty straight away path to victory.
Megan Ramseyer has started every match and played in every set for Butler this season, but she’s only averaging 9.29 assists per set. That’s probably more a function of Butler’s team hitting issues than anything else, but that’s still not great. Elizabeth LaBue is doing everything she can on the back line with 4.76 digs per set, but sometimes that’s just not enough. Melody Davidson can be counted on for a block every set, so MU will need to account for her when they’re swinging. Brooke Gregory is at .90 blocks per set, so that’s a pretty solid combination with Davidson.