You would have thought that with the addition of Connecticut to the Big East that somehow Marquette would get to avoid the Rhode Island/Nebraska road trip now. Nope. Not happening. Heck, we aren’t even getting the 20 game full round robin schedule that you think you would get with an 11 team conference, so of course Marquette has to go through The Worst Road Trip In The Big East yet again.
At least MU gets the good version of it here. As you go from Rhode Island to Nebraska, you gain an hour of time from the time zone change, so there’s an extra hour of rest in there for the Golden Eagles. Finishing up at 7pm Friday and turning around to play 42 hours later halfway across the country is still not a picnic on any level, but at least the Friday match isn’t starting at 7pm Central.
There’s also an argument to be made that this isn’t the good version of it, because this version is the one where Marquette has to play their toughest match of the conference schedule — on the road against Creighton — on short rest after relatively hurried travel. Is it better for Marquette to bang their head on the proverbial brick wall that the Bluejays represent fully rested on Friday and then travel to play Providence on short rest? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe MU head coach Ryan Theis likes this version of things because it comes close to simulating a second round NCAA tournament match for his team.
We should probably point out that Marquette is in first place in the Big East by themselves right now. The Golden Eagles are 4-0 after two weekends of conference action as they hold a one game advantage on Creighton (hey, they’re in the headline), Connecticut, and Xavier. We’ll see how long the Musketeers can hold on to that top half of the league spot with their 8-6 overall record, but they’re all there, hovering right behind the Golden Eagles. As long as that zero stays in the loss column, Marquette is going to be the team with the bullseye on their back. Heck, because the Golden Eagles are a perennial NCAA tournament team, they have to know they get that response from opponents every night anyway. Now, though, it’s a little bit extra because everyone wants to beat the team in first place.
That goes double for Sunday’s opponent. Creighton isn’t used to being the team that’s not in first place in the Big East. They would absolutely like nothing more this weekend than putting themselves into a tie for the top spot. They can do it, and arguably, since the Bluejays are ranked and Marquette is not, Creighton will be favored to do it. Can Marquette muster up their best volleyball of the season and beat a ranked team for the first time this year? That’s what they’re going to need to do to get to 6-0 and stay by themselves in first place.
Big East Match #5: at Providence Friars (13-4, 1-3 Big East)
Marquette is a perfect 13-0 all time against Providence. In fact, since this series started in 1999 and then resumed in 2014 when the Friars started playing volleyball in the Big East, Marquette is 39-2 in sets against Providence, and the two sets were won in the first meeting. Since this became a twice yearly meeting in 2014, Marquette has swept Providence every single time.
On one hand, Providence is a wildly confusing team this season after going 12-1 in non-con action and 1-3 in the Big East so far. On the other hand, the NCAA’s first RPI calculation of the season says that the Friars are #213 in the country.... so maybe not that surprising that they’re struggling in the Big East. On a third hand that you didn’t realize that you had, 2020’s spring campaign was the first time that the Friars finished over .500 (they were 7-3) since 2017 so this is all just good news for them because they haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1999-2000. On a fourth hand that just appeared out of nowhere, the Friars’ lone win in Big East play is against St. John’s...... which means, inexplicably, PC’s lone league win is also a transitive win over the only ranked team in the league.
In conclusion, Providence volleyball is a land of contrasts.
A lot of the reason for Providence’s non-con success rests on freshman outside hitter Shaliyah Rhoden. She’s leading the team in kills at 3.51 and the only one of PC’s top three attackers that has played in all 65 sets so far. Rhoden is also hitting .272 on the season, which is pretty good stuff for someone with more than a quarter of the team’s total attacks. A pair of Emmas have played in all but one match this season but haven’t played in more than 52 sets with Nelson averaging 2.38 kills/set and Fink at 2.25/set. Sophomore Maryann Boyle makes good use of her attacks from the middle to average just over two kills per frame and hit .323, the best mark amongst regular attackers on the team.
The Other Allison Barber is still PC’s setter, and the 5’11” Minnesota native just broke the program’s record for career assists. She’s averaging over 10.5 per set this season, which makes her the second best setter in the league and the second best setter that Marquette will see this weekend, but just barely.
Providence does defense by committee with no one averaging more than 3.5 digs per set. In fact, none of the top three players in digs per set so far have played in every set this season, which really hammers home that by committee concept. No one on the PC roster is particularly dangerous at the net, with Sasha Rudich’s 0.73 blocks/set in 52 sets this season leading the team. There’s only one other regular on the team averaging north of 0.50/set, so it certainly seems like MU won’t have to worry much about balls coming back at them.... but PC is also only allowing opponents to hit .176 against them this season.
Big East Match #6: at #19 Creighton Bluejays (15-2, 3-1 Big East)
Marquette is 5-21 all time against Creighton. Yes, you read that right. The good news is that one of the losses was before Marquette became a Division 1 program, so that record is only 5-20. The Golden Eagles went 1-2 against the Bluejays in the spring as they split a pair of contest in Omaha before losing the Big East championship match there in April. The 3-0 win on February 6th snapped an eight match losing streak to Creighton.
A note before we start on the streaming for this match. I have been informed by Rob Anderson, the Creighton SID, that the match will be available everywhere. However, it’s available on Nebraska Public Media, and if for some reason it’s geographically restricted as a result, well, that’s life, I guess.
This was supposed to be Marquette’s third straight match against a Big East leader. The Golden Eagles went into last weekend in a four-way tie for first place with three straight matches against the other three teams in the tie. While the Golden Eagles downed UConn on Friday to knock one team from the ranks of the unbeaten, they had their work done for them in Queens at the same time. Creighton suffered their first loss in Big East play on the road against St. John’s last Friday night, and it is their first loss to an unranked team this season. Their only other defeat came at the hands of #3 Nebraska, which is an awful lot like Marquette getting battered around by Wisconsin.
Aside: They played that match at Chi Health Center, which is where the CU men’s basketball team plays their games. Attendance: 11,279, and I presume that most of the crowd was wearing red. Wisconsin is averaging 7,540 per game for home contests this season..... because they sell the damn thing out every night. I wonder if Marquette and Wisconsin have thought about playing at Fiserv? It’s not like Marquette’s taraflex floor isn’t portable, y’know.
Anyway, the Jays. Even with that loss to Nebraska, you can handwave it because Creighton already has a road win over a then-#3 ranked team in Kentucky, so yeah, the Jays are good again, to the surprise of no one. They seem to be getting it done with defense, as they are the best hitting defense in the conference while ranking just fourth in the Big East in offensive hitting percentage, and they’re the top blocking team in the league, AND the top digs team, too. That doesn’t mean the Jays aren’t good on offense, as they lead the Big East in kills per set and assists per set as well.
For the most part, Marquette only has to worry about two attackers: Jaela Zimmerman and Norah Sis. They’re the only two hitters north of two kills per set and both women are over 3.3 per frame. Both Zimmerman and Sis have over 600 attacks when no one else on the roster has even 250 through 17 matches, so the Bluejays will be trying to funnel their offense through them.
It is at this point that I am required by law to point out the mere existence of Naomi Hickman, who is apparently elevated by the Norse god of bluejays to All-American status when she plays Marquette. The word “Marquette” appears six times in the Creighton media guide on the two pages devoted exclusively to Hickman, which lets you know how often she’s putting up notable performances in CU’s matches against their biggest in-league rival, and by the way, that count of six does not include the “best sports memory is beating Marquette in the Big East tournament” note in the personal information section. Hickman is currently averaging 1.18 blocks per set for the Bluejays to lead the team in that category. That’s actually only the fifth best average in the conference, but again: CU is the best blocking team in the conference and Hickman is their best blocker. Credit where credit is due.
I feel like I should point out that Norah Sis is a freshman. So is Kendra Wait, the setter that is currently topping The Other Allison Barber for the best assists average in the conference. In other words, the Bluejays are reloading to continue to be this great. That’s fun.
Abby Bottomley is the libero for the Bluejays as she takes advantage of her COVID bonus season after four seasons at High Point. She was not just Big South Player of the Year in the spring, but ended up being named Big South Female Athlete of the Year. She is currently just 335 digs away from the second highest total in NCAA history, and since she averages over five per set this season, I feel like she might just get there, just not this weekend.