The Big East elected to expand the volleyball conference tournament to six teams this year. Sure, why not. I have serious questions about why this was done, although I suspect it has a lot to do with “Marquette and Creighton are going to keep running away with the league, let’s give everyone else something to keep them interested in playing out the last few weeks of the season.”
While this may work on the back end of the six team field, the fact of the matter is, at least for this season, Marquette is on the verge of clinching a top six finish in the Big East with six matches left to go. With Creighton sitting one game in front of the Golden Eagles, it’s obvious that the Bluejays will clinch a top six spot ever so slightly faster than MU. Usually it takes a little bit more time in the schedule to get to the point where “clinching a conference tournament berth” is a conversation topic, but between six available spots and what the bottom few teams in the league look like at the moment, it’s on the table for Marquette right now.
Here’s how it comes together:
Marquette is 9-1 in Big East play with eight matches to play. If they win their two matches this week, they will be 11-1 with six to play. That would mean that the worst possible case scenario for the Golden Eagles would be seven losses. Entering this week of action, Providence, Villanova, and Georgetown already have eight losses. DePaul is the first of two teams Marquette will play, and they currently have seven losses. A Marquette win on Wednesday would give the Blue Demons eight losses.
If Marquette wins their two matches, no matter what else happens, the worst they can finish in the league is seventh. If MU gets help in the form of a Seton Hall (4-6 at the moment) home loss to Creighton on Friday, which is likely because Bluejays, then the worst that MU could do is a tie for sixth place..... with a team that they have already swept. If SHU were to also lose at home to Xavier on Saturday, that would give the Pirates eight losses, and ta-da, that’s a top six finish for Marquette.
There’s also the added bonus of Marquette looking to stay within a game of Creighton to keep the Big East regular season championship on the table for the Golden Eagles. In addition to that importance to this week’s matches, I think we can officially light the lamp on the possibility of Marquette hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The RPI only gets updated once a week, so we can’t monitor these things as closely as maybe we would like. But as of all the matches on October 23rd, YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles held the #10 RPI in the country. Pure RPI ranking is never a guarantee of anything, but please remember: The top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament get to host the first two rounds. Having a top 10 RPI is probably a critical component to the selection committee placing you in the top 16, wouldn’t you say?
Reasons why it’s critical to win these two matches relative to the RPI other than “winning = good”? DePaul is #142 in the RPI and Butler is #159. I don’t want to say that a loss would be permanently crippling to MU’s RPI, but it also wouldn’t be great. Probably best to take care of business and not worry about it.
Big East Match #11: at DePaul Blue Demons (7-15, 3-7 Big East)
Marquette is 36-29 all time against DePaul, but that’s a little misleading. MU went 2-4 against the Blue Demons before officially become a Division 1 program in 1986. So it’s 34-25 in Division 1 since 1986, and even that’s misleading. Marquette is currently on a 23 match winning streak against DePaul dating all the way back to the 2009 season.
Nine matches, half of the Big East regular season slate, have gone by since Marquette squared off with the Blue Demons in the league opener. It has not gone well for them. There’s the generalized “2-7 with a five match losing streak is bad” kind of not going well, but there’s also the “they were picked to finish third behind Marquette and Creighton and that is absolutely not happening” kind of not going well.
Jill Pressly remains dragging this team into offensive competence, going for 3.62 kills per set and hitting .228. She has over 200 more attacks than anyone else on the roster, so if you can extinguish Pressly, you can destabilize their entire deal. Taylor Underwood and Bailey Nelson are both putting up more than two kills a set, but they’re both hitting worse than Pressly, including a .190 for Nelson. Maggie Jones has played at setter in every single set this season, but because she’s been splitting playing time with Ashley Cudiamat in 77 of DePaul’s 87 sets, Jones averages 5.75 assists against 4.90 for Cudiamat.
Rachel Krasowski is doing a pretty good job as DePaul’s libero at just barely short of five digs a set. Aly Kindelberger provides a constant threat at the net with 1.03 blocks per set, and she doesn’t really have a consistent partner in that department.
Big East Match #12: at Butler Bulldogs (11-11, 5-5 Big East)
Marquette is 18-9 all time against Butler. The series started with six straight Butler wins and MU was 1-6 all time against the Bulldogs when Butler joined the Big East. It’s been 17-3 since then. Marquette’s home win in the series earlier this season extended their winning streak in the series to four straight.
Butler was 6-6 coming into Big East play, but riding a three match losing streak. They beat DePaul in their opener, but then went into a three game skid against Marquette, Creighton, and Xavier. Considering that had them at 7-9 on the season and 1-3 in the league, the fact that they’re at 5-5 now is an indicator that this is at the very least a fiery Bulldogs squad that’s going to scrap for whatever they can mine out of their season. They broke up a two match skid in their most recent contest, beating Providence in Rhode Island in four sets.
Whether you want to measure by kills or by points, Butler’s top three offensive options are the same, and in the same order. It’s Mariah Grunze, Amina Shackelford, and Megan Sherida, with all three clearing at least two points and kills a set. Grunze is the clear top option at 3.19 kills and 3.55 points per set as well as almost 250 more swings than anyone else on the roster. That’s an interesting choice for head coach Sharon Clark, as Grunze is hitting just .153 on the season and .134 in Big East action. Things are a bit more even in the league with Shackelford less than 20 attacks behind Grunze, so at least we can point out that they are learning from previous mistakes.
Cora Taylor averages 9.31 assists per set this season, and that number’s up to 9.59 in conference matches as she’s clearly taken over full control of the setter spot from Jenna Splitt. Jaymeson Kinley remains one of the most active liberos in the Big East, averaging nearly five and a half digs per set overall and a flat 6.00 against conference foes. Butler’s ability to convert blocking attempts to blocking points has trailed off in Big East play, but Shackelford and Marisa Guisti are both wrecking havoc regularly. Grace Boggess and Destiny Cherry have been slightly limited in opportunities since conference play started, but when you have four women averaging north of 0.83 blocks/set, you’re doing a lot of things tactically correct even if it’s not getting you very far in the wins column.