Noteworthy: The undefeated Washington Huskies dealt the Wisconsin Badgers their first loss of the season in a five-set home-court victory. Until last weekend, neither team had dropped a match since being eliminated late in the 2013 NCAA tournament (Washington fell in the semis while Wisconsin fell in the finals). Last week, the question was who could stop the Badgers. This week, the question is who can stop the Huskies.
My Pick: Wisconsin def. USC in five
Reality: Wisconsin def. USC in four
My Pick: Texas def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Texas def. Nebraska in five
My Pick: Iowa State def. Iowa in four
Reality: Iowa State def. Iowa in three
My Pick: BYU def. Utah in five
Reality: BYU def. Utah in three
My Pick: Missouri def. Miami-FL in three
Reality: Miami-FL def. Missouri in four
Last Week’s Record: 4-1
Overall Record: 10-5 (11-5 by today's post)
(Editor's note: Deb featured last night's UCLA vs. USC matchup in a special post yesterday. As we're sure she'd like us to point out, she accurately predicted the Bruins victory).
No. 19 Arizona State @ No. 18 Arizona
Wednesday, September 24
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Another pair of in-state, Pac-12 rivals will go toe-to-toe in the conference opener. Historically, the Sun Devils hold a 48-44 edge over the Wildcats. Arizona is off to an 11-1 start and has strung together five consecutive wins. Arizona State is 10-2 with their most recent loss coming to a red-hot Colorado State squad.
Some setters might be intimidated by constantly going to the same hitter, but not Penina Snuka (So., S). She continues to feed almost every ball to Madi Kingdon (Sr., OH), and with good reason. Kingdon (Sr., OH) is apparently not just a flash in the pan. After taking a ton of swings (and scoring a ton of points) early in the season, she hasn’t slowed down or faltered as the Wildcats’ go-to hitter, top blocker and solid defender.
The Sun Devils run a 5-1 offense with Blanca Arellano (Jr., S). Three hitters see the majority of sets for Arizona State—Macey Gardner (Jr., OH), BreElle Bailey (So., OH) and McKenzie Willey (So., OH). Gardner leads all hitters and servers, making her a serious offensive threat. Willey does not have the best hitting efficiency (.188), but she has come on strong in recent contests. Defensively, the Sun Devils rely on their block, which is paced by Bailey (slightly unexpected as she is a pin hitter) and Mercedes Binns (Jr., MH).
History dictates a Sun Devil win in this contest, but I just don’t see that happening. Kingdon will undoubtedly face the best blockers she has seen all season in Arizona State’s Bailey and Binns, but I think she has the shots needed to score regardless. The Wildcats will need strong back row play to contain the offense of the Sun Devils’ Gardner and Willey. Considering the Wildcats have three defenders with 100 plus digs this season, I don’t think that will be a problem.
My Pick: Arizona in four
No. 12 North Carolina @ No. 6 Florida State
Friday, September 26
The Seminoles head into conference play on an 11-match winning streak, marking the program’s best start to a season since 1997. North Carolina continues to slowly climb the rankings with their consistent play and commendable victories over respectable programs (such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, Michigan State and Michigan).
Earlier this season, the Tar Heels had a number of “go-to” hitters. In recent matches, Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) has broken away from the pack and stolen the show. An upperclassman, she plays with maturity and confidence that’s propelling her team to success. McAdoo is not a strong blocker, but her teammates pick up the slack and still manage to collectively out-block opponents 110-73. Leading that campaign with 53 total blocks is Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH).
I expect this match to be a defensive grind. Both of these teams are very strong in the back row. The week before Horton’s distinction, North Carolina’s Ece Taner (Sr., L) was named ACC Player of the Week for her defensive prowess. The big pin hitters on both squads will need to play with patience. Long rallies are inevitable. Staying low-error and swinging away when the time is right will be vital to success. It is there that I see North Carolina holding the edge.
My Pick: North Carolina in four
No. 23 Kansas @ Oklahoma
Saturday, September 27
Kansas will hit the road for Oklahoma in this Big 12 conference opener. Last season, these teams split. Each squad won on their home court and lost on the road, with neither meeting going more than four sets.
Conference: Big 12
Conference: Big 12
The Sooners run a 5-1 offensive system with Julia Doyle (Jr., S). She’s led the team to a .261 hitting efficiency and does a nice job spreading out the offense among her five primary hitters. Kierra Holst (Jr., OH) leads all hitters, followed closely by Kimmy Gardiner (So., OH), Madison Ward (RS So., OH) and Marion Hazelwood (Fr., MH). Micaela Spann (So., MH) is a viable scoring option as well, but her primary responsibility is to block a lot of balls. She leads the team with 44 (of 92 total).
These squads both run very balanced offensive systems. I think balanced offenses are a little bit more common in the Big 12 than in the Pac-12 or Big Ten. If someone has a theory as to why that might be, or thinks it is inaccurate, chime in! I have theories of my own, of course. Anyway. I think Kansas will win this match based on their superiority on defense. Looking at personnel, they have the better defenders in both the front and back row. And they won’t be thrown off by Oklahoma’s balanced offense featuring multiple hitters taking swings and scoring because it is what they see every day in practice.
My Pick: Kansas in four
Michigan State @ No. 15 Purdue
Saturday, September 27
TV: BTN Plus
TV: BTN Plus
Michigan State will face Indiana and Purdue will face Michigan the night prior to Saturday’s bout, so both teams will not be entirely “fresh” for the contest. A fun Purdue crowd should create a great environment for this Big Ten opening weekend match.
Conference: Big Ten
Rachel Minarick (Fr., S) continues to run Michigan State’s 5-1 offensive system. Allyssah Fitterer (So., OPP) and Chloe Reinig ( So., OH) have emerged as the Spartans’ go-to players. They are consistent on offense (.229 and .287 hitting efficiencies, respectively) and strong on defense (as a squad they’ve out-blocked opponents 101-67). The grounding force and key to success for this young squad is back-row dandy Kori Moster (Sr., L).
Conference: Big Ten
After serving as Purdue’s do-it-all player last season as a hitter and setter, standout Val Nichol (Sr., S) has taken full responsibilities in the Boilermakers’ 5-1 offensive system this season. Fear not: she still swings at a ton of balls and has notched 42 kills (.344 hitting efficiency). Annie Drews (Jr., OH) has stepped up her offense this season and leads all hitters. It looks like she has really found her confidence and taken on a leadership roll—at least from the stands. As a squad, Purdue serves aggressively. Four payers have tallied 10 plus aces this season (Nichols leads with 12).
There isn’t much question in my mind that Purdue wins this one. Their home-court advantage is significant as they have an active student section, and Michigan State has struggled finding their rhythm so far this season. I think Purdue’s aggressive serve makes this match a done deal. While Moster is good on defense, she’ll have multiple aggressive servers blistering balls at her all night. I think it’ll be more than she and the other passers can handle.