Breaking down Big Ten volleyball’s best

The conference boasts the defending national champs and several other tough, challenging squads.

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Breaking down Big Ten volleyball’s best

Michigan's Cori Crocker spikes the ball during a match against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Iowa defeated Michigan 3 sets to 1. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Michigan's Cori Crocker spikes the ball during a match against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Iowa defeated Michigan 3 sets to 1. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Michigan's Cori Crocker spikes the ball during a match against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Iowa defeated Michigan 3 sets to 1. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Michigan's Cori Crocker spikes the ball during a match against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Iowa defeated Michigan 3 sets to 1. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

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The Big Ten is arguable one of the best volleyball conferences in the nation, and Iowa will have to grind and fight to make it to the NCAA Tournament this coming season.

In 2017, the Big Ten sent eight of its 14 teams to compete in the big show, a feat that Hawkeye head coach Bond Shymansky has been chasing since taking over as Iowa’s leader in 2014.

The Big Ten will once again not be for the faint of volleyball heart, and here are the teams that Iowa will have to keep its eye on going into the fall.

1) Nebraska

The reigning national champions are on Iowa’s docket twice in the 2018 season, and the Hawkeyes will have their work cut out for them.

Coming into the tourney as the No. 5 ranked team in the nation last season, and as the lone Big Ten team of its corner of the bracket, the Cornhuskers blew through the competition. They swept the first three teams they faced (all unranked); the first challenge came in the quarterfinals against No. 4 Kentucky. The Huskers dropped only one set.

Nebraska’s first real challenge came against No. 1 Penn State. After being down 2-1 going into the fourth set, Nebraska battled to a 28-26 victory before taking the match in the fifth set. It then went on to beat No. 2 Florida for the championship, 3-1.

In the 2017 season, Iowa and Nebraska met twice, with the Cornhuskers sweeping the Hawkeyes both times.

After losing players through graduation and transfer, Nebraska put together a group of young talent ranked as the No. 5 recruiting class in the country.

That school to the west is going to be a tough one to beat both at home and on the road this season. Iowa will travel to Lincoln on Oct. 3, and the Cornhuskers will be on the visiting side Nov. 7.

2) Michigan

Michigan was the only Big Ten team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2017, but it only lost three seniors, and it returns a strong class, so it will be tough again.

The Wolverines’ top attacking weapon in Carly Skojdt will return for her senior season, and despite losing 45 percent of its offensive production from seniors, they have five incoming freshmen that specialize in the front row.

Iowa’s defining moment of 2017 came in toppling No. 22 Michigan at home on Oct. 4. Later that month, then-unranked Michigan got some vengeance with a sweep.

3) Penn State

Iowa met top-three Penn State twice in the 2017 before the Nittany Lions entered the NCAA Tournament as the 1 seed.

On the road, Iowa took a set from then-No. 2 Penn State, but then the Nittany Lions jumped up in the rankings. In the second meeting, Penn State dominated, taking three-straight sets and holding Iowa to 17 or fewer points in each.

In the tournament, Penn State continued its dominance and rolled over all of its opponents until meeting Nebraska — and in the end, the match was well-fought and anyone’s game.

Heading into 2018, Penn State’s squad will look a lot different.

After losing seven seniors, incoming freshmen and the rest of the team will have to step up.

Penn State will visit Carver-Hawkeye for a Saturday night game on Nov. 3, and despite losing all those seniors, the experience of the returners could be enough for the Nittany Lions to be a real threat.

What about the others?

Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue all ended the season in the top 25 following the NCAA Tournament, and all have the potential to be serious threats during Iowa’s quest to a berth in the Big Show.

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