The NCAA Tournament couldn't have started off any stronger for the Big Ten this year. 6 of the 7 teams that entered the tournament made it to the Sweet 16 (Ohio State lost to #16 Kentucky in the 2nd Round). 2 Big Ten teams lost in the Sweet 16, only because they faced other B1G teams (Purdue and Michigan State). Of the 4 that remained in the Elite 8, two more teams were lost, one lost to another B1G team (Penn State over Minnesota), and one was upset in the regional they hosted (Nebraska). This left traditional powerhouse Penn State and newcomer Michigan in the Final 4.
But this is where things ended for the Big Ten. After Penn State went down 20-10 in the 2nd set, they came back, had set point at 27-26, but lost it after a bad no-call and lost the set 30-28. The Nittany Lions did not overcome this and pretty much didn't show up the rest of the game and lost badly at the end to Oregon 3-1. Michigan gave Texas a run for it's money when they were up 2-1, but after a bad 4th set and running out of steam in the 5th, Michigan's underdog run came to an end.
And now we sit here, as the B1G has no teams in the title game since 2006 (Nebraska was still a member of the Big XII that year). The Big Ten considers itself a powerful volleyball conference on par with its main competitor, the Pac-12. One cannot deny that the Big Ten is deep, after all, 6 of its teams finished in the Sweet 16. But only 2 teams in recent years have made it to the championship game: Penn State and Illinois.
We all know the story of Penn State, winning a bunch of games in a row from 2007-2010 (Cari from BSD could give us an exact number) and being nearly unstoppable. Illinois last year built up a great team that could have won the conference, but fell short against UCLA. But beyond that, the Big Ten gets rather slim. Nebraska hasn't returned to the Final 4 since 2008 back when it was in the Big XII, and was last in the Title game when it won the title in 2006.
In fact, the only Big Ten teams to make it to the Final 4 as a member of the B1G in the last 10 years are Michigan (2012), Penn State (2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007), Illinois (2011), and Minnesota (2009, 2004, 2003). Since NCAA Women's Volleyball tournament started in 1981, only 4 teams played in the National Title game as a member of the Big Ten: Wisconsin (2000), Minnesota (2004), Illinois (2011), and Penn State (a lot). Of those teams, only Penn State has actually won a National Title (remember, all of Nebraska's Final 4 and Title Appearances/Wins occurred when it was a member of the Big XII).
In my opinion, this does not look well for the Big Ten. Even its main volleyball competitor, the Pac-12, has sent more teams to the National Title game since 2001 (5) than the Big Ten has since the tournament started in 1981. If the Big Ten wants to be considered a serious championship caliber conference, it has to do a few things.
First and foremost: STOP PENN STATE. Cari from BSD will hate me for saying this. Before Nebraska won the B1G title in 2011, the last team not located in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to win the Big Ten Conference was Minnesota in 2002. As long as Penn State continues to win Big Ten Titles, the Big Ten will most likely not be considered a serious championship caliber conference unless teams can compete with Penn State. Some teams are getting there.
We see this with the Pac-12, as though it usually rotates between the schools in California (UC, UCLA, USC, and Stanford), Washington can put up a fight, and we've seen Oregon surge in recent years as they played in the Final 4 for the first time in school history, and are looking to win their first National Title on Saturday.
I know the Nittany Lions are already looking to win the title next year, both B1G and Nationally, but it won't be easy. I think Michigan could win the Big Ten as they only lose 1 senior to graduation (Claire McElheny). They ended the season well, almost upsetting Penn State in Ann Arbor, sweeping Minnesota, as well as pulling off a few upsets in the NCAA Tournament away from the comforts of A^2. Though I have a slight bias towards the Wolverines, more teams need to be heading on the same road Michigan is on.
Teams like Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska are going to struggle winning the conference next year as they lose many talented seniors to graduation. Illinois is looking to bounce back next year, but how good are they really going to be after missing the tournament this year? Ohio State had a good season, but ended it poorly and just like the first teams mentioned, lose talented players this year. Michigan is going to be Penn State's only big threat next year, and I think the Wolverines can win the title, but what about in future years?
Volleyball in the NCAA in quickly evolving. After all, this year 2 teams in the Final 4 had never advanced this far (Michigan and Oregon), and we are often seeing that being a seeded team is no longer a guarantee to make it far in this tournament. If Penn State continues to control the conference, the Big Ten will fall behind the curve. After all, who is going to want to play for a team in the Big Ten outside Happy Valley if they know they will never win the conference?
With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten, it is not going to be any easier. Sure, the top teams of the B1G can circle in those games as wins as neither Maryland or Rutgers have strong volleyball histories. However, there are now 14 teams (meaning 13 different opponents). Suddenly teams now only play 7 B1G teams twice and the remaining 6 once (assuming the B1G sticks with 20 conference games), a dramatic change from 2010 when a team played every member twice. This could either be good or bad news if you're a Nittany Lion. Granted, you would only have to play 6 teams once, but those teams, especially the ones on the road, are going to give Penn State and any top team all it can handle as the game could be the tie-breaker for the B1G title.
Though some of the top teams will take an off year in 2013, (year off as in they probably won't win the B1G) this can be a powerful conference in 2014. Nebraska will be back eventually in the Final 4 and will win the B1G at least once in the next couple of years, Minnesota has a great head coach fresh from the Olympics, Purdue will continue to build it's new winning tradition, and Michigan can evolve into a powerhouse in volleyball after its big run this year.
The point is: Big Ten volleyball needs more diversity in its champions. Penn State may enjoy its dominance over the last decade, but it needs to end if the Big Ten wants to be the best. I'm not saying Penn State should just stop what it is doing. What I am saying is that teams need to be up at or above Penn State's level consistently so they are not running the show year after year. It can be done, the B1G has great coaches and players, they just need to find that championship caliber combination, win the conference, and have the conference represented well in the Final Four and tournament game beyond Penn State.