The Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team continued its steady rise through the ranks of the nation’s elite this week, moving up one spot in the latest version of the AVCA coaches poll released Monday. UW was also awarded the top spot in the first NCAA RPI poll of 2016.
Following yet another successful road trip to Indiana this past weekend, No. 2 Wisconsin (4-0 Big Ten, 12-1 overall) will put its perfect conference record on the line at Rutgers (0-4, 4-13) Wednesday night and then return home to host No. 24 Illinois (3-1, 10-5) in a border battle this Saturday.
As Rutgers’ highest-ranked opponent to date this season, the Badgers will enter College Avenue Stadium as heavy favorites against a struggling Scarlet Knights squad. Since starting the season 4-1, RU has dropped its last 12 matches in a row, falling in straight sets on nine different occasions during that span.
By the numbers, Rutgers is as bad as its record indicates, ranking last in the Big Ten in several statistical categories, namely hitting percentage and opponent hitting percentage. All things being equal, Wisconsin should have no problems taking care of the Scarlet Knights this Wednesday.
After a brief one-match road stint in New York, the Badgers will head back to the Field House for what should be a much more exciting contest with Illinois. Much like Wisconsin, Illinois stands out for its defensive prowess, playing with particular purpose in the frontline and at the net. The Illini rank just behind the Badgers amongst Big Ten blocking leaders, averaging 3.00 per set.
Even more impressively, nine Illinois players average more than 0.50 blocks per set, with sophomore middle blocker Ali Bastianelli setting the pace with 104 on the season, the best in the conference. Wisconsin should also be focused on sophomore setter Jordyn Poulter.
Named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team, Poulter has lived up to her billing in 2016, ranking ninth in the conference with a team-high 571 assists (10.20 per set) and recording seven aces.
The sophomore sensation proved worthy of high praise last weekend against Maryland, where she chalked up 47 assists, nine digs, three kills and two block assists in a five-set victory over the Terrapins. Overall, Illinois has fared well in the Big Ten thus far, falling only once at the hands of then-No.1 Nebraska.
With the way the Badgers are playing right now, it seems like the team couldn’t get much better. But even with the vast success his team has realized this season, head coach Kelly Sheffield still sees room to grow. This weekend may help to foster that development.
“We don’t feel like there’s any part of our game that we’re not really good at,” Sheffield said at a press conference Monday. “We feel pretty solid in most areas of our game, but I don’t think there’s anything we’re elite at yet. There’s times where our effort is lacking, or we’re not making the right reads, or we’re not playing with enough range. The best thing about that is that we see so many areas where we can get better in.”
First serve in the Rutgers match is slated for Wednesday at 6 p.m., while the Illinois match will start Saturday at 7:30 p.m.