Over halfway through the season, it is safe to say that the Big Ten schedule has not done the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers any favors.
After amassing an immaculate 9-0 record in the non-conference slate, No. 8 Wisconsin (6-6 Big Ten, 15-6 overall) has come back down to earth since the Big Ten season began, splitting its first 12 conference contests evenly.
UW’s caliber of competition speaks for itself. Already having faced six opponents ranked inside the top 5 nationally, the Badgers are doing their best to weather a murderous schedule which checks in as the second most difficult in the NCAA.
But, through the many ebbs and flows that have made the current campaign so variable and fluid, the Badgers have yet to fold, resolving to remain relevant in an uncompromisingly daunting conference.
And, after sweeping Northwestern last Saturday, this young Wisconsin team has put itself in position to get over the hump and push past the .500 mark with a successful homestand this weekend. Junior middle blocker Tionna Williams says the team can lean on lessons it learned from the triumphs and travails of the early part of the season to guide them forward.
“We’ve played Minnesota twice, we’ve played Nebraska twice and we’ve played Penn State — just playing that level of competition and playing such elite teams gives us a taste of what’s to come during tournament time,” Williams said. “Especially for the younger players, it’s good to get in the swing of things and build off those games.”
Hosting Ohio State (5-7, 12-11) and Maryland (5-7, 16-8) at the Field House this weekend, the Badgers are relieved to see no more Wednesday matches left on the calendar. In the wake of a month-long run of playing every Wednesday, the players take comfort in knowing that an already brutal schedule will no longer be compounded by the inconvenience of a midweek match.
“When we had Wednesday matches, we had limited time in the gym to really go hard and really grind it out before we got to play,” Williams said. “I don't wanna make an excuse, but I feel like that kind of limited us in getting better and we weren't able to get as many reps or touches like we usually do.”
While UW feels fortunate that it can return to its regular routine, the team doesn’t need any reminders of how difficult taking care of Ohio State this Friday could be. Last time these two schools squared off was in the Sweet 16 round of the 2016 NCAA tournament, when the Buckeyes overcame a 1-0 deficit to come within two points of knocking a third-seeded Wisconsin team out of the postseason.
The Buckeyes are not the same team they were a year ago, though. They lost a major piece in the middle with the departure of standout blocker Taylor Sandbothe, but remain strong at the setter position with the return of junior Taylor Hughes. Averaging more than 10 assists per set, Hughes orchestrates an offense that aspires to fluster and confuse the defense by making frequent substitutions and regularly tweaking the game plan to keep the opposition guessing.
They’re a really hard team to prepare for,” Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “Because of the subbing, because they’re changing things up so much — with the plays their running and the personnel they’re running out — they kind of throw the kitchen sink at you.”
As for its rematch with Maryland Saturday night, Wisconsin hopes that the offense can replicate the success it had in the first contest a few weeks back. In a sweep of the Terrapins on the road in College Park, the Badgers sported a highly efficient offense consisting of significant contributions from a wide range of players. Williams, who chipped in eight kills and two blocks that night, underscored the importance of executing on first contact and identified it as the key to balanced scoring.
“If we have a really good first contact ball, Syd’s [Sydney Hilley’s] able to run a lot of different players on a lot of different types of plays,” Williams said. “We just need to make sure we’re taking care of the first ball contact, and make sure we’re driving hard every single time and everybody’s being aggressive and doing what they can do. We just need to chip away and try to get everybody a slice of the cake.”
The Badgers take on Ohio State Friday night and then play Maryland Saturday to close out the weekend. Both matches are set for 7:00 p.m at the Field House.