After advancing to the postseason 13 times over the course of his career, Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield has become quite adept at preparing his team to play in December. In the upcoming 2017 NCAA tournament, however, Sheffield will be tasked with helping the Badgers broach a challenge they have never encountered before: being an underdog.
For the first time since 2012, UW (11-9 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) was seeded outside of the top 16 teams in the tournament field and consequently it is headed on the road for the opening round of the tournament. After securing the highest seed in school history last year, the news that the Badgers would not be hosting a game came as a disappointment.
“It was probably the quietest selection show that I’ve ever been a part of,” Sheffield said. “They were probably a little bit stunned and probably a little bit irritated, and that’s not a bad place going into the tournament. “
Senior outside hitter Kelli Bates took the committee’s decision as a sign that people had not viewed Wisconsin as a serious contender.
The lowered expectations have given the team all the more impetus to aim high.
“It gives us a little bit of more an edge when we see our seeding and see the other teams in our way,” Bates said. “I think we’re being underestimated, and I think that’s bad for other teams because you definitely don’t want to underestimate this team. It makes you wanna play better and it makes you want to prove people wrong.”
Wisconsin will have its first opportunity to prove itself on the postseason stage when it collides with intrastate rival Marquette (15-3 Big East, 22-9) Friday night in Ames, Iowa.
The focal point for the Golden Eagles will be sophomore hitter Allie Barber, who leads MU in kills per set (4.74) and hitting percentage (.334). In a four-set victory over Marquette earlier this year, Barber recorded a match-high 21 kills and enabled the Golden Eagles to hand the Badgers their first set-loss of the season.
Aside from the impressive offensive output by Barber, Marquette’s defense figured out how to hold standout middle blocker Dana Rettke in check, containing one the Badgers’ most prolific scorers to just three kills on the night.
“Both of our middles hit zero in that match,” Sheffield said. “Dana has probably had three, four, five matches all year she’s hit under .250, and that was by far the lowest percentage.
“It’s not a different height or size from what Dana has seen, but hopefully our middles are a little more active than the first time around because we certainly need that."
According to Rettke — who was just named Big Ten Freshman of the Year earlier this week — the Golden Eagles defense was in lockstep with her at all times, keeping multiple defenders on her wherever she went. But the extra attention is something Rettke is used to now.
“They put a double block on me,” Rettke said “They had some follow me all the time and commit-block on me, but also that was the first time that kind of ever happened to me, and I know throughout the Big Ten season it’s happened quite a bit.”
Reflecting on the regular season, Sheffield is the first to admit that it was far from perfect. As the Badgers shift into tournament mode in the coming weeks, however, his message to the team is all about looking forward.
“Do we have a little more marks in the loss column than our players would like and what are program is accustomed to? Certainly. But all our bigger goals that we’ve got are out in front of us,” Sheffield said. “Let’s continue to get better. Let’s continue to focus in on one match and put all of our attention on that.”
The Badgers first round contest with Marquette will get underway Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Ames, Iowa. If Wisconsin advances, it would play either 14-seed Iowa State or Princeton Saturday night for the chance to head to regional play.