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3 things to know about Wisconsin volleyball Big Ten openers

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Badgers players, including those who graduated, and coaches from last year's national championship team received their rings.

The No. 6 University of Wisconsin volleyball team will open its Big Ten Conference season Friday night against Northwestern at the UW Field House then travel to No. 8 Minnesota on Sunday.

Here are three things to know heading into those matches.

By the numbers

So you think this season's version of the Badgers is falling short of last season’s much celebrated team? Apparently so do the players. Coach Kelly Sheffield, sensing some frustration coming off a disappointing loss to Florida before a record Kohl Center crowd last Friday, ran some numbers. He then showed them to his team lined up against last season’s stats. And this season's team is either better or close to last season's in just about every statistical category that he considers crucial in determining success.

Granted, it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison with just eight matches this season, four of which were against inferior opponents. But given that the other four foes were ranked and capable of advancing in the NCAA Tournament, the numbers had enough validity to make his point.

Last season's UW team hit .291 while allowing opponents to hit .161, a difference of .130. The goal is to hit .300 and hold opponents to .150 for a .150 difference. This season's Badgers are hitting .273 and holding opponents to .127 for a .146 difference.

The serving-passing numbers are virtually the same. The serving average (based on the opponent’s passing) was 1.88 last season, 1.89 so far this season. UW’s passing average both seasons was 2.12.

Two areas where this season’s team is outperforming last season are blocks per set — 2.63 last season vs. 3.10 this season — and transition hitting percentage — .197 in 2021 and .223 in 2022. The biggest area where this season’s team is lagging is in first ball side out, a key to the Badgers’ success in recent seasons — .333 last season and just .292 this season.

All of which is not to suggest that this season's team is playing better than last season's did. The players and coaches know better. But the point is that the gap is not as large as it might seem, and it eventually could be bridged given the room for improvement.

Wildcats watch

Northwestern (11-1) has had an encouraging nonconference season, albeit against questionable competition. The Wildcats’ only loss was 3-1 to Washington, and their best win came a day later against No. 17 Pepperdine in a sweep.

They have a .300 hitting percentage, second best in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation. Senior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara leads the attack with 3.81 kills per set, fourth best in the conference. Senior middle blocker Desiree Becker ranks sixth in hitting percentage (.383) and eighth in blocks (1.38 per set).

Junior setter Alexa Rousseau had the first triple-double by a Big Ten player this season (11 kills, 11 digs, 44 assists) in a four-set win over DePaul last week. She was named conference Setter of the Week, the first Wildcat to earn that honor in nine years.

Fifth-year libero Megan Miller, who began her career at Nebraska, is seventh in the conference in digs (3.84).

Gopher guts

Minnesota (5-3) has had one of the toughest schedules in the country and four-set victories over the two teams that defeated the Badgers, Baylor and Florida. The Gophers’ losses have come against No. 1 Texas, No. 5 Stanford and No. 17 Pepperdine.

The Gophers are hitting .244 with their opponents hitting .211, the second highest mark in the Big Ten.

Last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, Stephanie Samedy, is gone, but there are plenty of familiar names in the lineup, including junior setter Melanie Shaffmaster and fifth-year libero CC McGraw.

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Taylor Landfair, the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of Plainfield (Illinois) Central, has been a force, ranking second in the Big Ten in kills (4.35) after missing most of last season with an injury. Freshman Mckenna Wucherer from Brookfield Central and Milwaukee Sting, the top-ranked recruit last year, has taken over the other outside hitter spot since returning from a foot injury and averaged 3.50 kills per set in her first two matches. Junior Jenna Wenaas switched to opposite to accommodate Wucherer in the lineup.


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