Below, we take a glance at the Power 5s and how the conference races might shape up next year.
Is there anyway Nebraska and Penn State can remain on top in the conference? The Huskers lose setter Kelly Hunter, while Penn State says bye to a ton of seniors that includes Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington. Both have work to do but the conference is going through its share of changes overall next season.
The team that’s going to return the most intact that finished the highest is Minnesota. The Gophers also have CC McGraw on her way in, likely taking over the libero position. Two areas Minnesota must improve on is slowing down opposing left sides with more touches at the net and getting more (consistent) production from the second left side spot.
Wisconsin carries the most intrigue, if you follow the logic that middle Dana Rettke and setter Sidney Hilley will both be even better after great rookie seasons, plus the addition of a healthy Molly Haggerty, makes the Badgers the team to beat next year in the Big Ten. With Rettke and Tionna Williams, Wisconsin will own the middle, carry a legit go-to left side that can pass and play defense, and have the postseason experience from this year. That could all prove a deadly combination.
Michigan State joins Penn State in losing a ton of senior talent. It’s difficult to say exactly what the Spartans are going to look like next fall. Both Illinois and Michigan finished the year strong and have enough pieces back to make up ground. Purdue loses key pieces in Danielle Cuttino and Ashley Evans, so it’s hard to see the Boilermakers jumping up at this moment. Iowa and Maryland are both climbing, while Ohio State will likely regroup after a season derailed by injury.
Of that pack in the above paragraph however, you can only make a case for Illinois challenging Penn State and Nebraska. If things play out close to this, Wisconsin should be the favorite with Minnesota, Penn State and Nebraska in the mix right behind. Then Illinois, then the fight for sixth is wide open.
The coaches did not pick Stanford to win the conference title this season. They are sure not to repeat that mistake in 2018, as the Cardinal have to be the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12. The real mystery is who the coaches will pick second? That’s anybody’s guess at this moment, because what we saw behind Stanford in this year’s Pac-12 race is what we’re likely to see next season – a bungled mess. Seven teams – Washington, USC, Utah, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon – finished within four games of each other. Even Washington State, at 6-14, was good enough to be included (rightfully) in the tournament. The Cougars return almost everyone next season and could improve on their record.
Colorado returns the most of the bunch above. With Brynna DeLuzio setting and Alexa Smith and Frankie Shebby, the Buffs are arguably the second-best team behind Stanford. Washington loses a lot of seniors. UCLA watches Sarah Sponcil and Reily Buechler leave. Utah will miss Adora Anae, while the Beavers will miss Mary-Kate Marshall.
That leaves USC and Oregon. The Trojans should be in the mix as long as Khalia Lanier is healthy, along with the continued emergence of Brooke Botkin. Oregon will have pieces in Lindsey Vander Weide, Willow Johnson and Ronika Stone and could be better than the 10-10 mark the Ducks produced this season. But in the unpredictable Pac-12, who really knows? USC, Oregon and UCLA will have pieces and could be there with Colorado fighting for second place. Or we just as easily could see the Bruins tying for fifth place like they did this season.
Judging it as a whole, the SEC is on the rise. LSU was better this season, as was Georgia, Auburn and Arkansas. But there’s no denying that the conference title is still going through Florida and Kentucky next year. It’s the Wildcats that could be the favorite, with Leah Edmond and Madison Lilley returning to lead the charge. Florida loses Carli Snyder, Rhamat Alhassan and Shainah Joseph. Even with the intrigue that comes along with incoming No. 1 Senior Ace Thayer Hall, that’s a lot for the Gators to make up for. The arrival of Hall though is what keeps Florida above the rest of the pack. And opponents still must deal with Rachael Kramer in the middle.
Missouri will try to hang on to the third spot, but it’s going to be challenging for the Tigers. They lose some key pieces in Melanie Crow and at the setting spot. But Leketor Member-Meneh is back, as is Alyssa Munlyn and Kayla Caffey. That’s a good foundation to start with.
With the SEC it’s not so much a matter of the conference championship. As we stated, it’s going to go through Florida and Kentucky and it’s unlikely anyone else will contend for first. However, it’s about can the conference squeeze another team into the NCAA tourney next year?
In 2017, there were four with Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and LSU. Georgia was in fifth place and with the Bulldogs armed with a young core that features Meghan Donovan, T’Ara Cesar and Rachel Ritchie, it’s possible the SEC can garner five of the 64 spots.
Much like the SEC, looking ahead in terms of a conference champion is fairly lopsided. It’s going to take something of a miracle for anyone to keep Texas from repeating. Baylor, which finished second this year, could be poised to be the next in line behind the Longhorns. The Bears return setter Hannah Lockin and outside Yossiana Pressley. Iowa State loses some valuable seniors but should remain in the top three or four. One of the biggest questions surrounds Kansas, as the Jayhawks lose Ainise Havili, Kelsie Payne and Madison Rigdon.
The conference sent four teams – Texas, Baylor, Kansas and Iowa State – to the tournament this season. Will the Big 12 get that many teams in next fall? Texas is a lock. Baylor and Iowa State seem like good bets, while Kansas is on the bubble. It’s going to take a big jump for West Virginia, which took fifth this season, Texas Tech or TCU to make the field of 64. If Kansas can’t get in, it could leave the Big 12 with just three teams.
Let’s start the other way around with this last conference. The ACC sent six teams to the tournament in 2017, so how many will go in 2018? It could be the same number. Pitt, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Notre Dame and Florida State all represented the conference in the postseason. The Hurricanes will have the hardest time getting back next season with the loss of Olga Strantzali. The other five, however, could all make a return trip. If back to being healthy, North Carolina could join the pack to keep the number at six.
As for the conference title, it’s going to be another wide-open affair. Pitt has plenty coming back, including Stephanie Williams, Kayla Lund and Nika Markovic. That could make the Panthers the slight favorite, depending on what’s going on with North Carolina. Fully intact, the Tar Heels could be the team to beat in the ACC next fall. But NC State and Louisville should be in the fold again. Notre Dame should be improved, and so should Florida State. Pitt and Louisville finished tied for first place this year at 18-2. It’s possible next season to see a three-way tie where the champs each have three losses. It’s going to be that competitive in the ACC.