The Gophers volleyball team has made it back to another Sweet Sixteen! Since the West Lafayette Regional includes two other B1G teams (Purdue and Penn State) I thought a couple of blogger Q&A's were in order to help us know who the Gophers will (and may) be facing.
We start with Purdue, who the Gophers will face tonight. Juan, writer and the volleyball correspondent for Hammer & Rails, was kind enough to answer my questions. You can follow him (@Air_Force_Juan) and Hammer & Rails (@HammerAndRails) on Twitter. He already posted my answers to his questions yesterday.
- The match starts at 6pm CST (or 30 minutes after PSU/Kentucky if they run late).
- You can watch the game on ESPN3.com.
- GopherSports.com will also have a Gametracker and Live Chat going.
- For those of you on Twitter, Juan will also be providing live updates on Twitter. I'd expect that the Gopher Volleyball feed (@GopherVBall) will be doing the same.
- Hammer & Rails will also have open threads running for the games for anyone interested in joining the conversation.
On to the questions!
The Daily Gopher: How excited are you and other Purdue fans to be in the Sweet Sixteen? Did you expect to see your team play this round on their home court or was the win over Florida State completely unexpected? What kind of atmosphere do you expect for the regional?
Juan: If you would have told me in August that come tournament time, Purdue would finish 5th in the Big Ten, not host the 1st and 2nd rounds and be the underdogs in their own regional, I would have laughed in your face. When this season started, Purdue was ranked in the Top 10 and a favorite to advance to the Final Four. But after getting swept for the first time in 2 years by Washington and Louisville, suddenly those hopes went out the door, for me at least. Add to the fact that Purdue squeaked to a 4-0 B1G start before being swept, AT HOME, to Nebraska and Iowa! IOWA. At that point I thought Purdue wouldn’t make it into the Big Dance at all. Luckily, Illinois (2011 National Runner-Up) made a fool of themselves by not even making the tournament, but I digress.
It wasn’t until the Michigan game where Purdue finally turned it around, winning 5 straight before losing at Nebraska in 5 sets. Though in a way, Purdue limped into the tournament, being swept at home by Ohio State, struggling against Penn State in Mackey Arena, but then beating the Hoosiers and Badgers to close out an ugly but 21-win season. The sweep over Colorado State was a big momentum boost for Purdue that allowed them to play well against Florida State.
I don’t think any Purdue fan can deny the fact that Purdue should have SWEPT Florida State. If it weren’t for blowing a 21-17 lead in the 2nd set, the Seminoles would have lost earlier. When Purdue won the game in the 5th set, I was shaking. After playing poorly when the season had such high hopes, I didn’t think Purdue would get to play back on its semi-home court (they play in IAF, which holds ~2500 but one of the loudest in the B1G).
Though Mackey won’t be as loud as the IAF (mostly due to empty seats, hard to fill a 14,000 arena for a volleyball game), it will still be tough for the Gophers. I’ve heard they have already sold over 6,000 tickets for the game, so there will be a good crowd for the game, and Mackey can get loud. Many Purdue fans are excited for this game.
TDG: What do you feel are this team's strengths and weaknesses?
Juan: The main strength is Purdue’s front row. Anyone who plays in the front row is dangerous. The main name is Ariel Turner, who I’ll talk about in the next question, but some other key players, like Kierra "Kiki" Jones, Val Nichol, Anna Drewry, Catherine Rebarchak, and Annie Drews are vital to this team, and have had vital plays that have powered Purdue this season. Against FSU, Katie Griffin came off the bench in the 4th set when Purdue was down 23-13, and led Purdue to rally and almost win the set (they lost the set 25-23), and then was a big key to Purdue winning the 5th set. Though Turner always steals the show, there are other players who may not produce the same numbers as Turner, but they can still be just as dangerous, and one of their kills in the middle of a set could spark a strong rally for Purdue.
As for the weakness, it would have to be the back court. Though Carly Cramer is one of the best defensive specialists in the Big Ten as Purdue’s libero, it drops off from there. Luckily, Turner has improved her back court game, and the team also gets help from the Amanda’s (Neill and Miller), but it hasn’t been easy after losing Emily Ehlers and Blair Bashen to graduation last year. Though the front court can be great, the blocking is hit or miss. As we saw against FSU, when Purdue is blocking the ball, it should be a good day, but when it’s not work, the back court.
TDG: The Purdue player who stands out the most when reviewing the team's stats is Ariel Turner. She he has almost double the numbers of kills (530), over double the number of kills per set (4.42), and about triple the number of total attempts (1546) as the next highest teammate in any of those categories. Is this by design because she is such a strong player? Or is it out of necessity because the rest of the team has struggled to balance the load offensively?
Juan: When I first saw Turner play as a freshman, I knew she would be good. Last year was an outstanding season for her, as she would always seem to play well, hence why she was named B1G Player of the Year and an All-American. The only problem last year was that she took nearly all the swings, which weakened her arm and made her not as effective when they played in the NCAA Tournament. This year, Shondell has taken some of the load off of her early on, but when Purdue struggled, she began taking more swings. In my interview with Coach Shondell before the season started, he stated that Turner had so many chances because the setter, Rachel Davis, would send Turner any ball that was "out of system" as she could always make something out of nothing. Of course, this made the team dependent on Turner, and when she struggled, it was difficult for the team to recover. This is something they haven’t relied on as much thanks to the front court that I mentioned earlier. (Here is the link to the interview: http://www.hammerandrails.com/2012/8/2/3216450/22-days-until-purdue-volleyball-a-juan-on-one-interview-with-coach)
TDG: What do the Gophers need to do to shut down Turner or limit her success?
Juan: Block her and make her commit errors. If the Gophers get Turner frustrated in the 1st set, they have a chance.
TDG: Who would you say are the other players to watch on this year's team? What do they bring to the Boilermakers that make them so important to the squad?
Juan: Carly Cramer is a beast in the back court. That’s odd to say because she is probably the smallest player on the team. However, as the libero and main DS, she can make something out of nothing. You think an attack will be a kill, but not under Cramer’s watch. She has two modes: 0% and 100%, so she will give her full effort on every play, even when it’s just demonstrating something. The only problem is that she had to sit out last year as she got almost every injury possible (except an ACL tear) and got a concussion at the Nebraska game. Cramer is healthy now (and hopefully stays that way).
The other plays Minnesota needs to watch out for are the middle blockers Anna Drewry, Kierra "Kiki" Jones, and Annie Drews. Drewry was have a great sophomore year until she tore her ACL (all in Purdue fashion) in the 2010 NCAA 2nd round game against Louisville. She didn’t quite recover fully in 2011, but she is back to being the "Boom-Boom" we all know and love. It seems like she is playing with a chip on her shoulder this year as she decided not to redshirt last year and is now playing her last games as a Boilermaker. After Purdue beat FSU, pictures of the team’s reaction post-game showed Anna crying. It didn’t surprise, she has put in a lot of effort as a Boilermaker, probably more than any other player, and I would have gotten emotional too if I thought my career was given new life after it seemed all was almost over.
Kiki Jones doesn’t get that many kills, but when she does it pumps up the fans and the team because they are one of the strongest kills you will see. She also has been great the last couple of games blocking for the Boilermakers and providing great defense. Annie Drews is a freshman who is from my hometown area (South Bend area), and she is certainly one of the best freshman in the Big Ten. Her kills are electrifying, and every time she looks like she is going to attack with her right hand, but then switches to her left and it always seems to catch her opponents off guard. Once she can adjust to attack from other than the right side of the court, I expect her to be a potential All-American.
Setter Rachel Davis is also dangerous. The setter before her was Jaclyn Hart, who was also amazing (she got injured in the Elite 8 game in 2010 against Texas. Had she not gone down, Purdue was on a roll to the Final Four) loved to attack instead of setting, catching the opponents off-guard sometime. Davis became Hart 2.0 and has even played better than her sometimes. She loves to attack instead of setting, more often than Hart and other setters in the B1G, so don’t be surprised if she catches the Gophers off guard.
TDG: What are the keys to defeating the Boilermakers? I'm assuming it will be more difficult than simply stopping Ariel Turner (as if that were an easy task).
Juan: Just like with Turner, block them and make them commit errors. However, the team won’t get all frustrated at once and they have been out blocked before and won. The key is getting around the front court and giving the back court hell. The back court has been the source of most of the problems this year and has been exposed multiple times, especially in sweeps, this season.
TDG: What do you think the Boilermakers will need to do in order to beat Minnesota?
Juan: Limit errors and improve back court play. If the front line can at least get decent blocks, it will give the back court a chance and allow setter Rachel Davis (or Val Nichol sometimes) to set the ball well to Turner, Griffin, Rebarchak, Drewry, Drews, Jones, or Nichol (obviously she can’t set herself). If Purdue can out block Minnesota and stop their attack, Purdue will have a chance.
TDG: What are you predictions for both the Purdue/Minnesota game and the entire regional?
Juan: Let’s get the first Sweet 16 game out of the way. If you are a Kentucky fan, you have no chance against Penn State. Period.
Moving on to the Purdue/Minnesota game, I honestly think this is a toss-up. Granted, Minnesota beat Purdue 3-1 earlier this year up in Minneapolis. But 1) Purdue never plays well in the state of Minnesota in any sport and 2) that was at the end of their 1-5 streak they had in the middle of B1G play. Purdue has momentum in this game, but Minnesota has something to live up to, especially when your coach just finished coaching the USA Volleyball team in the London Olympics. I see this going into 5 sets, but I can’t call it right now. If it was in the IAF, I would say Boilers in 4-5 sets, but given that Purdue didn’t play well last time it was in Mackey Arena, I’m officially declaring this a toss-up.
As for the Elite 8 game, both Purdue and Minnesota would have a hard time beating Penn State. December is when they shine, and they don’t look like they are stopping. Penn State swept Minnesota in Minneapolis, and beat Purdue 3-1 in Mackey Arena the weekend before Thanksgiving. I say Penn State wins this match 3-1 and advances to the Elite 8.
Either way, we’re getting some great volleyball this weekend!