ILLINOIS volleyball coach Don Hardin seemed to have a big chip on his shoulder over the weekend -- a Big Ten chip.
Big Ten volleyball
While attempting to be gracious overall in his comments to the media as the Illini beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first round and gave fourth-ranked Florida all it could handle in the second, Hardin took it upon himself to defend his conference's honor at every turn -- a conference that considers itself the elite of women's volleyball.
"If they make the mistake of thinking we're some inconsistent, overrated Big Ten team, they could very easily be surprised," Hardin said Thursday, on the eve of the Florida match.
And then, after pushing the fourth-ranked Gators to five games: "It was great to wipe the smiles off their faces. I thought their joking around and laughing was a sign of disrespect to us.
"We wish them luck, except when they play another Big Ten team."
ASK anyone west of The Rockies or south of the Mason-Dixie line: There's no way eight teams from the Big Ten should have been selected to play in the NCAA volleyball tournament.
But going strictly by the results so far, maybe the selection committee didn't do such a bad job: All eight teams won their first-round matches, and two - Penn State and Minnesota, who play each other in a Central semifinal -- advanced past the second round.
Penn State will clobber Minnesota, and of the final eight teams, there will be one Big Ten team left -- a team that, judging by its No. 1 ranking, obviously deserves to be among the eight survivors.
So now the committee can point at the results and say, "Hey, obviously all eight deserved it, they all won in the first round."
But let's look at a couple of teams that were left out:
San Jose State (25-6 with two losses to Hawaii) and Tennessee (19-13 with three losses to Florida and one to Hawaii). The second-best team in the WAC and the third best in the SEC certainly deserved a spot over Michigan, 7-13 in the league and 15-14 overall.
"I think that might be going too deep into one conference," said Tennessee coach Rob Patrick. "Teams should show some success in their own conference before they get a chance to go the NCAA Tournament."
IT'S volleyball, so there's no money involved. But there's a lot at stake in recruiting clout. If you can tell a prospect that you not only go to the dance every year, but you also play a lot of teams every year that make it, you can sell yourself as big-time.
The sport is making strides toward competitive balance on a nationwide scale; that's why you have slots for champions from the smaller conferences, and that's why geography doesn't matter in choosing hosts. Letting one-eighth of the field be from one conference nearly negates that progress.
And by the way, if nearly all the teams in the Big Ten are good enough to be in the NCAA tournament, why couldn't any of them beat Penn State?
After the tournament, the NCAA releases to coaches the ratings used (in part) to select the field.
It's called RPI. If Tennessee's and San Jose State's are better than Michigan's -- and we're guessing they are -- this issue will be far from RIP.
Dave Reardon, who covered sports in Hawaii
from 1977 to 1998, is a sportswriter at the
Gainesville Sun. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org