Mike Strange: Lady Vols have to get past Big Ten volleyball bully

There's a bully lurking in the alley, waiting to take Tennessee's lunch money.

That's one way to size up the NCAA volleyball tournament.

The bully is the Big Ten, today represented by Michigan in a first-round match in Louisville, Ky.

Tennessee (22-7) and the Wolverines (23-11) meet at 5 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center, which will host the Final Four in a few weeks.

The survivor faces the Louisville-Belmont winner on Friday.

"We haven't beaten a Big Ten team since I've been here,'' said Kelsey Robinson, UT's junior All-SEC outside hitter.

The Lady Vols, in fact, haven't beaten a Big Ten team in their past eight tries, not since 2007.

Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota, respectively, have eliminated UT from the past three NCAA tournaments.

"They're just bigger,'' Robinson said. "They block big and they serve tough.''

That the 2012 bracket would pair UT with Michigan is no surprise.

"We're always going to play a Big Ten team in the tournament,'' said coach Rob Patrick, "just because of where we're located.

"OK, we need to know that going in and be able to be competitive with that.''

Patrick has recruited accordingly, designing a roster that can stand up to Big Ten-style physical play around the net.

At 6-foot-2, Robinson has a trio of 6-4 teammates in the front-line rotation: DeeDee Harrison, Tiffany Baker and Leslie Cikra. Middle blocker Shealyn Kolosky is 6-3.

"We've gotten physical at the net,'' Patrick said, "whereas before we were more of a back-row dominant team that could handle the ball and dig a lot.

"To go far in the NCAA tournament, you've got to be big at the net.''

UT was and did in 2005, vanquishing Big Ten powers Minnesota and Penn State to reach the Final Four before losing to Washington.

Physique isn't the Big Ten's only edge. It's a premier volleyball conference that toughens its survivors for postseason play.

Michigan, for example, has played 10 ranked opponents this year, nine of them in Big Ten. UT played three ranked opponents and had to go outside the SEC for two of them.

"They're not afraid of anybody,'' Patrick said. "They've played the best all during their conference season.

"And because of the area they're in, they attract players that have played the game a long time before they got to college.''

Today's match has a special incentive for Robinson. A prep all-star in the Chicago area, she had her pick of Big Ten schools.

"My final decision was between Michigan and Tennessee,'' she said. "I would love to knock out Michigan.''

She came south to make her own mark. She has.

"She was the SEC player of the year as a sophomore,'' Patrick said. "I don't know if that would have happened in the Big Ten.

"We're happy she's here and she's excited about this next match. She wants to prove she made the right choice.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 1

voloffaith writes:

The bigger they are the harder they fall............take'em down on match at a time Lady Vols!!!

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