Open Jim: How can NCAA volleyball get more attention from ESPN and others? | College volleyball

I’ll start this week with a plug.

In case you haven’t heard, my colleague Dennis Punzel wrote a book about the University of Wisconsin volleyball team. It’s called “Point Wisconsin: The Road to A National Title for Kelly Sheffield & the Wisconsin Badgers” and I highly suggest you find a way to get your hands on a copy.

This is in Dennis’ introduction to the book: We were out for dinner in Columbus, Ohio, the night before the NCAA championship match between UW and Nebraska, and I asked him if he’d ever considered writing a book. He’d given it some thought but wasn’t sure he wanted to dive into such a big project.

I’m glad he decided to do it. If anybody was going to write this book, it had to be Punz, a true UW volleyball insider.

This week’s Open Jim mailbag includes questions on UW volleyball, football and men’s basketball, along with Big Ten expansion and the Green Bay Packers. Thanks for reading and for those who submitted questions, keep them coming.

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I appreciate Sheffield’s candor and devoted my column from Big Ten volleyball media day Tuesday to his willingness to speak out when he thinks his sport is being slighted.

Our own metrics have told us that our readers love following this program, and it’s why we sent two reporters — Punzel and myself — to the final four in Ohio last December and why both of us were in Chicago for the media event earlier this week. That meant me missing UW football media day, but we felt it was worth it to cover a historic event.

There are a lot of little things that could get volleyball in front of more eyeballs, but one big one is ESPN televising the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Sheffield and others have been very vocal about that, and I completely agree with them.

I’ve always enjoyed watching volleyball on television. It’s a back-and-forth sport that displays a ton of skill and athleticism.

But I will say this after jumping on the bandwagon for five of the Badgers’ six wins during their NCAA title run: The sport is even better to watch in person, and I’d encourage fans to attend a game at UW Field House (or when UW is on the road) to see it for yourself. Watching on TV only provides a glimpse of how exciting of a sport this is to watch.

This offseason has made me appreciate even more Chris Vogt’s contributions to UW’s Big Ten title run in 2021-22. That Vogt was willing to join the Badgers as a role player, willing to do whatever he could in whatever time he got on the court speaks volumes about his character.

UW really needed to find another player like him and to date hasn’t done that. It’s now August and I’d be surprised if Greg Gard and his staff add a backup center this late in the game.

Which leaves UW with a couple options: Hope Chris Hodges is ready to contribute meaningful minutes as a reserve or use smaller lineups more often.

Neither option seems all that appealing. Hodges hasn’t played in two years — he sat out his senior season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and redshirted as a freshman at UW last season — and I just haven’t seen enough of him to know if he’s ready for a backup center role. There’s plenty of time between now and the start of the season in November, and this trip to France — UW leaves Sunday — will be an opportunity for growth for Hodges.

As for playing small, that’s an OK option at times. But when UW is lining up against Michigan (Hunter Dickinson) or Purdue (Zach Edey), it limits the frequency with which small lineups can be used.

Not to mention that UW will be in big trouble if Crowl gets in foul trouble or misses time with an injury.

It is way too early for this exercise, but I’ll play along.

There obviously are three givens: point guard Chucky Hepburn, forward Tyler Wahl and center Steven Crowl. That leaves the two wing spots. The options are Max Klesmit, Jahcobi Neath, Jordan Davis, Carter Gilmore, Isaac Lindsey and Connor Essegian.

I think Gilmore is more of a “4” than a “3”, and it’s hard to see Essegian stepping in and starting as a true freshman, so cross them off the list.

Klesmit, who transferred from Wofford, gives UW some outside shooting it desperately needs. I’ll slot him in at shooting guard. That leaves Neath or Davis for the remaining starting spot, and it’s a tough call. Neath dealt with injuries last season, but he gets the nod if healthy because he’s a little more experienced.

That leaves Davis as the sixth man, and UW-Green Bay transfer Kamari McGee should be in line for some decent minutes while serving as the backup point guard. Gilmore likely will be the first forward off the bench, and the next spot comes down to what kind of strides two players in the 2021 class — Markus Ilver and Hodges — have made. I’d give Ilver the edge for now.

But that brings us back to the previous question: Having no true backup at center is a major question mark heading into the 2022-23 campaign.

I’m guessing Big Ten officials haven’t even started on this one yet, in part because nobody knows for sure whether the number will be 16 in 2024.

But if it is 16, I think the solution is pretty simple and would keep the Big Ten tournament at a five-day event: Four games Wednesday (9 vs. 16; 10 vs. 15; 11 vs. 14; 12 vs. 13) with the four winners playing the Nos. 5-8 seeds the following day before the quarterfinals start Friday as usual.

If the number is 18 or 20, it has to become a six-day event that starts Tuesday. That’s tricky if the seeds aren’t determined until the regular season ends two days earlier, but there are going to be headaches involved with something of this magnitude.

At 20, you’re looking at four matchups Tuesday: 20 vs. 13; 19 vs. 14; 18 vs. 15; 17 vs. 16 with the four winners playing the Nos. 9-12 seeds the next day, the Nos. 5-8 seeds joining in Thursday and the quarterfinals getting underway Friday.

It’s all very … big. Or B1G.

I got a couple chances to speak with Barry Alvarez last week in Indianapolis for the Big Ten football media days, and he was in the background as this partnership was being formed, according to him.

Alvarez said he serves as a sounding board for Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren on a variety of important topics, including expansion. But I didn’t get the idea that Alvarez is at the forefront of any discussions in this case or any future flirtations with potential additions.

That said, Alvarez seemed to like the move and thinks UCLA and Southern Cal will make the Big Ten stronger.

Full disclosure: This is more of a wish list for me than any inside information. I’ve read the speculation just like you have, but one thing Kevin Warren does well is keep information under a tight lid.

You don’t need to be an insider to know that the Big Ten would love Notre Dame to climb aboard, and I think that’d be a fantastic addition. But that would give the conference 17 teams and it’d make sense to get that to an even number.

So do you find one more school to get to 18? Or three more to get to 20?

If it’s one, I’d pick North Carolina. It’s a good program, would fit in from an academic standpoint (Association of American Universities member) and would expand the Big Ten’s footprint down the East Coast. It probably would make Maryland happy because the Tar Heels would give the Terrapins a natural rival.

If North Carolina says no or the Big Ten wants to expand beyond 18 programs, then I think it makes sense to go back to the West Coast.

My picks in order would be: Stanford, Washington and Oregon.

None of those schools knock my socks off, but I think it’d be smart to ease the travel burden on UCLA and USC and have a West Coast pod of more than two teams.

San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland is a top-10 TV market and Seattle isn’t far behind.

Among the other teams @warsteiny tossed out in later replies for potential road games were Troy, UTEP and Southern Miss.

I honestly don’t see much value in playing those games. Yes, UW and other Big Ten programs won’t be short on dough after this new media rights deal is finalized. But you still have to consider the economic impact it would have on Madison to remove a nonconference home game from the schedule. Those Saturday game days are huge for hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

I’m not saying UW plays three nonconference home games every year. But if the Badgers are looking for road games that would be attractive for fans — other than yourself, of course — I’d stick with home-and-home series with power conference opponents and maybe try to arrange some opponents that UW hasn’t seen very often.

Just off the top of my head … Boston College would make sense because the Badgers and Eagles never have played and there’s a large alumni base in Boston. UW had a home-and-home with North Carolina in 2003 and 2005, and I’d like to see that series revisited. Maybe try to arrange more games with SEC opponents: Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi and Texas A&M come to mind.

It’s possible some of these calls already have been made and the other party isn’t interested. Scheduling is a lot more difficult than it seems.

But road games at New Mexico State, Troy, UTEP and/or Southern Miss? No thanks.

Worried? No. Slightly concerned and worth monitoring? Yes.

As I’ve written previously, missing out on some high-end targets from Wisconsin in 2022 followed by a weak in-state class in 2023 is a big reason UW’s team ranking is low.

As for missing out on blue-chip players from out of the state, it’s hard to say what, if any, effect Name, Image and Likeness has had. I haven’t heard anything to suggest that NIL is the tipping point when prospects choose other schools over the Badgers, but I won’t rule out that as a cause, either.

From the broken-record department: It’d be nice if we’d get some actual details on the inside workings of The Varsity Collective, which is a few months old but doesn’t appear to be actually up and running. I’ve heard from several fans who are disappointed by that group’s slow start out of the gates.

Either way, I’d offer this reminder: Some of UW’s best players over the years have been lightly regarded three-star prospects, while some of its highest-rated recruits haven’t panned out. So I think getting too worked up about recruiting is a waste of energy.

Wow, questions about the kicker in back-to-back weeks.

I think the kicking game will be improved this season, provided Arkansas transfer Vito Calvaruso stays healthy. Calvaruso has a big leg and at the very least could be a weapon on kickoffs, the way Zach Hintze was a few years back.

But Calvaruso missed time in the spring with an injury, and that opened the door for redshirt freshman Nate Van Zelst to get a lot of the field-goal reps. Van Zelst was solid, and I’m sure he came out of the spring with a boost in confidence.

Jack Van Dyke can’t be ruled out as a possibility, either.

One other thing to remember: Spring practices were held indoors due to the Camp Randall Stadium renovations. I’d like to see these players kick outdoors to get a true indication of where the competition stands.

Full disclosure: I haven’t been up to Green Bay for a training camp practice yet, mainly because I was in Indianapolis last week for Big Ten football media days and in Chicago earlier this week for Big Ten volleyball media days. My plan is to get up there soon to get a look at this team.

But you’re right, it’s been a pretty quiet camp for Rodgers to date, though Packers coach Matt LaFleur had some nice things to say about him Tuesday: “I think Amari had a really good day yesterday, just not only what he’s shown on We-fense, but also on offense as well,” LaFleur said. “Just some of the effort he displayed out there was pretty gritty, which is something that we want from the entire receiving room. Think a lot of times the receivers help establish your identity as an offense in just how tenacious they are in both the run game and in the pass game.”

This is a big season for Rodgers and there’s certainly playing time available in a revamped receiving corps. Check out this piece on Rodgers by Jason Wilde from the summer if you haven’t already.

I think it’s been that way for a few years now, Sean. It’s been 12 years since the Packers won a Super Bowl and fans — at least the ones I hear from — are ready to end that drought, especially after three consecutive 13-win regular seasons that ended with postseason pain.

This season will begin with questions about Aaron Rodgers’ future once again hovering over it. That brings even more urgency to the 2022 campaign because this could be the Last Dance — haven’t we heard that before — for No. 12.

The pieces are in place for a title run: Strong defense, franchise quarterback and (knock on wood) an improved special teams unit. If not this season, then when?

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