Defending champion Nebraska gets No. 1 seed and complicated road to Columbus – ESPN
By Mechelle Voepel and Vicki L. Friedman | Nov 27, 2016
As expected, the top three seeds in the 2016 NCAA volleyball tournament are Big Ten powers Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin. What’s surprising is that the No. 1 seed and defending champion Huskers might have a harder road to the final four than the No. 2 Gophers or No. 3 Badgers.
The biggest surprise is that the No. 4 seed went to 2015 runner-up Texas, even though the Longhorns did not win the Big 12. Kansas did, and the teams, which both went to the final four last year, split their regular-season matches, yet the Jayhawks got the No. 5 seed.
Being one of the top four seeds is more important than ever this year because the regionals are no longer at predetermined sites. The top surviving seed in each quarter of the bracket gets to host the regional. First- and second-round action will be on campus sites Thursday-Saturday, followed by the regionals Dec. 9-10. The national semis and final are Dec. 15-17 in Columbus, Ohio.
Here are some of the things we’re pondering after a look at the bracket.
1. Will the Big Ten get three teams in the final four?
With the top three seeds in the tournament coming from the conference, the final four very well could have a Big Ten flavor. But it looks like a bumpy ride for Nebraska. The defending national champions earned the No. 1 seed by winning the Big Ten for just the second time in program history, but the committee didn’t go overboard to reward the Big Red.
If seeds hold, the champions from volleyball’s two top conferences would have to meet prior to the final four: Nebraska (27-2) would host Pac-12 winner Washington (26-4) in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the regional final.
It’s not all that easy before then for Nebraska, either. The Huskers could face No. 16 seed Penn State (22-9) in the regional semifinals, and that’s a mega-power matchup. The two programs have combined for eight of the past 10 NCAA titles.
Clearly, this year’s Nittany Lions don’t have the résumé that most of coach Russ Rose’s seven national championship teams have had, but Penn State is known for elevating its play in the postseason. Nebraska won both matches between the two in the Big Ten this season, but they went five sets at Penn State.
Might the committee have raised an eyebrow at Nebraska for collapsing Wednesday at Minnesota? The Huskers led the Gophers 2-0 and 23-20 in the third set, only to fall in five.
By contrast, let’s look at the road for the Gophers and Badgers. No. 2 Minnesota (25-4) potentially would face No. 7 seed North Carolina (27-3) in a regional final. This is no knock on the Tar Heels, but Nebraska probably would prefer a matchup with the ACC champions, who have never advanced to the final four, over No. 8 Washington, which has a significant postseason pedigree, including as 2005 national champion. Last year the Huskies made the regional final, where they fell to the Huskers. Nebraska and Washington have met six times in the NCAA tournament, all since 2005, and the Huskers have a 4-2 edge.
No. 3 Wisconsin (25-4) could meet No. 6 Stanford (21-7) in a regional final. The Cardinal tied with UCLA for second in the Pac-12 but were seeded ahead of Washington, likely because Stanford swept its series with the Huskies.
2. Who’s really the top team in the Pac-12?
That’s the question we’ve been asking all season. The final standings said Washington, which was the conference champ, at 16-4. The NCAA selection committee said Stanford and gave the Cardinal the highest seed, No. 6, of any Pac-12 team.
In total, the Pac-12 got eight teams in the field, tied with the Big Ten for most in one conference. For the Pac-12, that included two teams with .500 records in league play: Southern Cal and Arizona, who were both 10-10.
The Trojans were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament last year but lost to Kansas in stunning fashion in the regional final. After losing the 2015 national player of the year, Samantha Bricio, it was a bit of a rebuilding season for USC, and the team’s record reflected that. But despite losing their last three matches, the Trojans have a chance to make a postseason run.
As good as the Pac-12 traditionally is, the only team from the conference to win the NCAA title in the past decade was UCLA in 2011. The Bruins tied with Stanford for second place in the Pac-12, at 15-5 this season, and they’ve won six of their past seven matches.