A somewhat quick, hopefully useful NCAA Volleyball Tournament guide
A look at the toughest paths for the top seeds, dark horse candidates and one player worth watching in each bracket.
Happy December. To mark the occasion, and the start of Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament quest, we’re offering 20% off an annual subscription. We’ll keep that deal live for at least as long as the Huskers are still playing volleyball, but why roll the dice? Get more good things to read today and you won’t have to worry about it.
John Cook got the news as he walked into his Thursday afternoon press conference. Western Michigan had beaten 7-seed Auburn 3-0 in one of the NCAA Tournament’s early matches on Thursday.
“On paper, that’s a big upset,” he said. “When I saw the bracket I said there’s going to be a lot of great matches on the first day.”
Early, sorta, upsets aside,1 the NCAA Tournament has historically been pretty chalky. Over the last 22 tournaments, no fewer than 10 of the top 16 seeds have advanced to Regionals each year and the average is 12.9.2 To put it another way, the top four seeds in each bracket should have about an 80% chance of advancing to the Sweet 16 based on the past 20 years of data.
The guide below uses that information as its marching orders, looking at the trickiest paths for the top teams, a dark horse candidate and one player worth checking out in each bracket.
Oh, and because they don’t give the quadrants of this 64-team tournament brilliant names like EAST, as they do in basketball, I’ve decided to give them housing development names for clarity. Hope that works.
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How tough is the top seed’s road: The Huskers’ hills are about as flat as a team could hope for at this stage of the season. That’s the expectation for a top overall seed, but never a given. Per the Pablo rankings three of the eight seeds in the bracket were over-seeded by at least a spot.3 That includes Georgia Tech (5), James Madison (7) and Missouri (8), Nebraska’s potential second-round opponent. Should we end up with favorites at the end, the Huskers beat Kentucky (2) 3-1 in Lincoln in September.
None of this means the Huskers will have it easy. Florida (4) started the season 8-0 but finished 10-9. Still, the Gators are a program more than comfortable with what it takes to win matches in December. While Pablo is lower on Georgia Tech than the committee was, the Rich Kern Poll and the AVCA Poll had the Yellowjackets 12th overall. They beat Penn State, Ohio State (twice), Florida State and Louisville this season. Georgia Tech’s best is plenty good enough to push Nebraska if the teams meet in the Regional Final.
Dark horse danger: Baylor started the season ranked 15th in the AVCA Poll but just scraped into the Tournament at 16-12. The Bears faced 11 Tournament teams (and 12 ranked teams) on their way to that record, and are making their eighth-straight appearance in the field of 64, so none of this will be new to them. Baylor has been right there all season long, playing 20 sets decided by two points, but came up short more often than not. Right on cue, the Bears swept 7-seed James Madison setting up a match with Kentucky. Knock off the Wildcats and Baylor could keep a four-season streak of reaching the Regional Semifinals alive. (Staying in Texas, it might be worth keeping an eye on TCU, too.)
Make a point to watch this player: Georgia Tech outside hitter Bianca Bertolino ranked second on the team in kills per set (3.07) and hitting percentage (.229), but the real reason to watch is her serving. The 6-foot junior from Argentina tied for fourth nationally with .59 service aces per set, leading the ACC and the second-best average in the Tournament.
How tough is the top seed’s road: The Panthers have one of the top offenses in the country (.309, 3rd nationally), but the path here is potentially poky. The Pablo rankings disagree slightly with seven seeds in this bracket. Louisville (2), Creighton (3) and Dayton (6) are at least a line higher, while Pablo wouldn’t have Utah State (6) or Auburn (dun dun duuun) seeded. It would, however, have Minnesota and Pepperdine among the top eight. Two-in, two-out shakes out fine, but for the top teams to have the advantages they’ve earned, the accuracy of seeding matters.
If Pitt and Louisville can survive what should be a pretty fun and unpredictable bracket, it sets up a rubber match to reach the Final Four. The Cards swept the first meeting in Louisville, while the Panthers won in five sets on their home court. While not a source of shame by any means, it’s worth noting Pitt is the only 1-seed in the Tournament to have lost to its 2-seed in the regular season.
Dark horse danger: There are plenty of options in this bracket, but I’m taking Minnesota with a nod towards the winner of Pepperdine-Dayton (shame they have to play in the first round). Despite seeding, the Gophers are almost certainly the favorite over Utah State. A win likely sets up a rematch with Creighton in D.J. Sokol Arena. The Bluejays, who lead the nation in opponent hitting percentage at .134, beat the Gophers in five sets in Minneapolis in the regular season. While not vintage Minnesota, this is still a tournament-tested program. Creighton, despite hosting the first two rounds in four of the past five years, last made the Regional round in 2016.
Make a point to watch this player: Nebraska fans can now marvel at Skylar Fields without the guilt attached to liking a player in a Texas uniform. She’s just as good at USC, where she reportedly transferred to gain back-row experience that wasn’t on offer in Austin. (Fields has U.S. national team aspirations, and, boy, would Nebraska have been a good fit. Alas.) Fields takes a bunch of swings each set (12.58, 6th nationally) and puts a bunch of them away (5.19, 2nd) for a .295 hitting percentage. She had 50 kills over 10 sets in two matches against top-10 Washington State this season.
How tough is the top seed’s road: Wisconsin stands tall enough that “tough” is very much relative to how well the Badgers play in any match. They played plenty well against Jackson State, sweeping the Tigers in 74 minutes. That said, there is some intrigue in this bracket. Miami has the potential to be tricky4 in the second round after beating Northern Iowa (8) 3-1. But the big potential bump in the road is Penn State (5) in the Regional. The Nittany Lions were probably good enough to merit a 3-seed and they beat Wisconsin 3-1 in November, though the Badgers weren’t at full strength.
Dark horse danger: While the power centers of the sport have shifted from their West Coast (and even more West) origins, Hawaii is still one of the original blue bloods in women’s volleyball with three NCAA national titles. The Rainbows beat Iowa State (7) 3-1 in the first round, which was barely an upset. They get to take a second shot at Oregon (2) after being swept by the Ducks on the first weekend of the season. (Tennessee, while a 3-seed, would still be a surprise winner over Texas and Stanford, but the Vols might be good enough.)
Make a point to watch this player: If you like explosiveness, check out Oregon middle Karson Bacon. Coach Matt Ulmer called her the “most physically gifted athlete this program has ever seen.” Bacon ranks 18th nationally in blocks per set (1.35) and generally just plays above, literally, most others. It’s fun to watch.
How tough is the top seed’s road: Swim at your own risk, these waters are full of sharks. Per Pablo, there were no over-seeds in this bracket, but there were five(!) teams potentially better than the number next to their name. Arizona State (5) was rated 11th overall (i.e. a 3-seed), Houston (8) was rated 15th (coulda been a 4-seed) and both are on Stanford’s half of the bracket. Tennessee (3), Western Kentucky (6) and SMU (7) were all one line lower than Pablo would predict. Oh, and then there’s Texas, which is probably happy to play the “nobody believe in us” card as a lowly (but accurate) 2-seed. The Cardinal swept the Longhorns, in Austin, early in the season. If Stanford makes it out of this group and into the Final Four, it will have more than earned it.
Dark horse danger: Arizona State is my pick, but they’ll have to survive the first round against another great dark horse option in Georgia. The Sun Devils have the fourth-best hitting percentage (.289) in this quad. Under first-year coach JJ Van Neil, Arizona State posted its most conference wins (14) in program history, which included sweeps of Oregon and Stanford.
Make a point to watch this player: As a 10-year-old, Stanford setter Kami Miner was doing 30-inch box jumps in her garage. Runs in the family, I guess. She’s the daughter of Harold Miner, former USC basketball star and two-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion.5 Miner ranks third nationally at 11.7 assists per set and has 40 aces on the season. Should Stanford and Texas face off in the Regional Final, Miner will face off against Texas middle Asjia O’Neal, daughter of Jermain O’Neal. If you’re a fan of Skybox basketball cards, this is your bracket.
James Madison, Iowa State and Northern Iowa also lost as seeded teams on Thursday.
Credit to Creighton’s always crack sports information department for this number in the Bluejays game notes.
If you’ve read any of my gridiron writing you know I like power ratings as a check on our own thoughts and perceptions while understanding there’s no perfect model or magic number out there that tells us exactly how things are. That said, I like the Pablo rankings as they’re probabilistic. That and while working on the book with John Cook, he told me they were the ratings he paid attention to. I guess since it came up organically, I’ll tell you that Dream Like A Champion makes a great gift this time of year AND all University of Nebraska Press titles are 50% off through the end of the year so you can support the local academic press which, seriously, puts together a great list of titles each and every year.
The Hurricanes twice swept a Georgia Tech team I think is pretty strong.
More succinctly: She’s Baby Jordan’s baby.