Big Ten, Pac-12 are volleyball's best
In December in San Antonio, the last team standing from the Pac-12 beat the last from the Big Ten for the NCAA women's volleyball title. UCLA's victory over Illinois was the 14th national championship for a Pac-12 school in the tournament's 31 years.
Look at the recent history and the Pac-12/Big Ten dominance is even more evident. Teams from one of the two leagues have won 11 of the last 13 titles; the other two were won by Nebraska, which then was in the Big 12 but now is a Big Ten member.
The only school with no affiliation to either league that's won the NCAA title in the last 20 years is Long Beach State, which has three championships overall and two during the previous two decades (1993, '98).
So while the recent announcement of collaboration between the Pac-12 and Big Ten was -- like everything else in college athletics -- driven by football, women's volleyball is the sport in which those two conferences clearly are the top two in the country.
So what might the league alliance mean for volleyball? Coaches would like to see the sport's profile raised on television at a time other than just the NCAA championship weekend. Would top interleague matchups in, say, late October and/or early November be a way to accomplish that?
"Several years ago, we talked about doing something like that," said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin, whose Huskies won the 2005 NCAA title. "To have a showcase between the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, I think there are potentially lots of benefits. Exposure is one."
As for the idea of playing a tough out-of-conference foe in the midst of the league season -- something that generally doesn't happen in volleyball -- McLaughlin said he wouldn't be opposed to it.
"My own philosophy of developing our team and preparing for the Pac-12 is I don't know if I'd want to play a match like that really early, because neither team would be as good," he said. "When you want to get exposure for something, it's all about quality of play. So I'd like to do it later in the season.
"The only thing with that is, at that time, you're looking for all opportunities to get some recovery and rest. But if it's good exposure, the teams are very good, and you can sell out an arena and put it on TV, then ultimately that helps the sport."
UCLA's Michael Sealy, coming off a championship season, said some changes would need to be made to the existing Pac-12 schedule to accommodate matchups with another league. With expansion to 12 teams, there was a 22-match conference slate this year, but that was expected to be trimmed to 20.
"It would be very interesting and exciting for volleyball fans to have the two conferences play yearly," Sealy said of the regular season. "[But] I would be opposed to it if the current conference schedules stay as is. The Pac-12 schedule is rigorous enough as it is, and unless you can reformat the conference schedule, I don't see a lot of logistical space to add more matches.
"If the Pac-12 reforms into a north-south type conference split and decreases our matches, then adds Big Ten matches, similar to MLB interleague play, that would be fun."
The Big Ten maintained a 20-match conference schedule this season despite the addition of Nebraska.
The Illini definitely made a mark on their campus and community with their first trip to the volleyball Final Four since 1988. Illinois coach Kevin Hambly thinks fans would get behind an interleague matchup, so he hopes it would interest television.
"But to do that, we would have to be willing to give up some of our preseason matches or conference matches," Hambly said. "I think the coaches in our conference would be more willing to give up conference matches than preseason matches."
Russ Rose, coach of five-time NCAA champion Penn State, was out of the country at a volleyball clinic. But his assistant, Dennis Hohenshelt, said he envisioned having two teams from each league gather at one site, so all got two matches apiece.
"Financially, it does not make sense to travel across country and play one match," Hohenshelt said.
Later this month, both the Big Ten and Pac-12 coaches will have their respective annual conference meetings. They expect to discuss the leagues' collaboration and how it could affect scheduling.
McLaughlin has a promising young squad, and the NCAA championship will be held in Seattle in 2013. He and the other Pac-12 coaches weren't happy with how a lot of the seedings/placements went in this past NCAA tournament -- the Pac-12 regular-season champ, UCLA, was seeded only No. 7, with eventual titlist UCLA at No. 9 -- and those are recurring issues.
Could marquee cross-conference matchups between the Pac-12 and Big Ten later in the season give the committee members a better gauge of how good the leagues are? (Since, for whatever reasons, they've appeared unsure of that.)
"Intuitively, it makes great sense to me," McLaughlin said. "But I would like some confirmation from the committee that 'This will help you guys.' "
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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