Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Updated: December 17, 11:44 AM ET
Regionals are all about conferences
By Dave Reed
Special to ESPN.com
The first two rounds of the 2009 NCAA women's volleyball tournament are in the books, and the big surprise isn't which teams advanced to the Sweet 16, but rather which conference saw the majority of its teams eliminated.
For just the second time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1998, the Pac-10 has only two schools playing in the regional semifinals. That's an incredible step back from 2006 and '07, when the conference had three of the four teams in the national semifinals, especially considering the Conference of Champions tied its record this year for most teams in the tournament with eight.
Arizona and Washington State were knocked out in the first round, and then sixth-seeded Washington, eighth-seeded UCLA, 14th-seeded Oregon and unseeded USC were eliminated in the second.
While teams from the Pac-10 failed to live up to their own expectations, teams from the Big 12 exceeded theirs.
Baylor and Texas A&M upset No. 8 UCLA and No. 15 LSU, respectively, on their home courts, to join No. 2 Texas, No. 7 Iowa State and No. 10 Nebraska in the Sweet 16. The Big 12 teams posted a 10-1 record and won 30 of 37 individual sets during the first and second rounds. The Big 10 was just behind at 9-2 with four of six teams advancing to the regionals.
Unfortunately, we're not going to find out how deep the Big 12 truly is because four of its teams will square off at the Omaha Regional.
The good news is that the Big 12 is guaranteed at least one spot in the national semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
Here is a quick look at each regional:
Teams: No. 1 Penn State, No. 9 California, No. 16 Florida and Baylor.
The big story: Penn State needs two victories to record 100 in a row and continue its quest to become the first program to win three consecutive Division I national championships. PSU, one of six programs to have won back-to-back titles, will attempt to join Stanford as the only programs to have won four or more national titles.
Florida has a 38-4 record NCAA tournament record on its home court but is just 6-3 in regional semifinal matches. The Gators dropped four-set decisions to Minnesota and Texas in their most recent Sweet 16 matches at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, in 2006 and 2007.
Penn State and Florida split their two previous NCAA tournament matches. The Nittany Lions prevailed in a national semifinal match in 1997, while the Gators earned a measure of revenge in 2003 at home in a regional final.
What to watch: At 6-foot-4, Pac-10 Player of the Year Hana Cutura has been virtually unstoppable. Cal's senior outside hitter ranks third in the nation averaging 5.12 kills per set and fourth at 5.62 points per set while hitting at a .321 clip. For Cal to advance to the national finals, Cutura will need to maintain that level of performance against Baylor and a Penn State team that leads the nation in blocks, averaging 3.26 per set. Baylor's victory over No. 8 seed UCLA was its first in the second round of an NCAA tournament and its first over an opponent ranked in the top 10 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
Which team advances: Penn State and Cal will square off for the third consecutive year in the NCAA tournament. In 2007, the Nittany Lions swept the Bears in the national semifinals. Last year, Penn State won in three sets in a regional final at Rec Hall. Cal has the ability to take a set from PSU, but it won't be able to prevent the Nittany Lions from advancing to the national semifinals for the third year in a row.
Teams: No. 3 Florida State, No. 11 Minnesota, Kentucky and Colorado State.
The big story: This is the one regional that appears to be wide open. Two of the regional's four seeded teams were knocked out in the second round when Colorado State defeated No. 6 Washington and Kentucky upended No. 14 Oregon. Now it appears that any one of the four remaining teams is capable of winning two matches to advance to the national semifinals. Minnesota has the home-court advantage, but Colorado State has won 21 of its past 23 matches, including seven in a row on the road. The Seminoles are making their first trip to a regional semifinal, while the Wildcats are making their first appearance since 1992.
What to watch: Can Florida State live up to its No. 3 seed and save the Atlantic Coast Conference's reputation at the same time? The Seminoles weren't tested in the first two rounds, coasting by Alabama A&M and Jacksonville State without losing a set. Now the Seminoles face Kentucky, which finished second in the Southeastern Conference and split a pair of matches with Florida, one of only two teams to defeat FSU this season. The last time an ACC team advanced to the regional semifinals was 2004, when Georgia Tech lost to Minnesota in five sets. The Yellow Jackets are the only ACC team to reach a regional final, falling to Hawaii in 2003.
Which team advances: Not only has Minnesota won 12 of 13 matches at home this season, falling only to top-ranked Penn State, but the Golden Gophers also have a senior setter with tournament experience in Taylor Carico, who helped lead USC to the national semifinals as a sophomore. Her experience will be the deciding factor and help the Gophers advance to the national semifinals for the third time in the program's history, the first since making it to the title match in 2004.
Teams: No. 2 Texas, No. 7 Iowa State, No. 10 Nebraska and Texas A&M.
The big story: For the first time since 1994, an entire regional will consist of teams from the same conference when the Big 12 sends Iowa State, Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M to Qwest Center Omaha. The Longhorns and Aggies will play in Friday's first match, followed by the Cyclones and Huskers. While the atmosphere may even be more intense than the national semifinals because of the rivalries involved, it also means the Big 12 loses the opportunity to send more than one of its title contenders to the national semifinals in Tampa. The conference now must hope the results are similar to those of 15 years ago, when Stanford went on to win its second national title after defeating Arizona State and Southern California in an all-Pac-10 regional that also included Arizona.
What to watch: Friday's second match may hold the key to the regional. Iowa State and Nebraska split a pair of matches during the regular season, with the road team prevailing each time. The Cyclones needed five sets to win in Lincoln, while the Huskers got their revenge a little more than two weeks later with a three-set victory in Ames. The Longhorns, meanwhile, had little trouble in two regular-season matches against the Aggies, so its likely UT will advance to Saturday's regional final.
If Iowa State and Nebraska play a four- or five-set battle, that will play into the hands of the Longhorns. If the Cyclones or Huskers can win quickly, that will help negate the impact of having to play back-to-back days. Either team should be energized by the pro-Nebraska crowd, which, if Nebraska lost, would likely rally around Iowa State because of its connections to the state and the Huskers.
Which team advances: Texas has lost just one set since dropping its only match of the season at Iowa State on Nov. 4. The Longhorns prevailed at Nebraska in four sets on Sept. 26 and swept the Huskers in Austin on Oct. 30. Regardless of which teams advance, Texas is too strong to be denied its second consecutive and sixth overall trip to the national semifinals.
Teams: No. 4 Stanford, No. 5 Illinois, No. 12 Hawaii and No. 13 Michigan.
The big story: The Pac-10 has had at least one representative in the national semifinals for 10 consecutive seasons. With archrival Cal looking at a possible date with Penn State, it may be up to Stanford to continue that streak. The Cardinal have played in the national championship match seven times during the past 10 years, winning two and finishing second on five occasions, including each of the past three seasons. That's a streak Stanford hopes to break by winning the program's national-record seventh Division I title.
Hawaii is in a six-way tie with Long Beach State, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA and USC with three NCAA titles. Illinois, which advanced to the national semifinals in 1987 and '88, and Michigan are chasing their first championships.
What to watch: This is the only regional in which all of the seeded teams advanced, and for good reason. Hawaii, the Western Athletic Conference champion, enters its match against Illinois riding a 26-match winning streak during which it has lost a total of five sets. The third-ranked Rainbow Wahine are 30-2 with seven victories against teams ranked in the AVCA's top 25, including a sweep of Stanford early in the season, but were relegated to the No. 12 seed in the tournament.
The eighth-ranked Illini, who finished second in the Big Ten, were extremely impressive on the road, winning 13 of 17 matches away from Huff Hall en route to a 26-5 overall record.
No. 4 seed Stanford won its fourth consecutive Pac-10 title and currently owns a 23-7 overall record, while 16 seed Michigan advanced to a regional semifinal for the third year in a row and is 24-9 after finishing tied for fourth in the Big Ten.
Which team advances: Stanford is nearly impossible to beat at Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal posted a 10-1 record at home, but their .909 winning percentage pales in comparison to what Stanford has accomplished in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal own an all-time NCAA record of 53-2 (.964) at Maples Pavilion, including a 25-1 (.962) mark in regional play. The only team to defeat Stanford at home in a regional match was 1991 national champion UCLA.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. For the complete 2009 NCAA volleyball tournament schedule and results, click here.