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If the first two rounds of the 2010 NCAA Volleyball Championship even remotely resemble the regular season, this could one of the most unpredictable postseasons since the NCAA began sponsoring the tournament in 1981.
Unlike last year when Penn State and Texas were the prohibitive favorites to reach the national championship match, more than a dozen teams could make a run at the title if they can avoid being the victim of an upset and get a little luck.
Eleven of the 16 seeded teams lost at least one match to an unranked opponent during the 2010 season, which means it's possible that an unseeded team could string together four wins and become the first to reach the national semifinals since Santa Clara accomplished the feat in 2005. Since then, only seeded teams have made it to the semis, the lowest of which was No. 12 Hawaii last year.
There is even the possibility, albeit a long shot, that the national champion could come from a conference other than the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10, which have won every title since the Big West's Long Beach State won it all in 1998.
Top-ranked Florida, which posted a 10-1 record against ranked opponents during the 2010 season, earned the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history.
Since the selection committee appears to have followed the final RPI rankings when awarding the 33 at-large selections, there is no need to worry about which teams got in at the expense of others. Instead, let's look ahead at five burning questions as teams prepare for the first and second rounds of the tournament.
Without a doubt, the Nittany Lions have all the physical tools necessary to win their fourth consecutive national championship. Will they repeat? That's another issue.
|All-American Arielle Wilson looks to lead Penn State back to the championship game.|
Expect seniors Blair Brown, Arielle Wilson and Fatima Balza to carry the load, just as they did while leading the Nittany Lions to their eighth straight Big Ten title by winning 13 of their last 14 matches.
Penn State's biggest question is whether its freshmen will feel the pressure in the later rounds of the tournament. The Nittany Lions have a quartet of first-year players who could see considerable playing time, including Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott on the left side.
Remember, Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge didn't win a national championship during their first season in 2006. That team did advance to the regional championship in Seattle where it lost in four sets to host Washington.
Penn State could play as many as four matches at Rec Hall, where it has won 90 consecutive matches, an NCAA record it currently shares with Nebraska. The Nittany Lions also have won 12 straight matches and 36 consecutive sets in NCAA tournament play on its home court. If all three of those streaks continue as expected, Penn State will become the first program to advance to the national semifinals in four straight seasons since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1998.
Florida's path to a first national championship is by no means easy. The Gators could face in-state rival Florida State in the second round, play head coach Mary Wise's alma mater Purdue in the regional semifinal and then go up against Texas at Gregory Gymnasium for the right to play in one of the national semifinals.
But the odds and history both favor Florida making an eighth trip to the national semifinals. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1998, the No. 1 seed has won the national championship nine times, including four of the past five years. And no other program has made more semifinal appearances without winning a national title.
California won a share of its first Pac-10 championship, which makes the Bears a threat to win a national title. Pac-10 teams own a combined 13 NCAA volleyball championships, and Cal will attempt to become the ninth conference school to win both during the same season.
The Bears are one of only four teams to have reached the regional championship in each of the past three seasons and earned their first appearance in the 2007 national semifinals.
No. 5 Northern Iowa, No. 11 Tennessee and No. 13 LSU all could have their hands full during their first-round matches.
UNI faces a Missouri team that finished fifth in the Big 12 with a 12-8 record and was 20-10 overall, but was 1-5 against conference opponents ranked in the top 12 at the time of the match. The Tigers split a pair of matches against Iowa State, which was the last team to defeat UNI all the way back on Sept. 8.
The Panthers won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles, completing the regular season with a 30-2 record and 25 consecutive victories.
LSU will have to find a way to control Tulsa's sophomore outside hitter Tyler Henderson, who averages 6.23 kills per set. The Golden Hurricane, which ranks among the top eight in kills (15.2) and assists (14.2) per set, as well as hitting percentage (.293), brings a 29-match winning streak into Friday's match against the Tigers.
LSU, which averages 2.18 blocks and 16.07 digs per set, will look to freshman Desiree Elliott, junior Michelle Williams and senior Tania Schatow to slow down the Tulsa attack.
Tennessee will have to overcome Indiana's home-court advantage. The Hoosiers are tough to beat at University Gym, where their 11-2 record includes victories over Penn State, Illinois and Michigan. IU features senior middle blocker Ashley Benson, who owns a .412 hitting percentage and averages 3.5 kills and 1.43 blocks per game.
Tennessee, which is 24-6 overall and 12-2 on the road, will counter with senior outside hitter Nikki Fowler, who averages 3.52 kills and has a .301 hitting percentage.
The Pac-10 and Big Ten go head-to-head on Thursday when Michigan visits Washington. Both teams struggled during the second half of the season, the Wolverines dropping seven of their last 12 matches and the Huskies losing five of their last nine, but have the players to put a string of victories together. The winner likely will face Hawaii in the second round on Friday.
Cal State Fullerton faces Colorado State in a battle of conference champions on Friday. The Titans are making their first postseason appearance after winning the Big West title, while the Rams are in the tournament for the 16th year in a row. A showdown with Stanford awaits the victor.
Long Beach State squares off against San Diego on Friday, with the winner earning a shot at USC. The Toreros came from behind to defeat the 49ers in four sets on Sept. 10 at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. LBSU leads the series 10-6, but San Diego has won the past five, including a first-round match in 2005.
Louisville and Middle Tennessee State play a first-round match for the third time in five years on Friday. The Blue Raiders won both of those matches in five sets on the Cardinals' home court.
One of the by-products of having teams stay within their geographic region during the first and second rounds when possible is the opportunity for rivals from different conferences to play, and Florida State-Florida is a perfect example.
The Gators have won 19 consecutive matches against FSU, but the Seminoles, who played three tough sets against Florida on Sept. 22, would like nothing more than to end the top-ranked Gators' season.
A pair of national champion programs could meet in the second round if UCLA and Texas win their first-round matches as expected, and they have more in common than a championship pedigree.
The ninth-seeded Longhorns are 23-5 overall and ranked No. 6 in the latest AVCA Top 25, while the unseeded Bruins are 21-8 under first-year head coach Mike Sealy and ranked No. 9 in the coaches poll.
Hawaii's loss to Utah State in the championship match of the WAC tournament cost the Rainbow Wahine a higher seed and set up a possible second-round match against either Michigan or host Washington. The winner of that sub-regional will most likely face Nebraska.
Cincinnati jumped into the national rankings after defeating Illinois in five sets on Sept. 17; now the Bearcats could get a second shot at the Illini if they can get past Western Kentucky.
Two teams from the Big 12 and Big Ten with a history of postseason success could meet if Iowa State and No. 10-seeded Minnesota win their first-round matches. The Golden Gophers made their third appearance in the national semifinals last season, while the Cyclones' run to the Elite Eight in 2008 included a second-round victory at Minnesota.Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.