|espnW.com: College Sports|
Before ESPN volleyball analyst Holly McPeak conquered the pro beach circuit, she was an Olympic bronze medalist and a collegiate star at Cal and UCLA. She was the setter for the Bruins, keying their 1990 NCAA championship team. McPeak, who is sharing her expert thoughts on the NCAA tournament with espnW's Pat Borzi, looks at the tournament's progress and ahead to the national semifinals.
espnW: What does it say about parity nationwide that we've got a No. 9 seed, UCLA, and a No. 12 seed, Florida State, in the national semifinals?
McPeak: It's a combination of things. Seeding the NCAA tournament accordingly to RPI solely is not going to work, because as you see, none of the top seeds came out of that end of the semifinals. Possibly an RPI, plus the coaches' poll, or some other kind of criteria, is going to have to happen. UCLA, USC and Illinois all held the No. 1 spot at one point this season in the coaches' poll. All three of those teams had spots where they looked like the best team, according to the coaches. The team that surprised us all was Florida State.
In terms of parity, there are so many girls playing club volleyball across the country. It's the grass-roots that helps parity all over the country. Teams like Iowa State and Florida State and Illinois, teams from all over, are able to build really good programs because of the high level of club volleyball that's being played in every state.
espnW: What did UCLA do right to get to the semifinals?McPeak: I think their ball control is superior. They've got Lainey Gera, one of the best liberos in the country. She's complemented by two great players -- Kelly Reeves, whose mother coached me at UCLA, and Bojana Todorovic. Those are three of the best ball-control players in the game. So the passing for UCLA is fantastic, and that allows them to run a good offense. Their blocking is good. They've got nice size. Their defense is solid. That's how they beat Texas. Texas is super physical, but UCLA was able to outdig them and outblock them.
espnW: Florida State seemingly came from nowhere, though they reached the regional finals in 2009. What do you like about them?McPeak: They beat a very good, scrappy, ball-control team in Iowa State, and put up some nice offensive numbers. They hit .245 to Iowa State's .204, so that shows they did something right. Not a lot of hitting errors (17 to Iowa State's 31). They outblocked Iowa State 16 to 8. Florida State is a very strong blocking team and they put up nice offensive numbers.
They have a lot of foreign players who have done a nice job for them -- (Visnja) Djurdjevic and (Jekaterina) Stepanova are their two big outside players, and their setter (Duygu Duzceler) is also a foreign player. Getting some leadership from international players brings a lot to a team. The University of Washington had an international player in 2005 (Sanja Tomasevic of Serbia and Montenegro) who helped them win a national title. The foreign influence at Florida State has made a really big difference.
espnW: Who are a couple of the unsung players who might make a difference at the semifinals?
McPeak: Natalie Hagglund, the USC libero, was fantastic against Pepperdine, and they needed her to be. She had 32 digs. Alex Jupiter had 29 digs, but that was the difference at the end. Hagglund made some key digs, and Jupiter heated up offensively. Hagglund is kind of the X factor for USC. She passes a lot of balls. She needs to dig a lot of balls so they feed her offense. Alex Jupiter, obviously, just does it all for USC.
On the Illinois side, outside hitter Colleen Ward has been super impressive. Against Florida in the regional final she had 23 kills on 42 attempts, hitting .500. Those kinds of numbers from an outside hitter are amazing. And Erin Johnson, the middle blocker, was 9-for-16 with zero errors, hitting .562. That's a big, big match.
One of the surprise players for UCLA against Texas was Tabi Love, who had 18 kills. She is really important to UCLA's success. They need firepower at all positions. They can't have somebody not terminating, especially when they dig as many balls as they do. I think she's a little bit of the X factor for UCLA, as well as Kelly Reeves.
espnW: Is USC the team to beat in this thing?
McPeak: Yeah, I think they are. USC beat UCLA in four sets at the end of the Pac-12 season. Going into the semifinals, I'd say the Pac-12 teams are the favorites.
espnW: If it ends up being USC against UCLA for the championship, does either team have an edge on the other?
McPeak: Good question. I worked the first match of the Pac-12 season where UCLA swept USC and just dominated. But USC got so much better. I think it would be a great match. UCLA has a little better blocking and defense, but USC has more firepower. They match up really well.
But Florida State and Illinois both have a chance. Any team can have an off night. These are four teams that are playing the best at the end of the season, and I think that's really exciting for the sport. I'm really excited for this final four, because I don't think very many people picked this group. I think USC and UCLA are the favorites, but it's the kind of a year where anybody can win it.