Five burning questions for regionals
This weekend, the 16 surviving Division I women's volleyball teams will be whittled down to the four that get to end their seasons in Seattle.
The regional semifinals and finals are Friday and Saturday in Lexington, Ky.; Champaign, Ill.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Los Angeles. The only "neutral" site is Lexington, as Kentucky did not advance to the Sweet 16.
Will the other three sites provide enough of a boost to hosts Illinois, Nebraska and USC to get them into the final four? For coverage of the semifinals, tune into ESPN3 on Friday. The finals will be on ESPNU on Saturday at 4, 6:30, 9 and 11:30 p.m. ET.
Now, we'll look ahead with five burning questions about the regionals.
Could there be a final four first-timer?
There are four schools remaining that have never advanced that far in their program's history: Purdue, San Diego, American and Kansas. The Boilermakers should have the best shot of winning twice this weekend and moving on.
But that doesn't mean it will happen. Purdue -- which ended Missouri's perfect season in the second round -- has to get past host Illinois and then either Florida State or Wisconsin. But compared to the other three potential first-timers, the Boilermakers are probably the top candidate.
Kansas will go against Pac-12 champion Washington in the regional semifinal. If the Jayhawks somehow manage to pull that upset, they would have to face either BYU or USC. If it's the latter, that's on the Trojans' home court.
The other two, San Diego and American, are with two powerhouse programs -- Texas and Nebraska -- in the Lincoln regional. San Diego, the West Coast Conference champ, is a good team and will try to knock off the host Huskers and spoil the red-clad fans' weekend. On a neutral court, maybe the Toreros' odds might be better. But perhaps they can get the favored Huskers to feel some nerves.
As for American, the Eagles will be the second-most popular team in the Devaney Center. That's because all the Nebraska fans will be rooting for them in a David versus Goliath match against the defending NCAA champion Longhorns.
Which regional has the highest upset potential?
Hmmm ... let's try to do this by process of elimination. Two key upsets -- of No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida -- already happened in the Champaign regional, leaving Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida State. Although the Illini have the home-court advantage, it won't be a big surprise no matter who wins this regional. The Badgers are the best seed left there, at No. 12. (Remember, volleyball only seeds 1-16 in its NCAA tournament.)
We just ran through the tall odds that San Diego and American face in Lincoln. If Nebraska plays Texas in the final there and wins, is that really an "upset"? Yes, and no. The Huskers are the No. 8 seed to Texas' No. 1. But Nebraska has won three NCAA titles, was second in the Big Ten and was a longtime rival of Texas' in the Big 12. Plus, the Longhorns and Huskers already played a five-setter this season, won by Texas.
How about Lexington? No. 7 seed Stanford takes on No. 10 Minnesota, and No. 2 Penn State meets an unseeded Michigan State team that beat the Nittany Lions once this season. That said, while it's not impossible, it would be an upset to see anybody but Penn State come out of this region.
Which leaves us with Los Angeles. Brigham Young beat Hawaii on its home court to make it to the regional semis. And even if the Rainbow Wahine are not as strong as they've been in some seasons, that was still quite a feat. Enough so that No. 6 seed USC better be ready for the Cougars on Friday. And while Kansas likely will have a very hard time knocking off No. 3 seed Washington, the Huskies may really feel the pressure of needing two more wins to get back home to Seattle with their season still alive.
All of which is to say we'll go with L.A. for upset potential, with an eye on BYU.
Can anybody stop Penn State?
The Longhorns are defending their national title, and they ran the table in Big 12 play this season. Still, it just kind of "feels" as though Big Ten champ Penn State is the NCAA tournament favorite, if there is one.
Mostly because of how strong the Nittany Lions looked in the latter half of Big Ten play, as if they were a locomotive picking up speed. The Penn State seniors won a national championship -- the program's fifth -- as freshmen, and they are highly motivated to bookend that with another title as they prepare to exit Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions did lose twice this season -- to Texas in Austin, Texas, and to Michigan State at home -- but they've won 11 of their last 15 matches by sweeps. It's going to take a really big performance to knock them out.
Is any team being overlooked?
Maybe Stanford. The six-time NCAA champion Cardinal are the Pac-12 outsider in Lexington with the three Big Ten teams. And a lot of the Pac-12 attention this season was focused on league champion Washington.
But the Cardinal finished second in the Pac-12, and they beat the Huskies once. The Cardinal fell twice to USC, which finished third in the league.
Stanford has been to the final four 18 times -- more than any other program -- but not since 2008, when the Cardinal were swept by Penn State in the championship match.
For a program as great as Stanford, that practically qualifies as a drought. The Cardinal will have to battle through a very tough regional to make it to Seattle, but maybe they are relishing being perceived as an underdog in Lexington.
Who will make it to the final four?
OK, that selection of Missouri when the bracket came out doesn't look so hot now, right? But the other three top seeds are still alive. Should we still go with them?
What the heck, let's not play it completely safe: Nebraska, Purdue, Washington and Penn State.