Tall order for Wisconsin in NCAA semis

SEATTLE -- The time between Texas' first women's volleyball national title and its second was 24 years. The Longhorns hope the time between the second and third is 12 months.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

When it comes to sheer talent, Haley Eckerman (10) and defending-champion Texas stand above the rest.

Texas is the No. 1 seed and defending champion and is coming off a match that showed the Longhorns at their best. Their 3-0 sweep of Nebraska in the regional final -- on the Huskers' home court -- was a picture of overpowering efficiency.

"We've played some [sets] where we've been really good like that," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "Nebraska was the complete match where we could put everything together, I think."

Texas faces No. 12 seed Wisconsin in Thursday's national semifinals at KeyArena. The Badgers haven't defeated a seeded team to get here, and they have nine losses to Texas' two. In fact, Wisconsin has more losses than the other three teams here combined (Penn State and Washington also have two).

The Longhorns say that doesn't matter; they'll prepare for Wisconsin the same as they would for any other match.

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield joked, "We tend to look at things positively. Maybe we're the toughest team here, if losses make you tough."

Certainly, the Badgers are the most surprising of the teams here, especially considering that last year they didn't even make the NCAA tournament field after finishing 17-16 overall and 5-15 in the Big Ten.

Coach Pete Waite resigned in November 2012. He was 305-146 in 14 seasons with the Badgers that included a trip to the 2000 national championship match, which Wisconsin lost to Nebraska.

Sheffield was hired in late December 2012 and wasn't shy about talking with his new players in terms of winning an NCAA title. Never mind that they'd just finished tied for ninth in their conference.

"First day we met as a team, we gave them a championship manual," Sheffield said of how he and his staff approached the Badgers. "The goal we started talking about on day one was, 'Let's dream big.'

"You don't just one day, without discussing it, wake up and you're competing for a national championship. You've got to lay the groundwork. You talk about it enough, you dream about it enough, and all of a sudden it doesn't seem so far-fetched. And this team believes it should be here."

Yes, the Badgers did finish tied for fourth with Illinois in the Big Ten, both at 12-8. Contrast that with Texas, which won the Big 12 at 16-0. But the Longhorns are the dominant team in their conference, which is good but not as deep as the Big Ten.

The strength of the Big Ten's depth is shown by Michigan, which tied for sixth in the league in 2012 then made the national semifinals, and by Wisconsin's tournament run this year.

Michigan did have to beat Pac-12 power Stanford -- on the Cardinals' home court, in fact -- to advance to the national semis in 2012. This year, Wisconsin did not have any of the Pac-12's heavy hitters in its quarter of the bracket, where SEC teams Missouri and Florida were the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds.

Did the selection committee overestimate the Tigers and Gators and leave one region less difficult than it probably should have been? Realistically, yes, which was made evident when Missouri and Florida lost on their home courts in the second round.

AP Photo/Robin Scholz

Lauren Carlini (1), Dominique Thompson and Wisconsin finished tied for fourth in the nation’s toughest conference, the Big Ten.

But that's not something Wisconsin has to apologize for. The Badgers played the draw given to them. And Sheffield did point out that the team Wisconsin beat in the regional final -- Purdue -- twice this season swept Nebraska, the team Texas defeated in its regional final.

Thinking positive, remember?

Texas had to go to five sets to beat Michigan in the national semis last year. So the Longhorns aren't about to underestimate another Big Ten team, regardless of where it finished in its league or who it beat in the NCAA tournament to get here.

That said, the Longhorns know just how fearsome they can be with hitters such as Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster, along with a very experienced senior setter in Hannah Allison.

Elliott praised those three for how they improved even after winning the NCAA title last year.

"They've had to become better," he said. "Hannah's had to adjust to a freshman middle blocker, and then mixing up the offense a little bit more.

"Bailey's range had to really improve. Haley's become a six-rotation player ... she has become an efficient passer and defender for us."

So might this year's Longhorns actually be even better than last year's? The 2013 Texas squad will have to win the NCAA title for anyone to even start that debate. And that is two tough matches away.

Because the Badgers do plan on making things as tough on the mighty Longhorns as they can. Is Wisconsin way undersized, compared to Texas? Yes. Do the Badgers need to keep the Longhorns from dictating play? Absolutely. Do they think they can do it? They are certainly going to give it their best shot.

"If we try to play their game, they'll destroy us," Sheffield said. "Our game is different. The example I use is Wisconsin football -- that's grind it out, in the trenches, a lot of running. They don't try to play like Oregon, air-it-out football. Two different games, but both teams are really good. We feel the same way. Our style of game works, and it's something that we're good at."

Good enough for Texas? That will be the biggest test yet.

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