Path to Final Four paved for No. 1 Penn State

Courtesy of Eric Evans

Setter Lauren Plum, left, and hitter Alaina Bergsma have the Oregon Ducks flying high into the postseason.

Penn State standout Deja McClendon is from Louisville, Ky. And it looks like she and the Nittany Lions have a pretty good path back to her hometown in the NCAA women's volleyball tournament.

The Final Four will be held in Louisville on Dec. 13-15, and Big Ten champion Penn State hopes to be there and win its sixth NCAA title. It helps that there aren't any representatives from the other power-broker conference in this sport, the Pac-12, in the Nittany Lions' quarter of the draw.

The NCAA field was revealed Sunday, and Penn State is the No. 1 seed. There are 64 teams in the volleyball tournament, but only 16 are seeded. The Big Ten and Pac-12 led the way, as both conferences had seven teams in the field and combined for seven of the top eight seeds.

The NCAA selection committee tries to follow the directive of having teams compete as regionally close to each other as possible to save on travel costs. Meaning, whatever seeding and placement shenanigans the committee may need to engage in to make that geographical imperative work when possible, then that's what's done.

In the 31-year history of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament, Penn State is the only school east of the Mississippi River to win the national championship -- and, realistically, likely the only program from that vast area that has a good chance to do it this season. So when the Nittany Lions are grouped with other Eastern-ish teams, they generally have a distinct advantage.

This year, they were placed in the West Lafayette, Ind., regional along with No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Florida State and No. 16 Kentucky. The Golden Gophers have been to the Final Four previously, and the Seminoles made the first trip that far for an ACC school last year.

While the West Lafayette regional looks relatively warm and fuzzy for the Nittany Lions, how about the other three quarters of the bracket?

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The Texas Longhorns have home-court advantage in the regional and powerful hitter Haley Eckerman on their side.

No. 2 seed Stanford, the Pac-12 champion, is the top seed of the Berkeley region. Also in the Berkeley bracket is No. 7 seed UCLA, the defending NCAA champion, so there is the potential for a Final Four-like Stanford-UCLA regional final.

Big 12 champion Texas is the No. 3 seed, tops in the regional the Longhorns are hosting in Austin. If seeds hold, Texas would meet No. 6 Southern Cal in the regional final, which would be another high-caliber matchup.

Then there is the Omaha regional, which is about an hour from Nebraska's campus. The Huskers are the top seed in that quarter of the bracket at No. 4. And if they make it to the Qwest Center, it will be solid red there. But …

The Omaha section of the bracket is jam-packed with talent. Along with three-time NCAA champion Nebraska, there's No. 5 seed Oregon (the Pac-12 runner-up), No. 12 BYU (the West Coast Conference co-champ), No. 13 Washington and unseeded Hawaii (the Big West Conference champ).

Early-round tournament action is Thursday through Saturday on the campus sites of the top 16 seeds. The regional semis and finals are Dec. 7-8.

How will it all play out? Here are five burning questions with the NCAA bracket hot off the presses.

Who can stop Penn State before the Final Four?

In the first round, the Nittany Lions face a team with a losing record: 13-17 Binghamton, which won the American East tournament and an automatic bid. That, frankly, should be gruesome. So will it get any more competitive for Penn State on the road to Louisville?

Yes, but probably not enough to thwart the Nittany Lions, who have all the bases covered with the likes of setter Micha Hancock, middle blocker Katie Slay and outside hitters McClendon and Ariel Scott.

Penn State could face unseeded Ohio State, which finished fourth in the Big Ten, in the regional semifinals. The Buckeyes are at least familiar with the Nittany Lions, but trail in their series 40-14 and last beat Penn State in 2006.

The next-best seed after Penn State in this region is also a Big Ten team: No. 8 Minnesota. Behind former men's and women's U.S. Olympic team coach Hugh McCutcheon, the Gophers finished tied with Nebraska for second in the Big Ten. But Penn State leads its series with Minnesota 39-8.

ACC champ Florida State, the No. 9 seed, made a Final Four run last season, but could the Seminoles upset Penn State if they met in the Elite Eight? Not likely.

Penn State's only losses this season were a weird one (3-2 to Oregon State at a tournament in Chicago in early September) and an understandable one (3-2 at Nebraska in late October).

While it's not fair to say all the Nittany Lions have to do is show up to make it to Louisville, the reality is if they play like their usual selves, they will be there.

Any chance Texas doesn't make it to Louisville?

The Longhorns were the No. 1 seed last year, but fell in the regional final to eventual champion UCLA. This is a more experienced Texas squad, led by thunderous hitter Haley Eckerman.

Texas also has the advantage of not having to leave its own Gregory Gymnasium until the Final Four. Along with the regional, the Longhorns also host the early rounds, where they may face former longtime rival school Texas A&M (now in the SEC).

Texas, which has one NCAA title (1988) in six trips to the Final Four, may have to meet SEC champion Florida, the No. 14 seed, in the regional semifinals. But likely the biggest obstacle for the Longhorns would be No. 6 seed USC, a three-time NCAA champ that has made it to the Final Four six of the past nine years. The Trojans are the only Pac-12 team to beat Stanford this year.

Are we headed for a Stanford-UCLA showdown in the Elite Eight?

It looks that way. Those longtime conference rivals are the top two seeds (Nos. 2 and 7) in the Berkeley region. The Cardinal, who have gotten a great lift from their blue-chip freshman class, have three losses. Two of them were in August: at Hawaii and at Penn State. Then Stanford's 22-match winning streak was ended at USC on Nov. 15.

Stanford could have to face unseeded Cal on the Bears' home court in the regional semifinals. But that would require Cal surviving its early-round matches at No. 15 seed Iowa State. And even if that happened, Stanford swept Cal twice this season, including last Friday in Berkeley. So Stanford making it to the Elite Eight seems a solid bet.

But what about the Bruins? They had their ups and downs this season, but it was the same last year when they won it all. UCLA lost twice to Stanford this season, but both were close matches: 3-2 and 3-1 (with the fourth set decided 27-25).

UCLA may face Big East champion and Final Four host Louisville, the No. 10 seed, in the Sweet 16. But the odds are pretty good the Bruins will make it to another meeting with the Cardinal. Stanford and UCLA, incidentally, have combined for 10 NCAA titles.

How tough will it be to win out of Omaha?

No. 4 seed Nebraska has the advantage of being able to stay in-state on the road to the Final Four, but the disadvantage of being in what may be the most difficult quarter of the draw.

The Huskers, who tied with Minnesota for second in the Big Ten, definitely had highs and lows this season. They will finish their program's history at the historic Nebraska Coliseum for the early rounds -- they move to the Devaney Center next season -- and could have a rematch of last year's second-round meeting with Kansas State. The Wildcats upset Nebraska in a stunner in Lincoln, Neb., then.

Should the Huskers make it to Omaha, they may face No. 13 seed Washington, which ended Nebraska's season in the 2010 Sweet 16.

Also in the Omaha bracket is a No. 5 seed Oregon squad looking to make that program's first trip to the Final Four. And another Pac-12 school, Arizona State, is in this quarter of the bracket, too. The Sun Devils tied with Cal for sixth in the league, and had upset victories over USC and Washington this season.

Plus, there are traditionally strong programs such as No. 12 BYU, Hawaii, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, Northern Colorado and Northern Iowa in this quarter of the draw.

Who will make it to Louisville?

Last year, I ended up 0-for-4 with my Final Four picks made on selection day. Let's see if 2012 can be slightly better: Penn State, Texas, Stanford, Oregon.

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