Four Pac-12 teams remain in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 and first-year Colorado coach Jesse Mahoney played them all.
As the coach at Denver, he took the Pioneers to the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, losing to the Pac-12’s Washington in the first round a year ago. This season at Colorado, the Buffs struggled the second half and finished 14-16 overall, 6-14 in the Pac-12.
“It was a still a lot of fun competing in this league,” Mahoney said. “It’s a cliche, but the bad teams are really, really good in this league and the good teams are ridiculously good … it’s a grind, but it’s a fun grind.”
We asked him to take a look at the matches involving Washington, Arizona, Stanford and UCLA. All are playing on Big Ten floors. The Pac-12 has won 12 of the last 25 NCAA titles, the last when UCLA took it all in 2011.
Arizona vs. Washington at Nebraska: “Washington made some lineup changes and figured out where to put (junior outside hitter) Crissy Jones and they’re settled on how they can be most efficient. They probably play the most error-free volleyball of anyone in our league and they have three pins who can score at a pretty high clip and if you have three people (Jones and fellow juniors Courtney Schwan and Tia Scambray) who can score you’re going to be really good.
“Arizona, I’m happy for them, because I like that staff and they are really blue collar and they find ways to eke out wins. They probably won more games than their talent should have let them. They’ve got some big wins, not the least of which is at Michigan State (last Saturday in the second round), but they also beat Stanford at Stanford. They came up with some surprising wins, no doubt about it.”
Pac-12 champion Washington won both regular-season meetings.
“One thing Washington does better than anyone in our league is serve. People don’t look at that as much, but they just get you out system. They have six kids who just serve lights out and get you out of system and over and over. And they’re so good that when they get out of system they find ways to score. That’s the difference between them and a lot of teams in our league. Everyone’s good in system, but they are good out of system.”
Stanford vs. Florida State at Wisconsin: “On paper, you’ve got to think Stanford, but that being said on paper Florida should have rolled over Florida State, right? I’m not that familiar with Florida State and have not seen them but I do know that Stanford is already scary with so many freshmen playing, but as Stanford gets a little bit older they’re just going to get better and better.
“But there are so many kids who play such a big role for that team that haven’t been in this situation yet so we’ll see how they react. That being said, so many of those kids have already played at the international level even as juniors. And they are big and still the biggest team I’ve seen this year.
“They certainly disrupted my team more than any other team this year with what they do blocking. There’s nobody to exploit outside of their setter (freshman Jenna Gray) and it’s not like she’s bad. She’s really good. And (freshman libero) Morgan Hentz, it’s tough to call her underrated, because everyone knows she’s really good, but she might be underrated. I think she’s really a fantastic player. You get it by the block and that kid’s taking care of it behind it.
“Can they put together enough offense over time to continue to advance? Because they’re kind of a streaky team. They’re up and down, for sure.”
UCLA vs. North Carolina at Minnesota: “I watched North Carolina because that was the film we got on Penn State (which Colorado beat in five on Sept. 3), and they’ve got athletes everywhere.
“UCLA is probably the best all-around defensive team in our league. Not to say they’re not physical and athletic at the net, but they have the best libero in our league (in senior Taylor Formico) and then they’ve got two or three other kids who would be the best liberos in a lot of other leagues.
“They just make you take so many swings in order to score and grind you down. They’re probably the most balanced offensive and defensive team out there, at least in the Pac-12, and it will be an interesting match-up to see if North Carolina can score. I like UCLA in that match-up.”
Colorado beat one of the other teams left, Penn State, which plays at Nebraska. In the victory over the Nittany Lions, Colorado sided out at 100 percent in the fifth set and won 15-3.
From there the Buffs were quite formidable, but then injuries set in, from junior middle Joslyn Hayes getting a concussion to sophomore outside Alexa Smith, the team’s leading attacker, battling a foot injury to junior setter/right side Gabby Simpson missing the last eight matches with a bad back. Colorado finished its season with an upset win at Utah, but had lost the previous five and nine of their previous 10.
“The first half of the year we were 15-5 and had five or six top-25 wins and I don’t want to say we were riding high, because we were still grinding and everyone of our matches was a four- or five-setter and then we had some injuries,” Mahoney said.
“We were kind of hobbled down the stretch. And it’s like this in most leagues, but this is a league for us we needed to be at our best to get wins. But kudos to our kids.
“Our kids fought hard the entire time. I like our team, I like our players, I like our team culture and even when wins weren’t coming we were working hard in practice and trying to figure out ways to get better. I’m excited for the group we have coming back next year.”