Tourneys begin as leagues vie for coveted NCAA spots: A conference-by-conference breakdown

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NCAA volleyball 4/1/2021-BYU women's volleyball
BYU wins the spring 2021 WCC title

Conference tournaments are under way with everyone looking toward Sunday’s announcement of the 48-team (not 64-team) NCAA Tournament bracket.

Those league tourneys are perhaps more important than ever. That’s because with them come automatic NCAA bids in a year in which very teams from outside the Power 5 (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) are going to get at-large bids. 

There are 30 of the 32 NCAA Division I programs competing, which means 30 automatic bids and 18 at-large. We figure 14-16 of those should — but likely won’t — go to teams from the Power 5s. However, this is one season where there was very little crossover. We know the Big Ten and Pac-12 stand above the field, but the NCAA selection committee will have to make a lot of decisions based on what they’ve seen and know about volleyball. And in a year in which anything can and has happened …

Nonetheless, we break down every one of the 30 conferences (the Big West and Ivy did not compete in the 2020-21 school year), and that includes the Big Sky and Southland, which got their respective tournaments going on Wednesday. 

But first more COVID cancelations in the Big Ten, which is just limping into the end-of-the-season finish line. Top-ranked and unbeaten Wisconsin, which has played exactly one match since February 21, is home Thursday and Friday for Michigan, which had its own cancelation woes the first half of the spring season. But the highly anticipated Penn State-at-Nebraska series, set for Thursday and Friday, was canceled. And so were Ohio State’s matches Friday and Saturday at Indiana.

We’ll look at their leagues, but Metro Atlantic perennial favorite Fairfield withdrew Wednesday from the conference tournament, SIUE (Southern Illinois at Edwardsville) dropped out of the Ohio Valley tournament, and Providence left the Big East tournament and was replaced by UConn.

ACC — The conference has three more days of action, including four matches Thursday, Louisville at Miami, Pitt at Clemson, Syracuse at Florida State, and Notre Dame at Georgia Tech. The ACC is hoping for five in, with Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Pitt all but assured of spots and North Carolina and FSU hoping against hope.

BIG TEN — The B1G is a selection committee conundrum. There’s no doubt about Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Purdue getting in. But Penn State, which keeps getting COVIDed out, is only 9-5. However there is no doubt Penn State should get an at-large. Anyway … on Friday, Michigan is back at Wisconsin, Rutgers goes to Michigan State, Iowa is at Minnesota, Northwestern is at Maryland, and Illinois is at Purdue.

BIG 12 — Only Texas and Baylor get in, but Kansas State can make a strong case. Speaking of which, on Wednesday Baylor swept visiting K-State, while on Thursday, Texas goes to TCU and Texas State of the Sun Belt plays at Baylor. 

In Baylor’s 26-24, 25-14, 25-23 sweep Wednesday, Yossiana Pressley and Lauren Harrison had 13 kills each for the Bears (19-5). K-State (13-8).

PAC-12 — UCLA’s matches at Stanford Friday and Sunday were canceled, and that can’t help the Bruins. Thursday’s schedule shows Arizona at Washington State, Colorado at USC, Utah at Oregon State, Washington at Cal, and Oregon at Arizona State.

Washington, Oregon, Washington State, and Utah are locks, and UCLA is in a strong at-large situation.

SEC — Kentucky (19-1, fall and spring combined) won the league, while Florida (19-3) was second. Missouri should also get an at-large bid. It would be a surprise if the SEC got four teams in.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC — The semifinals in Cincinnati pit Tulane (10-9, 7-3), which finished second in the West, vs. East winner UCF (14-1, 8-0) and then West winner Houston (13-5, 9-1) vs. East runner-up Temple (10-5, 4-4). UCF has won six in a row.

The AAC is certainly hoping for at least one at-large bid.

ASUN — The tournament started last Saturday and set up Friday’s semifinals at Kennesaw State just north of Atlanta pitting North Florida (10-9) vs. Lipscomb (15-2) and Kennesaw State (11-2) vs. FGCU (13-2). 

AMERICA EAST — The league title will be decided Friday when UMBC (10-3)  plays at Albany (10-4). Both had 9-3 conference records and Albany won both their meetings during the regular season.

ATLANTIC 10 — The four-team bracket at Dayton pits VCU (12-4) vs. Rhode Island (7-7), which won the East, and top-seeded Dayton (11-1), which has won 11 in a row and won the West, vs. Fordham (5-4). 

BIG EAST — Top-seeded Creighton (10-3) plays UConn (4-6), which got the spot when Providence dropped out, and St. John’s (10-3) plays Marquette (9-3). Traditionally the Big East gets at-large bids. This year? Who knows.

BIG SKY — In the tournament in Greely, Colorado, things didn’t stick to form as Southern Utah scored an upset, and Weber State, Northern Colorado, and Northern Arizona also won on Wednesday to set up Thursday’s semifinals. Fifth-seeded NAU faces Weber State, while Southern Utah plays UNC.

Southern Utah (9-7), the sixth seed, upset third-seeded Montana State (10-5) for the first tournament win in program history.  In the 25-23, 14-25, 21-25, 25-22, 15-12 victory, Bridget Triplett led with 14 kills as she hit .524 and had an assist, three aces, seven blocks, and four digs. Andreanna McKee had 13 kills, an ace, eight blocks, and two digs.

“From where we were in January to where we are now is incredible,” SUU coach Pete Hoyer said. “Everything we are doing right now is history. To win a match and advance is incredible for these players

“We are fortunate to be playing given everything that has happened in the world in the last 13 months and this group has appreciated every minute they can be on the court together. We have had different people step up at different times in the last couple weeks and it really shows what kind of a team we have.”

Hannah Scott had 16 kills for Montana State to go with two aces, four blocks, and 11 digs. Kira Thomsen had 15 kills, an assist, two aces, a block, and 12 digs, and Libby Christensen had 27 digs and eight assists … 

Top-seeded Weber State (16-1) swept eighth-seeded Eastern Washington (6-12) as the ‘Cats hit .319 and Rylin Adams had 19 kills and Dani Nay 17 … second-seeded and host Northern Colorado (14-3) swept No. 7 Idaho (6-11) as Taylor Muff had 13 kills … fifth-seeded Northern Arizona (10-5) swept fourth-seeded Sacramento State (10-7) as Taylor Jacobsen led a balanced attack with 10 kills, three aces, two blocks, and seven digs. Millie O’Ketter had 22 digs and two assists.

BIG SOUTH — There are matches Friday and Saturday, but High Point (14-0) already clinched the conference’s automatic bid.

CONFERENCE USA — Thursday’s quarterfinals, all in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, have North Texas (11-10) vs. Western Kentucky (18-0), Marshall (10-4) vs. UTEP (9-6), Middle Tennessee (5-10) vs. Rice (14-4), and UAB (8-7) vs. Charlotte (12-4). Whoever loses between WKU and Rice will get an at-large bid.

COLONIAL ATHLETIC — The tournament starts Friday with Charleston (5-5) playing host Towson (4-0) and Northeastern (7-2) facing James Madison (7-2). 

HORIZON — The conference is down to a one-match, winner-take-all final after top-seeded Wright State beat Purdue Fort Wayne and UIC beat Northern Kentucky. In the regular season, Wright State (15-1, 14-0 Horizon) never played UIC (14-2, 13-1)

METRO ATLANTIC — As mentioned, Fairfield usually wins this league, but the top-seeed Stags are out after going 9-1 but having a positive COVID test within the program Wednesday. As a result, eighth-seeded Siena (1-6) advanced to Friday’s semifinals, awaiting the winner of Rider vs. Manhattan. Second-seeded Canisius plays Quinnipiac and third-seeded Niagara faces Iona. 

MID-AMERICAN — The semifinals are Friday at Bowling Green, which dominated the league this spring. The Falcons (20-1), who won the East, play fourth-seeded Miami (13-8), while second-seeded Western Michigan (17-4), winner of the West, faces Ohio )12-7). 

MEAC — Friday’s semifinals have Delaware State playing Southern division winner N.C. A&T (9-1, 8-0 in the MEAC) and N.C. Central playing Coppin State, which won the Northern division,  and is having its best season ever. Coppin State is 9-4 overall, 8-1 in the MEAC. 

MISSOURI VALLEY — Top-seeded and host Illinois State plays Indiana State on Thursday, followed by Bradley vs. Valparaiso, Drake vs. UNI, and Missouri State vs. Loyola Chicago. This is the most wide-open of any conference tournament and no one could argue that, based on the regular season, half the field could emerge as the winner. 

MOUNTAIN WEST — UNLV wrestled the crown from perennial favorite Colorado State and won the regular-season title for the first time and the NCAA bid that goes with it. There are five matches on the schedule Thursday and five more Friday. There would have been six, but Air Force at San Diego State and Air Force at UNLV were canceled.

NORTHEAST — This could be a good one. Sacred Heart (11-3, 10-0 in the NEC) plays second-place LIU (8-5, 8-4) for the title on Saturday. In their regular-season matches, a doubleheader on March 12, Sacred Heart won both in five. 

OHIO VALLEY — Morehead State won the regular-season title and moved into Friday’s final on when SIUE was forced to drop out. The other semifinal has second-seeded Jacksonville State playing Southeast Missouri on Thursday.

PATRIOT — Top-seeded Colgate, the home team in upstate New York, plays American on Friday and then second-seeded Holy Cross faces Army West Point.

SWAC — Jackson State won the NCAA bid when the championship match against Arkansas-Pine Bluff was canceled because of COVID issues within the UAPB program.

SOUTHERN — Samford (13-3) won the SoCon top seed and plays host to Wofford (10-6), followed by Western Carolina (11-7) vs. Mercer (14-7, 13-3 SoCon). 

SOUTHLAND — Top-seeded Stephen F. Austin and No. 2 Sam Houston are waiting for Friday’s semifinals while everyone else fights it out. Wednesday, that meant sixth-seeded Central Arkansas beating No. 7 Abilene Christian in four, while fifth-seeded Houston Baptist moved on when UIW (Incarnate Word) had to drop out.

Thursday, third-seeded Southeastern Louisiana faces Central Arkansas and the host, fourth-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi takes on HBU. 

Central Arkansas hit .344 against Abilene Christian as four players had 11 or more kills, 14 each by Amanda Smith and Madi Bowles.

SUMMIT — This conference could produce three outstanding matches as top-seeded Denver (13-2) plays Omaha (12-4) and second-seeded Kansas City (13-3) faces South Dakota (12-3). All four of these teams finished with two games in the standings and well above the rest of the conference.

SUN BELT — Texas State (30-8), which has the most wins of any team in the NCAA field from the fall and spring combined, won the conference tournament in November. The Bobcats beat Coastal Carolina, which, under normal circumstances, almost assuredly would have gotten an at-large bid. But the Chanticleers (18-1) did not play this spring and lost their best player, Anett Nemeth, to a knee injury in the Sun Belt final.

WAC — NM State was the runaway regular-season winner, and awaits the winner of Thursday’s opening match between UT Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State. The second seed, Grand Canyon, plays Utah Valley in the other semifinal Friday.

WEST COAST — BYU (14-1) won the league with its sweep at Santa Clara as it hit .458 on Wednesday, but Pepperdine (12-2) and San Diego (12-4) should both get at-large bids. 

Against Santa Clara, Taylen Ballard-Nixon led with 12 kills and hit .500 in the 25-18, 25-16, 25-9 victory. She had one error in 22 attacks, an ace, four digs, and three blocks. Kennedy Eschenberg had nine kills with no errors in 14 attacks, an assist, and eight blocks.

There are still two matches left to the regular season when Pepperdine goes to Santa Clara on Friday and Saturday.

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