The NCAA Division I women’s volleyball committee threw some curveballs at us Sunday night.
Some things went as expected, like ACC-champion and undefeated Louisville being the No. 1 seed, Big 12-champion Texas being No. 2, ACC runner-up Pittsburgh getting No. 3, and Big Ten-winner Wisconsin at No 4.
“It is so exciting,” said Coach Kelly Sheffield of Wisconsin, whose team went to the NCAA championship match in 2019 and the national semifinals last spring. “Our players, they’ve been in the tournament every year. And I’m not sure wherever we were seeded, those guys were gonna go crazy. They were going to be screaming and yelling and high-fiving and everything else like that because they just want to play.
“There just is no better time than this right now.”
Those top four spots are the most coveted, because if those teams win their first- and second-round matches, they continue to play at home for the regional semifinals and finals.
Also important are top-16 seeds, because that means playing the first two rounds at home.
Here is the list that was announced on a show on ESPNU that, once again, had technical difficulties:
8. Georgia Tech
9. Ohio State
Committee chair Sherene Brantley, the Duquesne associate athletics director, talked to us later Sunday night.
“Once you look at the RPI, win-loss record, top-10, top-25, top-50 wins, etc., etc. it comes down to that’s where we landed,” Brantley said. “And as I mentioned (on the show) that it’s not necessarily about which conferences need to get in or get seeded, it’s a matter of doing analysis and watching the games. After doing all of that, that’s where we landed with our 1 through 16 seeds.”
There are so many things to consider about the 64-team field.
“I know from a fan perspective there are going to be folks who want their team in and there are going to be disappointed people, but our job is to look at it objectively,” Brantley said. “It’s always tough and not everyone is going to be happy, but we do our darndest and best and try to get it right.”
Coach Dani Busboom Kelly of Louisville, who was not available for comment Sunday night, will join us on our Monday video talk with Salima Rockwell, Jenny Hazelwood, and Emily Ehman. We also will be joined by Illinois State coach Leah Johnson.
Louisville will play Horizon League-champion UIC. The winner will play the winner between Ball State of the Mid-American and Michigan of the Big Ten.
“We have to watch games,” said Brantley, who was an outside hitter at Duquesne in her day. “We watched games night in and night out. At some point after the quantitative stuff, there is the qualitative information that goes into it. So the eyeball test does come into play with all things being equal. The eyeball test does come into play, but we have to follow our criteria as well.”
No. 15-seed Washington, the PAC-12 champion, made the national semifinals last spring and is on the same side of the bracket with two other final-four teams from the spring — defending champion Kentucky and Texas. The PAC-12’s only other top-16 seed is No. 13 UCLA.
“I love that I get to keep coaching this team,” Coach Keegan Cook of Washington said. “They’ve repeatedly shown everyone how they respond to adversity. They’re disciplined, they’re relentless, and they trust who they are and what we do.
“We get another opportunity to do something historic. Cannot wait to get into the gym with them.”
Big Ten leads field
The Big Ten, regarded as the best conference, got the most teams in with eight. The Big 12, led by Texas, has seven, clearly a surprise.
“Tough road,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team lost to Kentucky in the spring title match. The Longhorns play the Northeast Conference’s Sacred Heart, with the winner meeting the Rice-San Diego winner. Texas defeated Rice and San Diego this season.
“I like playing the tougher road,” said Elliott, who took Texas to the 2012 NCAA title and whose side of the bracket appears loaded. “I think our kids always come in a little more prepared. We have the PAC-12 champion, which I was a little surprised that they were that low, I kind of had them 8 to 11 in my own head, obviously Kentucky won the SEC and Nebraska is one game off from winning the Big Ten. Once again we’ll be in that challenge.”
Three other conferences have six teams each, the ACC, the PAC-12, and the SEC, including third-place Florida as that No. 16 seed. Mississippi State, which finished second in the league, is going to Washington to play Hawai’i of the Big West.
Brantley said on the ESPNU show that — in no order — the last four in were Iowa State, Kansas State, and West Virginia of the Big 12, and South Carolina of the SEC. The last four out were Arkansas of the SEC, Cincinnati and Houston of the American Athletic, and Syracuse of the ACC.
“They were all in a clump and all together, so that’s why purposely we put them in alphabetical order,” Brantley said.
Among the others left out were USC of the PAC-12 and High Point of the Big South.
The only non-Power 5 teams given at-large bids were Pepperdine and San Diego of the West Coast Conference, Rice of Conference USA, and Marquette of the Big East.
There are plenty of first-round matches of note in a bracket that was completed about noon Sunday, according to Kristin Fasbender, the NCAA director of championships and alliances.
For example, North Carolina of the ACC plays Tennessee of the SEC at Ohio State, pitting Tennessee coach Eve Rackham Watt, a former UNC player and assistant coach, against her old coach, Joe Sagula.
There is a mileage rule, but it has to be broken to make the bracket work. In a few cases it really was stretched — UCF from Orlando plays Pepperdine at UCLA; Ole Miss plays at Creighton in Omaha; and Brown from Providence, Rhode Island, goes to Washington.
Because of proximity, there’s a lot of the same-old, same-old, with Penn State being sent to play Pittsburgh, Rice going to Texas, Utah going to BYU etc.
The committee, when possible, was dealing with a 400-mile travel limit.
“No matter what restrictions or when geography comes into play, but first and foremost we look at 1 through 64,” Brantley said. “But, yes, geography does come into play at some point.
“You’re going to have some different regions or areas, your Floridas, your Pittsburghs, BYU, you’re going to have to drive there. Once you get there, we’re still trying to protect the bracket integrity as much as possible.”
‘Slap in the face’
ESPNU finally was able to start the show on time because the basketball game it was showing ended, but there were technical glitches.
“I am so furious about that,” Wisconsin’s Sheffield said. “And all of us as coaches need to be speaking out about that. Not speaking, screaming about it. The last match was 22 hours ago. When basketball does this, they start the selection show in what, 20 minutes after the last game?
“It’s such a slap in the face to our sport. I’m tired of it.”
Last spring, in a 48-team tournament where every match was played in Omaha, Kentucky beat Texas in four to win the SEC’s first volleyball title.
“Another NCAA Tournament in the same year,” Coach Craig Skinner of Kentucky said after the bracket was announced. “We had a great regular season, and I’m really proud of our players for putting us in this position to compete again on the national scene.”
Kentucky plays host to Southeast Missouri State, which won the Ohio Valley. The winner plays the winner between the Big 12’s West Virginia and the Big Ten’s Illinois.
“Friday we’ll be pumped,” said senior outside hitter Alli Stumler, who was named the SEC player of the year.
Last spring, Kentucky won the first NCAA championship match without either a PAC-12 or Big Ten team since 1989. That season, Long Beach State beat Nebraska, which was then in the Big Eight.
Since the NCAA began holding the women’s tournament in 1981, only 11 teams have won it all. Stanford has nine titles; Penn State seven; Nebraska five; UCLA four; Hawai’i, Long Beach State, and USC three each; Pacific and Texas two each; and Kentucky and Washington one each.