Preview: Eight matches get the NCAA Tournament under way

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Kelsie Payne, left, and Taylor Soucie put up a Kansas block. The Jayhawks play Samford on Thursday/KU photo

The Central Time Zone Volleyball Tournament begins Thursday with eight matches.

And that’s what it will become if the rest of the field doesn’t wrestle away home-court advantage from the top four seeds in the NCAA Division I Volleyball Tournament. There are 28 more matches on tap for Friday (four in the second round) in our version of March Madness. Maybe we can call it December Delirium.

No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Wisconsin — all from the Big Ten — and the Big 12’s No. 4 Texas are all in the Central time zone, and if those four teams advance, they will be the respective regional-round hosts.

None of them are in action Thursday as the tournament begins at 4 p.m. Central with Northern Iowa serving it up with Creighton at Kansas. Later, Kansas will play Samford. A breakdown of all of Thursday’s matches follows.

It is very difficult for a visiting team to win at Nebraska (14-1 at home this season), Minnesota (13-0), Wisconsin (11-1) and Texas (13-1). And here are a few notes about that: Nebraska’s only home loss was to Ohio State, which is in the Wisconsin regional; Wisconsin’s home loss was to Minnesota; and Texas’ loss was to Wisconsin.

What’s more, there has never been a two-year span when the championship match was without a team from the West. Last year’s gathering included Nebraska, which beat Texas in the final, Minnesota and Kansas. For that matter, the last time a team from the West won it all was UCLA in 2011 and before that, Washington in 2005. Of course, Penn State had a lot to do with that.

It’s highly likely that the unpredictability of the regular season will no doubt be apparent in the first and second rounds, when upsets are most likely to occur.

Defending-champion Nebraska has won 15 of 16 matches, all in the Big Ten, since being stunned at home by Ohio State in four on Oct. 1. Coach John Cook is going for his fourth title, which would tie him for second, with Don Shaw of Stanford and John Dunning of Pacific and Stanford, behind Penn State’s Russ Rose, who has seven titles.

Thursday’s matches

Northern Iowa vs. Creighton at Kansas (4 p.m. Central, ESPN3): UNI is 24-9 and an at-large from the Missouri Valley, which also has in the field tournament winner Wichita State and regular-season winner Missouri State. No team is hotter than Creighton, 26-6, which has won 20 in a row and dominated the Big East this season, going 18-0 while dropping just five sets in league play. One of those overall victories was a sweep of UNI at USC on Sept. 2.

UNI junior setter Heather Hool ranks ninth in the nation in total assists with 1,302. The Panthers lead the nation in digs per set, 18.71, led by sophomore libero Kendyl Sorge, who averages 5.09. UNI’s attack is balanced with four players with 255 kills or more. The leader is Amie Held, a 5-9 senior outside who has 365, 3.12 per set.

Coach Bobbi Peterson is 434-131 in 17 years at UNI and this is her 12th NCAA appearance. Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth is 288-152 in her 14th season at the Omaha school and is enjoying back-to-back Big East titles. Last year, Creighton won its first two NCAA matches, knocking out Coastal Carolina and upsetting North Carolina before losing to USC.

Big East player of the year Lydia Demke, a junior setter, averaged 11.37 assists, nearly a block per set and 1.24 kills. The offense is led by sophomore outside Jaali Winters, who averages 3.48 kills and 2.84 digs, and sophomore Taryn Kloth, who averages 3.03 kills and hit .303. The Bluejay’s middles, junior Marysa Wilkinson and senior Lauren Smith have hit a combined .371 with 149 blocks in Creighton’s last 23 matches.

Samford vs. Kansas (6:30 p.m. Central, ESPN3): No. 5 seed Kansas is 12-0 at home this season, which includes a victory over Texas. Samford (21-13) is a good story because its coach, Keylor Chan, was fired after last season at Northwestern. He was hired at the Birmingham, Ala. school and took the Bulldogs to a fourth-place finish (9-7) in the Southern Conference. But the Bulldogs won the SoCon tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it to get in to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six seasons.

Samford is led by senior outside Erin Bognar, who is 10th in the NCAA with 542 kills and 17th in kills per set at 4.48. She has 254 more kills than her next closest teammate, sophomore outside Kate Neisler, who has 288. Senior right side Gabbi Greenwald has 254.

Kansas (26-2, 15-1 Big 12) is loaded, and never missed a beat from its NCAA run from a year ago. The Jayhawks have won 14 in a row.

Junior right-side Kelsie Payne (4.07 kills per set), the Big 12 player of the year, has to be in the discussion for national POY, junior setter Ainise Havili (10.71 assists) is as good as they come and senior libero Cassie Wait (5.10 digs) has had another tremendous season.

Coach Ray Bechard is 351-231 in his 19th year in Lawrence. Since 2012, the Jayhawks are 129-29.

Kansas went to Creighton’s Bluejay Invitational in September and beat Creighton in five and two days later swept visiting Northern Iowa.

The winner gets the winner of the match between Samford and Kansas at 6:30 p.m. Central Friday.

Ronika Stone has had a tremendous freshman season for Oregon/Eric Evans Photography
Ronika Stone has had a tremendous freshman season for Oregon/Eric Evans Photography

Miami, Ohio vs. Oregon at Michigan (5:30 p.m. Eastern, mgoblue.com viewing link): The Redhawks, 24-6, are an at-large from the Mid-American Conference, where they lost in the tournament final to Northern Illinois. Five of Miami’s hitters average more than 2.33 kills per set, led by junior right side Katie Tomasic at 2.71. She also hit .319. Senior middle Paige Hill averaged 2.33 kills and hits .363. Their team is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. Coach Carolyn Condit is 587-446 in her 33rd season.

Oregon is young but dangerous. The Ducks are 20-9 and finished fourth in the Pac-12 at 13-7. However, Oregon lost three of its last six matches, all in the league. Sophomore Lindsey Vander Weide leads in kills with 353 kills, 3.84 per set. Junior Taylor Agost averaged 2.87 kills and has hit .333. Freshman middle Ronika Stone has had a tremendous first year, averaging 2.94 kills while leading Oregon with 92 blocks, 12 of them solo.

Coach Jim Moore is 206-107 in his 12th year, 597-287 in 28 years overall as a head coach.

American vs. Michigan (7:30 p.m. Eastern, mgblue.com viewing link): 

Michigan (22-10) has its highest seed ever at No. 12. The Wolverines face an American team (27-7) that dominated the Patriot League and is in the tournament for the fourth consecutive year. The Eagles, hit hard by injuries at the time, were swept by Michigan on Sept. 10 in the Pittsburgh tournament.

American, which has won 22 of 24 matches, is led by Patriot POY Aleksandra Kazala. The Polish sophomore outside has 488 kills, more than 200 more than her closest teammate, and hit .309. Freshman outside Shannon Webb added 280 kills and freshman middle Vela McBride had 200.

Coach Barry Goldberg is 704-248 in his 28th season. Last year his team knocked off Kentucky in the first round before losing to Ohio State.

Michigan is coming off four losses in its last five matches, leaving coach Mark Rosen 361-331 for 18 seasons, which includes a trip to the 2012 national semifinals.

The Wolverines, 14-2 at home this season, are led by senior middle Abby Cole, who has 360 kills, hit .319, and averages better than a block per set. Junior middle Claire Kieffer-Wright has 278 kills and averages a block per set, and senior outside Kelly Murphy has 262 kills and 224 digs.

Michigan beat Miami in three in August and last played Oregon in 2014.

Marquette vs. Washington State at Wisconsin (6 p.m. Eastern, BTN Plus): Marquette (23-8) is making its sixth consecutive NCAA appearance. The Golden Eagles, an at-large from the Big East, beat UNI in the first round last year before losing to Minnesota. Coach Ryan Theis is 69-29 in his third season.

Marquette is led by Taylor Louis, who has 519 kills, averaging 4.44 per set. Senior libero Lauren Houg averages 4.49 digs. Their team is coming off back-to-back defeats and has lost three of its last four.

Washington State, 21-11, is an at-large from the Pac-12, where it finished fifth. WSU, which has lost six of its last 10 matches, is back in the tournament for the first time since 2009.

Jen Greeny, a former WSU star, was named Pac-12 coach of the year. She is 90-103 in six years leading the Cougars. Her team is led by some dynamic players, including senior outside Kyra Holt (3.72 kills, 0.69 blocks per set) and sophomore middle Taylor Mims, who led the Pac-12 at 1.52 blocks per set. She also has 230 kills and hit .306. Sophomore middle Claire Martin added 1.45 blocks per set.

WSU has never played any of the other three teams.

Howard vs. Wisconsin (8:30 p.m. Eastern, BTN Plus): Howard is the champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and won that league for the second straight year. In the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the Bison lost to Penn State in the first round.

This year they are 26-5, including 12-0 in the MEAC, and have won 16 matches in a row. MEAC POY Khalia Donaldson is a junior outside who averages 3.97 kills after getting 417 this season, more than double her closest teammate. Senior libero Morgan Marlbrough averages 4.18 digs and was the dominant player at her position in the MEAC this season.

Coach Shaun Kupferberg is in his fifth season.

Wisconsin is 25-4 after a 17-3 finish in the Big Ten. The Badgers at different times have been ranked No. 1 in both the AVCA Division I Coaches Poll and the NCAA RPI (they’re No. 1 this week). Coach Kelly Sheffield (110-24 in four seasons) has a loaded roster, including senior setter Lauren Carlini, who led the Big Ten in assists (11.82/set) and had 278 digs and 82 blocks; senior middle Haleigh Nelson (258 kills, .375 hitting percentage, 113 blocks, 19 solo); junior libero Kelli Bates (99 kills, 424 digs) — who filled in at outside when needed — and freshman-of-the-year candidate Molly Haggerty (team-leading 333 kills, 236 digs), an outside hitter who hits as hard as anyone in the game.

In 2013, Wisconsin lost in the NCAA title match. In 2014, Carlini got hurt in the regional final and the Badgers lost to Penn State, the eventual winner. Last year, the Badgers lost in the regional semifinals to Texas.

Wisconsin did not play Howard, Marquette or WSU this season. The winner gets the winner of Marquette-WSU.

Purdue vs. Iowa State at Missouri (4:30 p.m. Central, ESPN3): This certainly has showcase match written all over it. Purdue is 18-13, after an 8-12 Big Ten finish. The Boilermakers are making their 11th NCAA appearance in 13 seasons. Last year they beat SMU in the first round before losing to Texas.

This year, Purdue has been up and down for coach Dave Shondell, 300-164 in his 14th season. junior middle Danielle Cuttino averages 4.03 kills and 0.61 blocks. junior outside Azariah Stahl added 2.52 kills and 2.35 digs, while senior middle Faye Adelaja averages 2.26 kills, 0.87 blocks and hits .365.

Iowa State, back in the tournament for the 11th year in a row, is coached by Christy Johnson-Lynch, 246-122 in her 12th year. Her team, which has won eight of its last nine matches, is 18-10. The Cyclones were 10-6 in the Big 12.

Sophomore outside Jess Schaben leads Iowa State at 3.37 kills per set. Three others average more than two kills per set. Freshman libero Hali Hillegas has had an outstanding first season and averages 3.89 digs.

Northern Illinois vs. Missouri (7 p.m. Central, SEC/ESPN Plus): 14th-year head coach Ray Gooden and NIU are battled tested from a tough Mid-American Conference season in which his Huskies went 25-5, 15-1 in the MAC. Gooden, 289-190, has NIU back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. NIU is led by MAC POY Jenna Radtke, a senior middle who is hitting .385 and averages 1.16 blocks per set. She also has 298 kills. Senior outside Mary Grace Kelly leads with 342 kills.

No. 15 seed Missouri is 25-2 after finishing 16-2, tied atop the Southeastern Conference with Florida. Coach Wayne Kreklow is 256-127 in his 17th season and this is Mizzou’s 13th NCAA trip since 2000. Last year, Missouri beat Missouri State in the first round, but then lost to Kansas.

The Tigers are led by one of the most dynamic players in the game in 5-foot-9 outside hitter Carly Kan. The senior has 346 kills, 3.12 per set, and 333 digs. Junior outside Melanie Crow leads with 391 kills, has 219 digs and 50 blocks, 18 solo. junior right side Kira Larsen has 237 kills, hits .304 and 79 blocks. Sophomore middle Alyssa Munlyn has had a breakout season with 214 kills, hitting .430, and leading with 142 blocks, 33 solo.

NIU leads the all-time series with Mizzou 3-0, but they haven’t met since 1988. The winner gets the Purdue-Iowa State winner.

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