Will what has been arguably the most competitive and interesting NCAA Division I volleyball season ever keep us equally as entertained in the NCAA Tournament?
The odds are yes, considering the bracket that was announced Sunday night.
From Big Ten domination — six of the 16 seeds are from the B1G — to sleepers laden throughout the field to the kind of first-round matchups you only see in an NCAA Tournament, when the competition begins Thursday volleyball fans should be enthralled.
But questions remain.
We visited with the chair of the committee, Lisa Peterson, not long after the end of the selection show where the brackets were announced. It put a punctuation point on a long few days for Peterson and her committee.
Peterson, the University of Oregon senior women’s administrator, said that UNLV and Miami, Ohio, were the last two teams in the field of 64 and that Illinois and Georgia Tech were the last two out.
“I feel like when we left that room that we got the right 64 teams in,” Peterson said.
And were they placed in the right spots?
“Based on NCAA travel policy, I think that we did the best that we could. Yes.”
That policy demands that teams that are within a 400-mile radius of host team drive there, unless no other spots remain. Which is why, for example, Texas is the host for an all-Texas pod with SMU, Texas A&M and Texas Rio Grande Valley.
And it’s a short jaunt for High Point, Coastal Carolina and James Madison to North Carolina.
On the other side of that, however, New Hampshire is going to Nebraska, Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Kentucky to Washington in Seattle, Fairfield of Connecticut to Michigan State and Princeton to BYU.
“You have the teams that can’t drive anywhere. Then it’s like a big puzzle,” Peterson said, “and you’re trying to put it all together and maintain the integrity of the bracket. At the same time you’re trying to be as fair as possible.
“There are certainly people who are having to travel a great distance, but those who are having to drive are ending up at places they always seem to be ending up at because of their location.”
That would include Dayton, which at 30-1 has the best record in the country, and is going to Penn State — where it will play Pittsburgh — for the third year in a row.
Kristin Fasbender, the NCAA director of championships, explained that after the first 16 teams are seeded and first- and second-round intra-conference matchups are avoided, “the rest is done on geographics.”
And while the volleyball world would like to see a change, Fasbender pointed out that it’s simply NCAA policy for most of the so-called non-revenue sports, including softball, soccer, women’s lacrosse and field hockey.
“This year there were 13 teams right off the bat that had to fly, meaning they can’t get to any team within a drive either because it would mean putting them with another conference team or they’re from outside 400 miles,” Fasbender said. “Somebody like New Hampshire or Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi could have gone to Texas, but there were already three other teams driving to Texas. So you have those that you’re going to have to fly.”
The top four seeds have never been more important, because unlike previous years the third and fourth rounds — the regionals — will be played at the highest remaining seeds. So in this case, No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 4 Texas have a huge advantage if they win the first two rounds. The No. 5 team was Kansas, which split this season in Big 12 matches with Texas but won the league outright.
“We talked about that a lot and we realize that Kansas won the Big 12, but when you look at body of work, Texas was 8-3 against the top 25 and 12-4 against the top 50. And in strength of schedule Texas was two overall and three in the non-conference. Kansas was 6-1 against the top 25 and 11-2 against the top 50, but their non-conference schedule was a sticking point. The RPI for their non-conference was in the high 40s.”
San Diego was very disappointed it didn’t get to be a top-16 host. The Toreros, second in the West Coast Conference, are 24-5 and 11th in the RPI. Penn State, 20-9 and 15 in the RPI, got the nod.
“We thought a lot about significant wins,” Peterson said. “Penn State had three in the top 15 and also three more in the 26 through 50. So they had six in the top 50. San Diego had three in the top 25 and that was it. And they had two losses really recently. Those last two losses were a significant factor.”
San Diego coach Jennifer Petrie was obviously disappointed. Her team, which beat Stanford to open the season but lost two of its last five matches, goes to UCLA and plays Baylor. The winner gets the winner of the match between UCLA and Murray State.
“Dropping our last match was a disappointment to all of us, and we have no one to blame except ourselves.” Petrie said.
“I did feel that we had a very strong body of work throughout our season, and some very strong wins along the way.”
No matter where a team is seeded, no one wins this tournament without doing two things: Beating tough competition and winning six matches.
Certainly the top 16 teams have a first- and second-round advantage and certainly the top four are in a good situation if they advance.
One of those four is Texas. Coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team won it all in 2012 and is trying to get back to the national semifinals for the fifth consecutive season, knows no one has it easy.
“I’m blown away by Minnesota’s bracket. I think it’s the most brutal bracket of all,” Elliott said.
“I was surprised that Penn State snuck in there and got a top 16 seed and now Nebraska’s got to play them in the sweet 16. They can’t be that happy about that. There are some tough draws.
“But the level of play now is so good there are going to be a ton of upsets.”
Not everyone agrees.
Second-year Washington coach Keegan Cook, whose team won the Pac-12, isn’t so sure the roller-coaster ride of the regular season will continue in December.
“I don’t think so,” said Cook, whose Huskies have a pretty tough pod with them playing Texas A&M CC and Colorado State facing Kentucky. “There are some different organizational rules in the selection of the tournament teams that kind of diminishes the parity. Regionalization and only seeding 16 teams are not the best things for our sport.
“I think our sport could show even more excitement and more parity and more upsets and just a better overall experience if the tournament was seeded 1 through 64 and the regionalization rule was gotten rid of.
“But it’s been an awesome year. If you love volleyball it’s been a great season of upsets and exciting matches, but I don’t expect that to continue through the tournament.”
The bet here is that Cook is wrong. It all starts Thursday with the first match at Kansas when Creighton of the Big East plays Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley at 4 p.m. Central.