From Jerry Trickie, NCAA.com volleyball blogger
Gators On the Block... Florida is the top seed in the NCAA Championship for the first time in program history. The Gators, who own a 24-match win streak, are looking for their eighth Final Four appearance (first since 2003) after extending the nation’s longest streak of 25-win seasons to 20 on Nov. 19. UF has been proficient both offensively and defensively, including holding a 24-0 record when outblocking opponents this year. The Gators had 16.5 blocks–the fifth-highest total in program postseason history–in the second round against Florida State, a five-set thriller (UF improved to 4-0 in five-set matches this season).
Shaping Up As Planned… Upsets always throw a wrench into brackets, but the Austin Regional is shaping up just like it was planned. The regional is the only one of the four with all four seeds still in action. No. 1 Florida, which needed a near-historic comeback to advance out of the second round last weekend, will face No. 16 seed Purdue while No. 8 national seed Illinois faces ninth-seeded Texas in a rematch from earlier this season. The Seattle Regional has three of the four national seeds still remaining while the University Park and Dayton regionals only have two seeds still playing.
Serving Up Answers… One of the biggest and most frequent questions for volleyball fans this fall has been some derivation of, “Which is the better conference–the Big Ten or the Pac-10?” The Big Ten put eight teams into the tournament and six are still alive in the Sweet 16. The Pac-10 had six entrants with four still alive. But check out the Dayton Regional this weekend and you can witness for yourself which might be the best as the question gets answered on the court. No. 3 seed Stanford will face off against Ohio State and No. 6 seed USC will take on Indiana. The current record between the two conferences is 1-1 in head-to-head matches in the NCAA Championship so far. Besides these two matches, another matchup between the leagues will take place in Seattle when No. 7 seed California faces 10th seeded Minnesota.
Budding Rivalry… Second-seeded Nebraska will take on an unseeded team in the regional semifinals, but it’s not an ordinary unseeded team, nor is an unfamiliar opponent. Washington is ranked No. 11 in the coaches poll and has been in the top 20 all year long while battling to a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 standings. UW and Nebraska have some history in Seattle where they will battle Friday on UW’s home court. The Huskers made one of the program’s most historic comebacks when it rallied from down two sets to defeat the hometown Huskies, 3-2, in the 2008 regional final in Seattle. NU trailed 9-3 in the fifth set before current senior Kayla Banwarth served eight consecutive points in a 9-0 Husker run as it went on to win in five to advance to the Final Four.
Undefeated vs. the Regional… Penn State suffered a pair of uncharacteristic mid-season losses, both on the road, but regrouped enough to win its eighth straight league title and now the three-time defending national champions are playing like they have a chip on their shoulders. That might not be good news for PSU’s opponents considering the Nittany Lions are playing on their home court as the regional host, where they own a perfect 18-0 record. That’s not the only undefeated mark Penn State has, as PSU has never lost to any of the three potential opponents in the regional. Penn State is 1-0 all-time against Oklahoma (a 15-2, 15-3 win in 1982), its semifinal opponent, and is 9-0 against Duke and 5-0 against Missouri, the other two regional participants.
Rematch, Part II… Illinois, which entered the tournament as the No. 8 national seed, played a rematch from a regular-season contest in the second round when it faced nationally ranked Cincinnati. The Illini got some revenge as they defeated the Bearcats last weekend, 3-1, after falling in five sets in September. This weekend will mark the second straight rematch for Illinois, as it will play Texas again. The teams are hardly similar to the squads that played on Sept. 3, when UI earned a sweep over the Longhorns. Injuries have affected each squad although they still managed to finish second in their respective leagues.
Washington ‘D’ Gets Aggressive… The Huskies come into the regional semifinals with a 23-8 record after winning five of their last six matches. Washington is ranked 11th in the national poll, but is one of five unseeded teams to reach the round of 16–and the only ranked squad in that group. In last weekend’s first- and second-round victories, UW was red-hot at the net, hitting a combined .324, but its defense over the past four matches has been the focal point. Starting with a dominating win over Oregon when the Huskies held a 16.5 to 2.0 blocks advantage while limiting the Ducks to -.020 hitting, Washington’s last four opponents–including three nationally ranked teams–have averaged just .126 hitting.
Tigers Look to Make More History… The dreaded 5 vs. 12 matchup in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a standard upset just waiting to happen. It’s not quite the same in volleyball, but Missouri comes into the weekend hoping to continue a trend and extend its historic run. The Tigers, who had the second-lowest RPI of any at-large qualifier in the tournament this year, became the first team to defeat a top-10 seeded squad in the first round when it knocked off Northern Iowa. In fact, before this season, seeded teams were a perfect 160-0 in the first round until MU and Tulsa, which knocked off No. 13 LSU, earned first-round upsets last weekend. If Missouri can pull the stunner against No. 12 Duke, it will grab its second Elite Eight bid in program history.
Joining the Crowd… Oklahoma comes into the weekend looking to advance to its first Final Four in program history. In fact, OU has been to the Sweet 16 only twice before (2006, 1988) and has never reached the regional final. The Sooners hope to join the crowd among teams with Elite Eight and Final Four bids on their resumes, but the matchup isn’t favorable. Oklahoma has produced its best offensive output since 2006, but the Sooners will need to put the past behind them as it takes on No. 4 seed Penn State on Friday. PSU is ranked eighth in the coaches poll, and OU is 3-50 all-time against top-10 opponents.
Another Newcomer Looking for a Chance… Oklahoma is not the only team still alive looking to reach new heights. Purdue is aiming for its first Elite Eight appearance in the 64-team era and its second-ever regional final berth (also 1982) when it takes on No. 1 Florida. The task is tall and history says the outcome has not been favorable for the Boilermakers. Purdue is 0-10 all-time against No. 1 teams, and 1-38 against top-five squads. The bit of good news is that the Boilermakers’ lone win over a top-five squad came earlier this season as they defeated three-time defending national champion Penn State.