Gone are the preseason matches that see your favorite programs play schools you’ve never seen.
Gone is the time when the head coach doesn’t have a good grip on their team’s identity.
Now let’s replace that with crisp autumnal weather, heated conference rivalries and the coach making that tweak in the lineup at just the perfect time.
With the NCAA Division I Championship Selection Show set for 8:30 p.m. ET Nov. 30 (ESPNU), it’s crazy to think we’re in the final leg of the regular season. It’s been an unpredictable season thus far, and I don’t expect that to change before the 2014 NCAA championship trophy is raised above the victors’ heads this December in Oklahoma City.
Here are the top five things to keep an eye on as we head down the stretch:
Remember when wide-eyed freshmen would join a team, and they, for the most part, just sat on the bench (or in volleyball, stood on the sideline) to let the upperclassmen do the heavy lifting? Those days are long gone as freshmen from all across the country are making a strong impact on their nationally ranked programs. One of the strongest resides in the swamps of Florida, where middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan has shown what an asset she is to the Florida Gators. Heading into the season she was viewed as a “project” with raw athletic ability and a 37.7-inch vertical, but maybe not quite at the All-American skill level. That couldn’t have turned out to be further than the truth. In just the third week of her career, Alhassan was named the Sports Imports/AVCA Player of the Week. If the Gators make a deep run in the tournament, look out for Alhassan.
However, she is hardly the only freshman proving her worth. A plethora of 2013 Under Armour All-Americans are making immediate impacts on contending teams. Starting in Penn State, if the Nittany Lions defend their 2013 championship and win their sixth in eight years, outside hitters Ali Frantti and Simone Lee will be a key reason why. Staying in the Big Ten, Wisconsin outside Kelli Bates has shown B1G volleyball is not too big for her, and with AVCA All-American setter Lauren Carlini dishing her ball, Bates could be huge down the stretch.
Heading out west to the Pac-12, Under Armour All-Americans once again make up a whole lot of quality freshmen. Washington outside Tia Scambray gives UW another great option to go along with AVCA All-Americans Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. At UCLA, Reily Buechler (daughter of three-time NBA champion Jud Buechler) has been hovering around three kills per set. While these are quality freshmen, there are dozens more out there worthy of mention if this could be a 20-page article.
The Class of the Pac-12
It’s no secret the Pac-12 Conference boasts some of the nation’s elite teams, but the way it stands right now there are two that stick out above the rest. Both Stanford and Washington are serious championship contenders; it’s just too bad their one matchup this season comes on Nov. 26. Both the Cardinal and Huskies have championship level talent. Stanford has the big middle Inky Ajanaku, who by the way is from Oklahoma, the site of the NCAA championship. Washington has the reigning 2013 AVCA Player of the Year Krista Vansant. Those two players will get their stats, so what separates the two teams is who gets the most help from their supporting casts. Since they’re both so even, make sure you tune into the Pac-12 Networks for that Nov. 26 matchup ... it could double as an NCAA championship preview.
The wide open Big Ten
The Big Ten is also right there with the Pac-12 in terms of conference depth. However, at the moment there isn’t a clear team or two that have separated themselves from the pack. It’s tough to overlook Penn State, which has been the most dominant team of the decade and has reloaded this year. The only question is the Nittany Lions' youth surrounding AVCA All-American senior setter and native Oklahoman Micha Hancock leading the squad. The Nittany Lions talent level is there, but playing on the big stage with the amount of youth they have is not easy to do.
The other half of the 2013 NCAA championship match, Wisconsin, is a team to be taken seriously. Like Penn State, the Badgers return their All-American setter Lauren Carlini and have another year experience after last year’s dream run. Purdue is having another tremendous season under head coach Dave Shondell; Illinois has notched victories in Penn State and Nebraska; Ohio State recently has been one of the hottest teams in the conference; and Nebraska is still Nebraska. This season has shown, especially in the Big Ten, that any team can beat another.
Is Florida State for real?
The Florida State Seminoles have become regulars near the top of the AVCA coaches' polls for good reason. They’ve not only overcome the loss of All-American Ashley Neff, but they seem to have gotten better. Outside hitter Nicole Walch returned and has taken the majority of the swings this year averaging around four kills per set while also getting it done on defense. Speaking of defense, libero Katie Mosher is the program’s career record-holder in digs, and has a fearless attitude that permeates throughout the team.
Don’t let the Gators' record fool you into thinking they’ve played a cream puff schedule. They’ve recorded wins on the road against Nebraska, Iowa State, American, Texas A&M (twice) as well as victories against Marquette, LSU and North Carolina. Also, the Noles aren’t new to the party. Remember the 2011 NCAA semifinals in San Antonio. Who were the four teams? Champion UCLA, Illinois, USC and who was that fourth team? Yup, Florida State! Head coach Chris Poole was there just three years ago, and with the talent he has on this roster he can get back there again.
Texas can do it again
For a team with a pedigree like the Longhorns, it’s difficult to not to envision them in the NCAA semifinals. In fact, they’ve participated in the event five of the past six years. At this point, there will be considerable surprise if Texas doesn’t win the Big 12 Conference and make a deep run in the 2014 NCAA tournament. With three-time AVCA All-American Haley Eckerman leading the way, she has a great supporting cast of Khat Bell, Molly McCage, Chiaka Ogbogu and freshman libero Cat McCoy. The same question is brought up when talking about Texas this time of year: “Have they been tested enough?” The Longhorns answer that question year in and year out with NCAA semifinal appearances. With the tournament culminating less than six hours north of Austin, expect the Longhorn faithful to take the trip if UT makes it six out of seven.
• Oklahoma -- They may not be able to surpass Texas in the Big 12, but don’t sleep on the Sooners. They know the championship will be held in their home state, and there’s nothing they’d like more than to sneak their way there. Look for a strong conclusion to their regular season to be in the NCAA tournament mix.
• SEC -- Florida may be the traditional Southeastern Conference powerhouse, but the rest of the conference is catching up. Kentucky is strong and will battle it out with the Gators, but it’s by no means a two-horse race. Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M have proved worthy contenders on the national stage.
• Other schools to watch -- You don’t need to be a school from a power conference to contend for a title. At the moment, Colorado State and BYU look to have the greatest chance of crashing the big party. The Rams’ Kelsey Snider is a beast in the middle averaging three kills and more than one block per set while hitting a robust .400. For the Cougars, opposite Jennifer Hamson is back on the volleyball court after taking off last year to focus on basketball. In 2012, she was an AVCA First-Team All-American, so two years later she’s been able to come back her same dominant self. It’s scary to think what her team is capable of if Hamson can somehow improve upon what she’s already done.