After the longest season of any fall sport, the women’s volleyball season has reached its most exciting point: the unveiling of the 64-team championship field, a vast expanse of heroics and greatness yet unfulfilled.
There’s plenty to look into and analyze before the matches begin on Nov. 30, so we took a stab at finding some of the most compelling storylines heading into the first round:
1. Penn State’s path includes sleeping giants
The Nittany Lions enter this year’s tournament as the clear-cut best team in the country, sporting an incomparable 29-1 record and victories over some of the best teams in the country, including two over Stanford and a late-season win over Minnesota.
Their opportunity for revenge against No. 5 seed Nebraska, the team which evicted PSU from last year’s tournament in the third round, will have to wait until a potential semifinal matchup. But there’s plenty of entertaining volleyball awaiting Russ Rose’s team if it’s serious about making a run at this year’s title.
The real challenges begin in the third round for Penn State, where the Nittany Lions will likely face either No. 16 seed Wichita State, a powerhouse with just three losses this season in a weaker American, or unseeded Kansas, a team which spent most of its season hovering around the AVCA’s Top 15 and was No. 12 in the most recent RPI rankings.
After passing one of those two, the Nittany Lions likely face either No. 9 seed Creighton, another formidable small-conference foe; unseeded Michigan State, which made a strong push mid-season before fading just slightly down the stretch; or an under-the-radar No. 8 seed Washington squad with a win over Stanford and six wins in its last eight matches.
From there, the Nittany Lions likely face top seeds in the semifinals and finals, provided they’re still around. The path certainly exists, and there are no true “this could be the one” upset specials on the schedule… but in the tournament, it only takes one day to watch an incredible season end abruptly.
NCAA women's volleyball: No. 1 Penn State still too much for Wisconsin
2. A look at some conference numbers
32 at-large bids were handed out on top of the 32 automatic bids, which led to 22 conferences being represented by one team and 10 conference with multiple showings. Here are the 10 conferences with more than one school in the 64-team field, ordered:
Also of note: Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun) and Stony Brook (America East) are both making their tournament debuts. Kennesaw State faces Oregon in the first round while Stony Brook faces the Cornhuskers.
3. Potential un-seeded spoiler teams
There are only 16 seeds to distribute, but with the parity we saw in the regular season, it’s clear there are more than 16 quality volleyball teams in this field.
Here are just a few teams who could play spoiler:
1. Wisconsin | 20-9 | RPI: 10
Wisconsin had a largely indecipherable regular season. The Badgers notched an October win over No. 5 seed Nebraska, but failed to pick up another signature win in a brutal Big Ten while picking on lesser teams to reach their 20-win mark. They didn’t win a set against Purdue in mid-November, couldn’t win two sets against Penn State in either of their matchups and couldn’t get a handle on Minnesota.
And yet… the potential is there. The Badgers have been hardened by that same Big Ten schedule, and if they manage to go on a spirited postseason run, they’ll have shots at No. 14 seed Iowa State, No. 3 seed Stanford, and No. 6 seed Texas. It’s a long shot, but when you’re looking for Cinderella teams, you go one of two ways: great team in small conference, or good team in great conference. Wisconsin is the latter.
2. Michigan State | 21-8 | RPI: 17
Michigan State also ticks the box of “good team in great conference,” as they, too, had to battle through the ironclad Big Ten.
The Spartans, unlike Wisconsin, have a few different signature wins to point to, including a back-to-back stretch with wins over the Badgers and Minnesota. Untimely late-season losses to Michigan (a 3-0 sweep, no less) and surging Purdue cost MSU a seed in the tournament, but there’s still plenty to like about the way the team played this season.
Their inability to stick with top dogs Penn State and Nebraska begs questions about their longevity in a tournament run, but No. 9 seed Creighton could be in for a rude awakening in the second round, while the same could be said for No. 8 seed Washington in the third round.
3. Cal Poly | 26-2 | RPI: 19
Cal Poly represents the second bucket of potential Cinderella teams: small conference, big upside. The Mustangs lost just twice this season, to Washington and unseeded Oregon, ranked No. 14 in the country at the time. Since that two-match sputter in the first week of September, the Mustangs have gone untouched. They beat No. 16 seed Wichita State, a strong Hawaii team twice, and… myriad stocking stuffers.
The question for this team, of course, is strength of schedule: Cal Poly faced the 56th-strongest schedule in the country. It’s not awful, but it’s not world-beating stuff. Can they muster big-conference matches if they face No. 15 seed UCLA in the second round? How about No. 2 seed Florida in the third round? It’d certainly be a great opportunity for the Mustangs to show the rest of the country they’re not just a product of their schedule.
We’ll have to wait and see.
4. Best potential second-round matchups
Second-round matchups featured four upsets of seeded teams in last year’s tournament, including Creighton’s takedown of then-No. 5 seed Kansas and Florida falling to Florida State, both in five sets. That’s good volleyball. Here’s a look at the best potential second-round matchup in each region:
Bottom Left: Western Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kentucky
In one corner, the Hilltoppers were ranked just outside the AVCA’s Top 25 for the majority of the season, finishing with a sterling 30-3 record and a top 30 RPI. In the other corner, the Wildcats made a second-half push up the ladder.
Top Left: Michigan State vs. No. 9 Creighton
The Spartans, of course, are one of our potential unseeded upsetters, which makes this match all the more intriguing as a second-round option. The Bluejays breezed through a Big East absent of many problem-makers, but their non-conference win over Kansas in September was a big one. Still, big-conference MSU should push the Jays here.
Bottom Right: No. 15 UCLA vs. Cal Poly
We’ve already discussed Cal Poly’s curious situation, which means this would be their first potential statement-making match. The Bruins are coming off back-to-back sweeps, but they lacked a signature win in the Pac-12 this season. This could be the opportunity the Mustangs are looking for.
Top Right: No. 14 Iowa State vs. Wisconsin
We’ve also discussed Wisconsin previously: the Badgers have the potential to beat almost any team in the tournament, but they also have the potential to lose to almost any seeded school. The Cyclones, on the other hand, fared very well in a loaded Big 12 and pose a problem for the Badgers with Jess Schaben leading the way on the offensive.