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Jacob Myers | NCAA.com | November 29, 2018

5 NCAA volleyball tournament first-round games you can’t miss, and why

Arizona vs. Missouri NCAA volleyball tournament Arizona plays Missouri in one of the first-round's best games.

It’s finally here. The 2018 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball tournament begins Thursday with first-round action that continues Friday.

There are countless probable matchups in this year’s tournament that will be must-see action, but we’ve picked five first-round games that you won’t want to miss and we explain why you should immerse yourself in these matchups.

RELATED: 2018 NCAA volleyball tournament schedule, bracket analysis

5. Arizona vs. Missouri, 5:30 p.m. ET Friday, Lincoln, Nebraska

The Wildcats (22-10) and Tigers (23-7) are two surprise teams in the Pac-12 and SEC, respectively, that have proven they can play with the best.

Making its fourth straight appearance, the Tigers are led by four All-SEC honorees Kylie Deberg, Dariana Hollingsworth, Leketor Member-Meneh and Alyssa Munlyn. Deberg, a transfer form Illinois has tallied over 400 kills this season to lead the Tigers with SEC All-Freshman setter Andrea Fuentes being the catalyst for the offense.

For the Wildcats, senior outside hitter Kendra Dahlke is one of the most prolific attackers in the tournament. She averages nearly 13 attacks per set and ranks fifth in the country with 4.82 kills per set. How Missouri can defend Dahlke and how Arizona can limit Deberg might decide this game.

BRACKET: Interactive DI volleyball bracket | Printable

4. Cincinnati vs. Illinois State, 5:30 p.m. ET Friday, Milwaukee

Every team that plays the Bearcats (25-7) knows Jordan Thompson is going to get the ball every time she can. Rarely has any team been able to stop her, however. She’s averaging 6.28 kills per set, which leads the nation and is nearly a point better than the next highest hitter. Thompson hit a tremendous .338 this season en route to a second-place finish in the American Athletic Conference.

But there’s an argument to be made that Illinois State (25-7) will have the best defense she has faced this year. The Redbirds tied for the Missouri Valley regular-season championship with the third-best blocking rate in the conference at more than two per set and the nation’s 12th best opponent’s hitting percentage. Middle blocker Marissa Stockman leads them in blocks per set and will be the key in slowing down Thompson. Courtney Pence ranks eighth in the nation with 683 digs.

3. Purdue vs. East Tennessee State, 5 p.m. ET Friday, Lexington, Kentucky

The Boilermakers (23-8) are a tough team to judge. They’ve been in close games with non-tournament teams and have an impressive win at Penn State. They also have two first-team All-Big Ten honorees in Sherridan Atkinson and Blake Mohler. Regardless, the Buccaneers (28-6) are going to be a test.

SoCon player of the year Leah Clayton leads ETSU with more than four kills per set and 492 on the season. Marija Popovic is one of the best libero’s in the country, being named the conference’s libero of the year for a second time just as a sophomore. She ranks 15th nationally with 641 digs. The Buccaneers also own a top 20 opponent hitting percentage.

The two teams average about the same blocks per set — ETSU at 2.38 and Purdue at 2.34. The Buccaneers have shown their capable of knocking off tournament teams with wins against Washington State, Tennessee and Duke. Blocking will be crucial in this matchup with strong hitters and great setters in ETSU’s all-conference senior setter Alyssa Kvarta and Purdue first-year setter Hayley Bush.

MORE: 9 greatest upsets in NCAA volleyball tournament history

2. Florida State vs. Florida, 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Orlando, Florida

Outside of No. 12 Pittsburgh, the ACC hasn’t made much noise this year. Perhaps the Seminoles (19-9) like it that way because they’ve quietly had one of the best second halves of the season since a 4-6 start.

Their first-round opponent, however, might be the best unseeded team in the country. The Florida Gators (24-6) have been a top-15 team practically all season and are just now getting freshman phenom outside hitter Thayer Hall back in the rotation after she missed almost a month with an undisclosed injury.

Hall, middle blockers Rachael Kramer and Taelor Kellum and outside hitter Paige Hammons make up one of the best attacks in the country. The Gators block is ranked 12th in the nation at 2.84 per set, but they’ll be up against ACC player of the year Payton Caffrey who’s averaging almost 5 points per set. Middle Taryn Knuth is the X-factor in this match. She’s a threat on the attack and the third-ranked blocker in the country at 1.75 per set. This should easily be one of the best matches of the first round.

RELATED: 7 unseeded teams that could make a deep NCAA volleyball tournament run

1. Tennessee vs. Colorado State, 7 p.m. ET Friday, Pullman, Washington

Colorado State was a preseason top-25 team, but quickly dropped out of the rankings. Since then, the Rams won 23 games and cruised to a Mountain West championship for the second year in a row behind two-time conference player of the year, setter Katie Oleksak.

Tennessee (25-5) has arguably been the biggest surprise this season, finishing second in the SEC and losing only two conference games. Recently named AVCA national player of the week, middle blocker Erica Treiber has been exceptional this season, hitting .401 with 338 kills. Outside hitter Tessa Grubbs, the team leader with 414 kills, was also named All-SEC.

The Rams are making their 24th straight appearance in the tournament against the upstart Vols, but both teams have been exceptional on the attack. CSU ranks 20th in the nation at a .264 hitting percentage with the Vols ranked 34th hitting .252. Tennessee runs multiple setters, but averages about 13 assists per set. If both teams pass at a high rate, the difference could be on the block, which the Rams rank 21st in the country. Expect this game to be about as tight as possible.

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