It’s tournament time in Division I women’s volleyball. That means it’s time to look at which teams might pull off some upsets and make a deep run.
Granted, some of these teams have been ranked for the majority of the year, but they didn’t earn a national seed.
Here are the seven unseeded teams we think are most likely to make a run in the NCAA volleyball tournament and why, presented in alphabetical order.
If a team is going to make an unexpected run in the NCAA tournament, it has to have a go-to player. Baylor has that in Yosianna Pressley.
Pressley, a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, led the conference this year and ranks fourth in the nation with 4.83 kills per set. She has an insane vertical and a powerful right hand that can hit overtop of the block. Middle blocker Shelly Fanning, another two-time first-team all-conference selection, is hitting .401 this year to lead the conference.
The one issue the Bears have had this year is they finished second to last in the Big-12 in blocking.
If the Bears beat a good Hawaii team in the first round, they’ll likely get No. 15 Oregon in the second round before facing No. 2 Minnesota in the regional semifinals.
Like Baylor, the Mustangs have opposite hitter Torrey Van Winden to rely on for a tournament run. Van Winden led Cal Poly to another Big West championship and 25 wins while posting the nation’s third-highest kills per set (5.07) and a massive .365 hitting percentage on her way to winning Big West player of the year. Her sister, Adlee Van Winden, is the Mustangs’ second-leading hitter and another top option for setter Avalon DeNecochea, the Big West co-freshman of the year.
The Mustangs haven’t played the type of competition several other teams have played, and they’re certainly going to be tested in this tournament. But their first-round opponent San Diego has been reeling a bit, as has Southern California, which is the likely second-round opponent. The Mustangs are also seventh in the nation in opponent hitting percentage and 45th in blocks per set.
The Gators could be the best unseeded team, and they have already beaten the national seed they’re matched up with — UCF — earlier this year. But the games still have to be played, so here’s a few reasons why the Gators are a tough matchup:
First, you have to start with the crucial return of freshman phenom Thayer Hall. The Gatorade national high-school player of the year was out for seven games before returning in the regular-season finale in an impressive sweep of fellow tournament team South Carolina. With Hall healthy playing next to Rachael Kramer, Paige Hammons and Taelor Kellum, don’t be surprised if Florida makes it all the way to Minneapolis.
As good as Florida can be at their best, they might be in the toughest region. A road to Minneapolis could include No. 5 Texas and No. 4 BYU. What happens with the Gators will be interesting.
This one was a tough pick because Cincinnati is certainly capable of upsetting teams if the nation’s kills leader, Jordan Thompson, continues to play the way she has all season. But when looking for a weakness, it’s difficult to find one in the Redbirds.
Consider this: Illinois State was co-champs in the regular season with perennial Missouri Valley power Northern Iowa; they have four hitters at more than 200 kills and it has the conference’s libero of the year in Courtney Pence and the MVC setter of the year in Steph Jankiewicz; the Redbirds rank in the top 15 in digs per set and opponent hitting percentage.
They’re one of the most balanced teams in the country. But they’ll have to slow down Cincinnati's Thompson in the first round then likely Marquette’s Allie Barber and Jenna Rosenthal in the second round.
Normally going with a team that finished seventh in its conference wouldn’t be entirely justifiable. But not every conference is the Big Ten. And not every team has a Carly Skjodt.
The senior outside hitter was a unanimous first-team All- Big Ten selection and will likely be up for All-American honors again this year. She leads the Wolverines with 459 kills, but has received a lot of additional support from Big Ten All-Freshman Paige Jones on the outside. Senior libero Jenna Lerg ranked second in the conference averaging almost five digs per set.
Michigan has Navy in the first round then likely No. 12 Pittsburgh. The block of the Wolverines will have to improve to win past the first weekend.
The Wolverines have arrived! pic.twitter.com/FZayu3XDpX— Michigan Volleyball (@umichvball) November 29, 2018
Staying inside the Big Ten, Purdue is next to Florida in being the best team not seeded nationally. Sherridan Atkinson and Blake Mohler are first-team All-Big Ten honorees on the outside and middle, respectively. One of the biggest advantages for Purdue has been redshirt freshman setter Hayley Bush’s ability to step in and run a quick-tempo offense with experienced hitters.
The Boilermakers match up well with the dynamic attack of Kentucky, which is the likely second-round opponent. However, Purdue should receive a test from SoCon at-large East Tennessee in the first round. Boilermakers were 10th in the Big Ten in blocking. That must improve in the tournament against elite hitters.
The unseeded team with the best chance of making it out of the first weekend is Tennessee. The Vols are an exciting team to watch with Tessa Grubbs on the outside and middle blocker Erica Treiber.
The Vols have a very efficient offense and have multiple setters that can put the ball in any spot for their hitters, led by Sedona Hansen. Tennessee has proven that it’s just a tough team to beat and a team that doesn’t have a specific weakness. That’s evident with an 11-game winning streak which includes a sweep against Florida.
The Vols have what should be a thrilling first-round matchup with Colorado State, followed by a likely second-round opponent in No. 16 Washington State. Wins those, the Vols will have No. 1 Stanford. Getting past that match will be tough, but sleeping on a 25-win team at this stage probably isn’t wise.
Erica Treiber becomes the fourth player in @Vol_VBall program history to be named the @AVCAVolleyball National Player of the Week and the first since the 2011 season.— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) November 28, 2018
📰 https://t.co/ivDTV9YEGY#NCAAVB pic.twitter.com/5PRidd5TAM