Five takeaways from early rounds
The NCAA women's volleyball tournament field was pared down to 16 teams over the weekend. The SEC was eliminated, the Big Ten was vindicated (not that it needed to be), and there was a very happy visiting team flying out of Hawaii, which doesn't happen all that much.
Here are five takeaways from the early rounds as we look back on that and look ahead to this weekend's regional action.
Who are you calling a 'small' conference?
No offense to the West Coast Conference or the Patriot League. We say "small" to denote "non-major" or "non-BCS," of course, but there was nothing little about the statements made by Brigham Young and San Diego of the WCC, and American of the Patriot League.
The Toreros and Cougars battled atop the WCC this season, with San Diego ultimately prevailing for the league title. The Toreros, who were ranked as high as No. 2 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll this season, then got the No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament and were a host school for the early rounds.
San Diego beat Big West tri-champion UC Santa Barbara 3-0 in the first round, then swept Arizona of the Pac-12 to advance to the regional semifinal. Next up: No. 8 seed Nebraska on the Huskers' home court.
But the Toreros can look to rival BYU for inspiration -- the Cougars already have knocked out a seeded team on its home court. BYU first had a tussle with Arizona State of the Pac-12, beating the Sun Devils 3-2. Then the Cougars swept host Hawaii, the No. 11 seed. BYU sophomore Alexa Gray had a big weekend, combining for 40 kills against ASU and Hawaii.
This is BYU's second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. As for the Rainbow Wahine, normally they protect their home court at Stan Sheriff Center very well. Surprisingly, this year they lost twice during the regular season at home, and then had their season end there.
BYU next will try to do the same thing to No. 6 seed USC, as those teams face off in the Trojans' Galen Center in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the east, Duke also saw its season end on its home court. The ACC champion Blue Devils, the No. 16 seed, were eliminated by Patriot League champ American, which advanced to its first regional semifinal. The Eagles will face defending national champion Texas next.
The Eagles, now 34-2, have won 16 matches in a row, and they swept Duke after doing the same to Georgia in the first round.
SEC out of action
Eight was not enough for the SEC ... not enough to make the Sweet 16, that is. The league got eight teams into the NCAA tournament field, but they were all eliminated in the early rounds.
The league's top two teams, No. 4 seed Missouri and No. 5 Florida, will not be meeting for a third time this year. Both fell in the second round. The Gators lost 3-2 to in-state rival Florida State, a team Florida swept in September. Missouri, which entered the NCAA tournament as the only undefeated team, lost 3-1 to Purdue. The SEC's other seeded team in the tournament, No. 15 Kentucky, fell 3-1 to Michigan State in the second round. The Wildcats are hosting a regional this weekend, but they won't be playing in it.
This is not to rub salt in the SEC's wounds. Florida has been the volleyball standard-bearer for years in a league that is more known for its women's sports success in basketball and track.
It is an improving conference in volleyball, and the addition of Missouri definitely is helping that process. The Tigers had a great season, even if it didn't end as they hoped. They were eliminated by a Purdue program with more NCAA tournament experience, plus the competitive benefit of playing in the Big Ten.
Still, the bottom line is that the top three SEC teams all hosted the early rounds, and none of them advanced to the regional semifinals. Improved, consistent postseason results are the best way for the SEC to boost its profile.
Big Ten is big time
The unofficial title of "best volleyball conference" goes back and forth over the years between the Big Ten and Pac-12, and some seasons they share it. This year, the Big Ten can stake its claim after another strong regular season and now claiming nearly half of the Sweet 16 spots.
Seven from the Big Ten -- No. 2 seed Penn State, No. 8 Nebraska, No. 10 Minnesota, No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 13 Illinois and unseeded Purdue and Michigan State -- will be in action in the regional semifinals.
The only Big Ten team that didn't survive the early rounds was Michigan, which tied for eighth in the league. The Wolverines, who made the final four last year, fell 3-2 to LSU in the first round.
The Big Ten was so successful it made you feel bad for Northwestern, which also tied for eighth in the league but was 16-16 overall and didn't get an NCAA bid. Frankly, with the overwhelming strength of this conference, the Wildcats deserved to get in.
Having so many teams in the Sweet 16, though, sets up Big Ten-packed regionals. Three Big Ten schools -- Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin -- are in the regional hosted by the Illini, where the outsider is Florida State (the ACC's lone survivor).
Three other Big Ten teams are in the Lexington, Ky., regional: Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota. No. 7 seed Stanford of the Pac-12 joins them.
Nebraska is a regional host, which leaves USC as the Big Ten-free regional site. So there won't be an all-Big Ten final four.
Pac-12 trio marches on
The Pac-12 led all conference in teams in the NCAA field, with nine. But the league that is the host conference for the final four -- it will be in Seattle Dec. 19-21 -- has just its top three teams left: No. 3 seed Washington, No. 6 USC and No. 7 Stanford. Only two of them, at most, can make it to the final four.
That's because the Huskies and Trojans are in the same region, and may meet in the final. The Trojans will have to stop BYU first, and the Huskies will go against Kansas.
The Huskies, Trojans and Cardinal all had pretty drama-free routes into the Sweet 16; they won their early-round matches by sweeps, save for Washington's 3-1 win over LSU.
As mentioned, Stanford will have to get past two Big Ten teams to make it the final four. The Cardinal have more NCAA titles (six) and final four appearances (18) than any other school.
Texas, the No. 1 overall seed, was the Big 12 team everyone expected to make the Sweet 16. Anything less would have been the major shock of the tournament.
But the Big 12 also has a second team in the regional semifinals that is a first-timer. Kansas has never advanced this far before, but the No. 14 seed Jayhawks beat Wichita State and Creighton to do it.
Despite going undefeated in the Big 12 for the first time, Jerritt Elliott of Texas was not voted the league's coach of the year. Fair or not, that happens sometimes when you have a super-talented team that everyone just expects will win.
Instead, the coaching honor for the second year in a row went to Kansas' Ray Bechard, who is in his 16th season with the Jayhawks. He will be going against Jim McLaughlin of Washington in the regional semis. Those two went head-to-head in Big 12 play in 1998-2000 when McLaughlin was coach at Kansas State.