Four burning questions for semifinals
Seattle was one point away -- twice -- from not having the "home" team playing in volleyball's national semifinals this week. But in Saturday's late, late show, Washington survived a five-set thriller in a regional final against USC. Thus, the Huskies will be the crowd favorite Thursday night at KeyArena.
The champions of the Big 12 (No. 1 seed Texas), Big Ten (No. 2 Penn State) and Pac-12 (No. 3 Washington) will be joined by No. 12 Wisconsin in semifinal action.
The Nittany Lions have won five NCAA titles, the Longhorns two and the Huskies one. The Badgers played for the national championship in 2000, but lost to Nebraska.
So what can we expect from a lineup of heavy hitters? Here are four burning questions going into volleyball's final week.
Will the home team have an advantage?
Washington doesn't normally play at KeyArena, of course. The Huskies' home is at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the UW campus, about 4 1/2 miles away. But for all practical purposes, Thursday's semifinal against Penn State is a home match for Washington.
But will that make any difference? It's notable that home-court edge didn't matter much in the regionals. USC, Nebraska and Illinois were hosting regionals on their home courts, and they all lost in either the semifinals or final. Kentucky was the other regional host, but the Wildcats had lost in the second round on their home court to Michigan State.
Washington was 15-0 at home at Hec Ed this season; both the Huskies and the Nittany Lions lost just two matches overall. Penn State is so experienced with big crowds, it seems very unlikely the Nittany Lions will be rattled.
However, having a local team involved should make for a very loud and exciting atmosphere at KeyArena, which should be fun for all of the players.
Can the Huskies beat Penn State's block?
Ultimately, that's what bested Stanford in a highly competitive regional final against the Nittany Lions. In a crucial juncture of the fifth set, Penn State became a wall at the net, led by 6-foot-6 senior Katie Slay. She had a season-high 10 blocks in that match, which Penn State won 15-11 in the fifth.
This is a big concern for Washington. But you don't win the Pac-12 championship and make the national semifinals without overcoming a lot of great blockers. In their regional-final victory over the Trojans, the Huskies had a .267 hitting percentage. Krista Vansant had 38 kills and hit .346. Vansant had 81 attacks against USC, while teammate Kaleigh Nelson was next with 14 kills on 54 attacks.
Penn State has the size, athleticism and discipline to force opposing teams away from their strengths. While nobody is going to shut down Vansant, the Nittany Lions are probably going to make her teammates carry a bigger load.
Can Wisconsin compete with Texas?
The Badgers had more losses this season -- nine -- than the other three remaining teams combined, who each had two. So no one's going to dispute that Wisconsin is the underdog team of this final round, much as Michigan was last year.
Add to that, the team that looked the most fearsome Saturday was the defending-champion Longhorns, who swept Nebraska 25-19, 25-22, 25-23. Can you believe anyone picked the Huskers to beat Texas? (Can I plead temporary insanity?)
Seriously, though, it's not as if it seemed such a stretch going into the match that Nebraska had a chance. Texas had dropped the first set to American in the regional semifinals the night before. And in their regular-season meeting in Austin, Texas, the Longhorns had to go the distance to beat Nebraska in five sets.
But that was in September, when Texas coach Jerritt Elliott was still in his "laboratory," mixing up different looks to see how his team would react.
The slow start against American notwithstanding, the Longhorns are a finely tuned engine now. And it showed big time Saturday. It wasn't that the Huskers were playing poorly -- they just couldn't keep up with Texas.
Can Wisconsin -- which finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten behind Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota -- fare any better against the Longhorns? Is there a way to beat a team with attackers the quality of Haley Eckerman, Bailey Webster and Khat Bell?
Simply put, to try to hang with Texas, the Badgers have to play the very best defense they are capable of. They've gone against the likes of Penn State twice this season, so they are familiar with facing a team that has multiple All-American-caliber hitters. But Wisconsin was swept in both those matches.
Who will be national player of the year?
It's sure to be somebody playing this week, but who? The leading candidates are Texas' Eckerman and Washington's Vansant, who were the players of the year in their respective conferences. Both are juniors.
But what about Penn State senior Deja McClendon? Her all-around game has improved dramatically since she was the most outstanding player of the championship round as a freshman in 2010. And at least in the discussion should be Penn State setter Micha Hancock, the junior who is so important to everything the Nittany Lions do.
The winner will be announced Friday, along with the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America teams.