Seven questions with volleyball star Holly McPeak
Before ESPN volleyball analyst Holly McPeak conquered the pro beach circuit, she was an Olympic bronze medalist and a collegiate star at Cal-Berkeley and UCLA. She was the setter for the Bruins, keying their 1990 NCAA championship team. McPeak, who will share her expert thoughts on the NCAA tournament with espnW's Pat Borzi over the next two weeks, looks at the tournament after the first two rounds.
espnW: You covered the Pac-12 this year. Only two of their seven NCAA qualifiers advanced past the second round, so were you surprised that more didn't advance?
Holly McPeak: I was a little surprised by how poorly the Pac-12 teams did do, but I think it was a down year for the Pac-12. Most of the teams were rebuilding. In terms of Cal, which was in the championship game last year, they had five returning players but a new setter. That's a big change. USC is the one team that has a good chance to go all the way this year.
espnW: We've already had two big upsets: Kansas State knocking off Nebraska in Lincoln, and Michigan beating No. 11 Stanford. Which was the bigger surprise to you?
HM: It was a little bit of a down year for Stanford. So I would have to say that Nebraska, being the No. 2 seed overall, being upset by Kansas State is the biggest surprise. When it goes five sets, anybody can win at that level. Kansas State took care of business, and that's what it comes down to, especially at NCAA time.
espnW: Which regional looks the toughest to you?
HM: That Texas regional, which is taking place in Kentucky -- Texas plays Kentucky, and then UCLA plays Penn State. I'm never going to count out Penn State after winning four championships. Russ Rose knows what he's doing. UCLA has been up and down at the end of the season. They were good early in the season and kind of had some late-season woes. They're a little bit of a question mark. And Texas has been putting up huge numbers all along, kind of rolling through midseason. But Kentucky has that home advantage. That's why I think that region is really interesting.
espnW: USC plays Hawaii in a Honolulu Regional semifinal. They ranked first and third in the pre-tournament national poll, and there was some commotion when the NCAA selection committee seeded USC seventh and Hawaii 10th. Did you think the seedings were fair, and is it fair to have two of the top three teams meeting this early in the tournament?
HM: That's been a controversy all season long. Last year they started using the RPI, which is something they use in NCAA basketball, basically a mathematical formula to reward you for your strength of schedule. If you go in and play a bunch of easy teams, you're not going to get a high RPI. That's why you see teams like Northern Iowa get a huge lift -- they were the sixth seed overall. Nebraska had a high RPI. Texas had a high RPI. Obviously, we're going to see what happens. [Editor's note: The final RPI ratings had Texas second, Nebraska fourth, Northern Iowa fifth, Hawaii seventh and USC eighth.]
I think it's a bummer for Hawaii. I don't think Hawaii has been tested. Their conference is very weak. They try and schedule a tough preseason so they're tested, but they're not tested. They struggle with passing. I think USC is going to win that. Pepperdine has been a dark horse for me. I've been watching them all season long. They've got great senior leadership and ball control. That region is pretty challenging, but I think USC will come out of that one.
espnW: Since you've tapped one semifinal team, care to pick the rest of the field?
HM: Ah, gosh. This is the hardest year to pick it. I struggled last year, too. Maybe I say that every year. I would say Texas, Illinois, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say Purdue and USC. Purdue has had some huge matches, huge wins, this season. That's my guess.
espnW: You won an NCAA championship with UCLA. Where does that rank among your career accomplishments?
HM: Whew. An NCAA title, you only have four or five years to do it if you use a redshirt year. It's super-special. It's right up there with my Olympic medal. It's something I'll never forget. I had a special group of girls, and we're still all really connected because of the bond we created that season in 1990. It was a lot of fun.
espnW: Got a particular memory of that championship run that stands out?
HM: Back then, the seeding was different. Stanford, I think, was the No. 2 team in the country, and we were No. 1. We had to play them to get to the Final Four. That was the toughest match. Our test came early. I remember all the pressure around that one match. [Editor's note: UCLA won in three sets in the West Regional final, then swept LSU and Pacific in the final rounds.]
espnW: What's been the biggest change in the college game since you played?
HM: Parity across the country is the No. 1 difference. There are so many girls playing volleyball now. That's why you see all these teams like Purdue and Kansas State and Iowa State doing so well in the NCAA tournament, because there is so much talent out there and there are a lot of good coaches. Then, obviously, the size of the players. They're a lot taller. [Editor's note: McPeak is 5-foot-7.] And there is a lot more specialization than when I played, with the libero. A lot of us played six rotations. You didn't just come in for the front row. It's fun to be able to work in TV and follow the progress of the sport.