Defending champion Nebraska gets No. 1 seed and complicated road to Columbus

Sam Gore and Nell Fortner break down the top seeds in the 2016 NCAA volleyball tournament and explain what surprises the most.

As expected, the top three seeds in the 2016 NCAA volleyball tournament are Big Ten powers Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin. What's surprising is that the No. 1 seed and defending champion Huskers might have a harder road to the final four than the No. 2 Gophers or No. 3 Badgers.

The biggest surprise is that the No. 4 seed went to 2015 runner-up Texas, even though the Longhorns did not win the Big 12. Kansas did, and the teams, which both went to the final four last year, split their regular-season matches, yet the Jayhawks got the No. 5 seed.

Being one of the top four seeds is more important than ever this year because the regionals are no longer at predetermined sites. The top surviving seed in each quarter of the bracket gets to host the regional. First- and second-round action will be on campus sites Thursday-Saturday, followed by the regionals Dec. 9-10. The national semis and final are Dec. 15-17 in Columbus, Ohio.

Here are some of the things we're pondering after a look at the bracket.

1. Will the Big Ten get three teams in the final four?

Courtesy Minnesota

Minnesota has wins over the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds -- and that's just in the past week.

With the top three seeds in the tournament coming from the conference, the final four very well could have a Big Ten flavor. But it looks like a bumpy ride for Nebraska. The defending national champions earned the No. 1 seed by winning the Big Ten for just the second time in program history, but the committee didn't go overboard to reward the Big Red.

If seeds hold, the champions from volleyball's two top conferences would have to meet prior to the final four: Nebraska (27-2) would host Pac-12 winner Washington (26-4) in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the regional final.

It's not all that easy before then for Nebraska, either. The Huskers could face No. 16 seed Penn State (22-9) in the regional semifinals, and that's a mega-power matchup. The two programs have combined for eight of the past 10 NCAA titles.

Clearly, this year's Nittany Lions don't have the résumé that most of coach Russ Rose's seven national championship teams have had, but Penn State is known for elevating its play in the postseason. Nebraska won both matches between the two in the Big Ten this season, but they went five sets at Penn State.

Might the committee have raised an eyebrow at Nebraska for collapsing Wednesday at Minnesota? The Huskers led the Gophers 2-0 and 23-20 in the third set, only to fall in five.

By contrast, let's look at the road for the Gophers and Badgers. No. 2 Minnesota (25-4) potentially would face No. 7 seed North Carolina (27-3) in a regional final. This is no knock on the Tar Heels, but Nebraska probably would prefer a matchup with the ACC champions, who have never advanced to the final four, over No. 8 Washington, which has a significant postseason pedigree, including as 2005 national champion. Last year the Huskies made the regional final, where they fell to the Huskers. Nebraska and Washington have met six times in the NCAA tournament, all since 2005, and the Huskers have a 4-2 edge.

No. 3 Wisconsin (25-4) could meet No. 6 Stanford (21-7) in a regional final. The Cardinal tied with UCLA for second in the Pac-12 but were seeded ahead of Washington, likely because Stanford swept its series with the Huskies.

2. Who's really the top team in the Pac-12?

Mike Rasay, StanfordPhoto.com

Stanford enters the NCAA tournament on a tear, having posted four straight sweeps to close the season.

That's the question we've been asking all season. The final standings said Washington, which was the conference champ, at 16-4. The NCAA selection committee said Stanford and gave the Cardinal the highest seed, No. 6, of any Pac-12 team.

In total, the Pac-12 got eight teams in the field, tied with the Big Ten for most in one conference. For the Pac-12, that included two teams with .500 records in league play: Southern Cal and Arizona, who were both 10-10.

The Trojans were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament last year but lost to Kansas in stunning fashion in the regional final. After losing the 2015 national player of the year, Samantha Bricio, it was a bit of a rebuilding season for USC, and the team's record reflected that. But despite losing their last three matches, the Trojans have a chance to make a postseason run.

As good as the Pac-12 traditionally is, the only team from the conference to win the NCAA title in the past decade was UCLA in 2011. The Bruins tied with Stanford for second place in the Pac-12, at 15-5 this season, and they've won six of their past seven matches.

3. Why did Texas get the nod at No. 4 over Kansas?

Courtesy Kansas

Big 12 champion Kansas split its games with Texas, went 15-1 in conference play and was 26-2 overall.

Steam might be coming out of the Jayhawks' ears. After winning the Big 12 title for the first time, they were seeded behind the second-place team in the conference, Texas. That means that if seeds hold, Kansas would have to face Texas on the Longhorns' home court in the regional final.

Why? First, RPI favors Texas, which is No. 2, over Kansas, which is No. 6. Second, nonconference strength of schedule favors Texas. The Longhorns (22-4) had matches against seven teams that made the NCAA field, including Nebraska and Wisconsin; the Longhorns lost to both. Kansas (26-2) had a nonconference schedule with three teams that made the NCAA field.

RPI and strength of schedule obviously are key tools when it comes to seeding, especially when two teams don't have a head-to-head matchup and/or common opponents. But Texas and Kansas are the exact opposite: They are in the same conference, and they play a round-robin schedule. All nine teams in the Big 12 (Oklahoma State doesn't have a volleyball program) play each other home and away.

As a result, Texas and Kansas have had the same set of opponents since late September, and the Jayhawks finished on top, at 15-1, with Texas at 14-2. The Longhorns beat the Jayhawks 3-1 on Sept. 24 in Austin, Texas. Kansas then turned the tables on its home court to win 3-2 over Texas on Oct. 29. The Longhorns' other Big 12 loss was 3-2 at Iowa State on Nov. 12.

Did Texas' reputation play into the committee's decision? The Longhorns have won two NCAA titles, most recently in 2012, and have made the final four in seven of the past eight years.

The bottom line is Kansas won the Big 12, and that still wasn't enough to be seeded ahead of Texas. Perhaps pumping up the nonconference schedule is what Kansas must do next.

4. Is there a dark horse pick for the final four?

Courtesy North Carolina

Taylor Leath and ACC champion North Carolina dropped just six sets in the entire month of November.

The ACC champions, North Carolina, are the No. 7 seed, but they qualify as a dark horse. The Tar Heels have never advanced beyond the regional finals, and only one ACC team (Florida State in 2011) has ever made the final four.

That said, here's our case for the Tar Heels. Their nonconference slate included a first-ever win at Penn State and a thrilling, five-set victory at home over Wisconsin. They swept ACC runner-up Florida State.

The Tar Heels have size and athleticism. Redshirt sophomore Taylor Leath has put together a terrific season, including a 26-kill, 13-dig effort against Florida State on Nov. 6 that earned her AVCA and espnW player of the week honors.

Their blocking unit, led by redshirt freshmen Sydnye Fields, ranks among the top 10 in the nation, and outside hitter Julia Scoles is one of the country's best freshmen and is healthy again after missing two weeks because of a concussion.

The Tar Heels likely would have to get by No. 2 Minnesota in Minneapolis to reach their first final four. They lost to the Golden Gophers 3-1 on Sept. 10 at home. But after getting steamrolled in the first two sets, the Tar Heels won the third and were edged 25-21 in the decisive fourth.

5. What are the best early-round matches?

Courtesy Florida

We're two wins away from a Florida-Florida State showdown.

USC vs. Hawaii, first round: The streaking Rainbow Wahine haven't lost since Oct. 8, while USC limps in having dropped its final three ... but the Trojans went five sets vs. UCLA in the season finale.

Kentucky vs. Colorado State, first round: The Wildcats have a fab frosh in Leah Edmond. The Rams have their own in setter Katie Oleksak.

Purdue vs. Iowa State, first round: The Boilermakers lost 13 Big Ten matches, but remember the conference they play in. After a 1-4 start to their Big 12 schedule, the Cyclones finished on an 8-1 run, including a win over Texas.

Florida vs. Florida State, second round: The Gators have dominated the Sunshine State series -- including a 3-1 meeting on Sept. 14 -- but it's still an in-state rivalry. It would be fun if they both get there.

Penn State vs. Dayton, second round: The Flyers, with one loss on the season, would love another shot at the Nittany Lions, whom they took a set from in the NCAA second round a year ago.

Texas A&M vs. Texas, second round: The Longhorns swept their regular-season meeting Sept. 14, but these two have a long history dating back to the old Southwest Conference. You know the Aggies are aching for another shot.

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