Sound the alarm! Nebraska vs. Penn State tips off NCAA volleyball Sweet 16
The first weekend of the NCAA volleyball tournament provided its share of upsets, but the top four seeds advanced without much drama. So No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 4 Texas get to be hosts for the regional semifinals and finals on Friday and Saturday. Here's a look at what we've seen so far, and what may be in store.
Can anybody beat the home teams?
This year the NCAA went away from predetermined sites for the regionals, which had been the format since 2003, and opted to have the highest remaining seed in each region host. It's safe to say the top four project as overwhelming favorites to advance to the final four in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 15 and 17.
Why? Their combined record at home this season is 59-3.
Minnesota was 15-0 at the Sports Pavilion both this season and in 2015. The Golden Gophers haven't lost at home since falling on Oct. 22, 2014, to Nebraska in five sets.
Wisconsin is 13-1 at UW Field House this season; its home loss was to Minnesota on Oct. 12. Meanwhile, the Badgers handed Texas -- 15-1 at home -- its only defeat at Gregory Gymnasium this year, on Sept. 18. Texas has lost at home only eight times since 2007.
Defending NCAA champion Nebraska is 16-1 this year in the Devaney Center, falling only to Ohio State on Oct. 1.
A big part of these teams' success is their fan support. Nebraska leads the nation in average attendance at home matches (8,199), with Wisconsin third (5,915), Minnesota fourth (4,766) and Texas ninth (2,250).
"They're always great," Nebraska libero Justine Wong-Orantes said of the Huskers faithful. "But I think I felt it more now that it's tournament time. They know when we're struggling and when we need to be picked up."
Lincoln regional: Morning madness
Nobody shows up like Nebraska fans. But for the semifinal, they'll need to do it on a weekday morning. With all the regionals being held in the Central time zone, somebody has to go early. Turns out it will be the match between two enormous heavyweights in the sport.
The four-time champion Huskers will face seven-time champ Penn State at 11 a.m. CT Friday. What a way to start the regional semifinals.
The Big Ten-champion Huskers swept both their early-round foes, New Hampshire and TCU, and the program now has 100 victories all time in the NCAA tournament. The Huskers beat the No. 16 seed Nittany Lions twice this season, although the match at Penn State went five sets.
Nebraska leads their series 18-10 and has won five of the last six meetings. Penn State, at 24-9, has its most losses since 1987, when the Nittany Lions went 27-9 and lost in the NCAA tournament's first round.
While one semifinal is an all-Big Ten affair, the other matches two Pac-12 teams. Conference champion Washington, the No. 8 seed led by league player of the year Courtney Schwan, beat Arizona in both their regular-season meetings. But the Wildcats, despite losing four of their last six matches in the regular season, are coming off an upset of No. 9 seed Michigan State.
Arizona, at 20-14, has the most losses of any team in the Sweet 16. But the Wildcats made it this far, and that's what matters.
Austin regional: Giants and sleepers
Consistency remains the Longhorns' hallmark, even if this season cost coach Jerritt Elliott some shut-eye.
"This season hasn't been as easy as seasons past -- I've lost a lot more sleep," he said about trying to solve some of Texas' supposed shortcomings. Still, here is Texas in the Sweet 16 for the 11th consecutive season. The Longhorns have made the final four seven of the last eight years.
The problem, though, has come in finishing the job. For all their success, the Longhorns have just two NCAA titles: in 1988 and 2012. They've had a few stinging upsets in recent years, including 2014, when they lost to BYU in the national semifinals.
Now Texas will face the No. 13 seed Cougars in the regional semis. The Longhorns are 65-9 in NCAA matches played in Austin, Texas.
The Longhorns didn't win the Big 12 title this season; Kansas did. But that ended up being the highlight of the Jayhawks' season, as the No. 5 seeds were upset in the second round by Creighton. The Bluejays, who are in their second consecutive Sweet 16, won two five-set matches to get here.
Creighton will take on No. 12 seed Michigan. Of the six Big Ten teams still in the tournament, the Wolverines are the only one in this regional.
Madison regional: Unseeded but still kicking
While Wisconsin and No. 6 Stanford breezed into the Sweet 16, their opponents, Ohio State and Florida State, had to grind through five-set matches to advance.
Ohio State outlasted No. 14 seed Kansas State 17-15 in the fifth behind Taylor Hughes' second triple-double of the season (41 assists, 15 digs, 14 kills). The Buckeyes are two matches away from playing in the final four in their hometown, but Wisconsin -- which swept Ohio State in both their Big Ten matches this season -- is a daunting roadblock.
Wisconsin was especially impressive in its second-round sweep of Washington State, holding the Cougars to zero hitting percentage in the final two sets. Coach Kelly Sheffield said of his Badgers, "I think our team just keeps getting better and better."
In the other semifinal, six-time NCAA champ Stanford meets Florida State for the first time. The Cardinal swept Denver and Boise State in the first two rounds and have won 13 of their last 14 matches.
Rookies are leading the way for Stanford, including Pac-12 freshman of the year Kathryn Plummer. Stanford is the top blocking team in the nation but must be wary of Florida State, which rallied from a deep hole to stun No. 11 seed Florida in one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament. The Gators were just two points away from a sweep, but the Seminoles came back and took the fifth set 15-12.
"We were in it to win a national championship and we had the talent to do so," Florida libero Caroline Knop said after the loss. "Unfortunately, tonight we weren't tough enough."
Minneapolis regional: A little bit of everything
Four different conferences are represented at Minnesota. The Big Ten's Gophers, who have made four trips to the final four, will take on SEC co-champion Missouri, which got some revenge against Purdue with a 3-1 victory in the second round. The Tigers were 35-0 in 2013 before falling to the Boilermakers in the second round.
No. 15 seed Missouri is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010 and has never made the final four.
"I really thought that for us to have a shot, we were going to have to play really clean," Tigers coach Wayne Kreklow said. "We talked a lot about that: staying aggressive but being smart."
The Tigers will need more of that against Minnesota, which is led by Big Ten player of the year Sarah Wilhite and setter of the year Samantha Seliger-Swenson. The Gophers swept North Dakota and Hawaii, the latter match impacted when Big West player of the year Nikki Taylor, a senior, was lost three points in with an ankle injury.
In the other semifinal, North Carolina is seeking to make its second regional final in the past three years. But the ACC-champion Tar Heels have not faced a Pac-12 team this season. They play the Pac-12's UCLA, which has won four NCAA titles, the most recent in 2011.