On heels of top-10 reveal, experts unveil championship picks for NCAA volleyball tournament
The NCAA Division I women's volleyball committee revealed its top-10 rankings Wednesday night, and the Big Ten was the big winner.
The committee, which will reveal the final bracket on Nov. 26, put Penn State at No. 1, Nebraska at No. 2, Minnesota at No. 3 and Wisconsin at No. 10.
Defending champion Stanford, ranked second in the nation, was in the fourth position in the reveal. The Cardinal were joined by Pac-12 contenders Washington at No. 8 and Oregon at No. 9.
Texas, ranked third in the nation, fell to a surprising No. 7 in the reveal, while Florida, ranked fourth with just a single loss on the season, was placed at No. 6. Kentucky was fifth. The committee considered results through Sunday, so Florida's sweep of Kentucky on Wednesday night was not factored in the reveal.
Following the NCAA's lead, Mechelle Voepel and Vicki L. Friedman reveal their picks for the NCAA tournament, which culminates in Kansas City on Dec. 14-16 with the national semifinals and finals.
Who I'm picking
Voepel: Wow, two seasons have passed without Penn State in the volleyball final four. What's going on? We jest, of course, but it's a tribute to the Nittany Lions' amazing past decade: six NCAA titles between 2007 and 2014. After regional-semifinal losses the past two seasons, Penn State is loaded with experience, led by seniors Simone Lee, Haleigh Washington, Ali Frantti, Abby Detering and Heidi Thelen. Penn State has beaten defending champ Stanford twice, and its lone loss was to Big Ten rival Nebraska in September. The regular-season finale at Minnesota is a great test before the NCAA tournament.
Friedman: Despite the No. 7 ranking from the NCAA on Wednesday night, it's hard to call Texas, which has been to five straight final fours, the underdog. Yet the Longhorns have an under-the-radar presence because they don't play in the Big Ten or Pac-12. They've advanced to the past two NCAA championships, but I'm betting on this senior-laden Texas team taking home its first title since 2012. Seniors Chiaka Ogbogu, Ebony Nwanebu and Cat McCoy want to make a statement in their final season, sophomore Micaya White leads a balanced attack, and outside hitter Lexi Sun might be the best freshman in the country.
Who I almost picked
Voepel: One of these years, it has to be Florida's turn for an NCAA title, right? The Gators have made the final four seven times, and the championship match once, falling to USC in 2003. Multidimensional hitter Carli Snyder and fellow senior Rhamat Alhassan at middle blocker hope to take the Gators a step further than they've ever been. This year, Florida has defeated Texas and Nebraska, with the only loss to Kentucky in SEC play on Oct. 15. For the most part, the Gators have been the titans of the SEC, and they got their revenge against the Wildcats on Wednesday with a sweep in Lexington, Kentucky.
Friedman: Since Stanford figured it out after a bumpy ride last season, the Cardinal have been near perfect, so much so that it's hard to see Stanford not repeating as national champions. With Kathryn Plummer as the hammer and Morgan Hentz's ability to keep a rally alive, there are plenty of reasons to put another check in the box next to Stanford. The fact that the Cardinal are unbeaten in a Pac-12 that rivals the Big Ten for depth makes Stanford an even more imposing contender.
Players I can't wait for you to see
Voepel: Longhorns freshman Lexi Sun came to Texas with many accolades and expectations. Let's just say she's living up to them. Sun is second on the team in points per set (3.88). ... Stanford's Tami Alade waited her turn for playing time; the junior from Canada at last has her chance. She leads the Cardinal in blocks (104) and the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.429). ... Mikaela Foecke starred as a freshman when Nebraska won the 2015 NCAA title. Now she's a junior leader (3.97 points per set) powering the Huskers. ... Minnesota freshman Stephanie Samedy is fourth in the Big Ten in kills per set (3.86) and helps make up for the loss of National Player of the Year Sarah Wilhite.
Friedman: Last season, Lexington's own Leah Edmond wanted to start, but what a finisher the sophomore has become, averaging 4.30 kills per set. Does anyone hit a cleaner cross-court ball? ... Duck if Wisconsin freshman Dana Rettke is winding up. Love the terminator this 6-foot-8 Badger has become for an unpredictable Wisconsin team. ... Does anybody stuff a stat sheet quite like the versatile Carli Snyder, who leads Florida in points, kills, aces and is second to libero Caroline Knop in digs?