Big hitters, heavy favorites and (at least) one sizzling rematch in NCAA volleyball regionals
There's a table for four waiting in Kansas City, Missouri. And 16 teams are trying this weekend to reserve a seat. Here are 16 things you'll want to know heading into the high-stakes weekend of NCAA volleyball.
A sprint to Sprint Center: Eight regional semifinals will be played Friday and all four regional finals are scheduled for Saturday (full schedule below). The four teams left standing will advance to Kansas City for a showdown at Sprint Center. Only four of the 16 teams -- Kentucky, Utah, Colorado and Missouri -- are seeking their first final four berths.
Host sites: The top four seeds -- Penn State, Florida, Kentucky and Stanford -- will host this weekend's regional matchups. The Wildcats survived the second round by the narrowest of margins, rallying from a two-set deficit to advance in five against Conference USA champion Western Kentucky. The Wildcats are in the regionals for the first time since 2012. This marks back-to-back years that each of the top four seeds reached the final 16, earning the right to host the regional. Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota were host sites in 2016. Only Wisconsin failed to reach the final four, leading us into ...
A rematch with some sizzle: Stanford played spoiler last December, knocking out Wisconsin in the regional final before a packed house in Madison, Wisconsin. That's when a sixth-seeded Cardinal team, trailing 0-2, regrouped for a 3-2 victory. The upset ended what had been a dream season for the Badgers, who defeated 13 ranked opponents during the season. Of course, the Cardinal continued their run to the program's seventh NCAA title. A year later, the same pair tangos again, only this game is at Maples Pavilion where Stanford (28-3) is 13-0 this season. While Wisconsin (22-9) isn't seeded, the Badgers are among the most dangerous teams in the tournament. Just ask fifth-seeded Nebraska. Wisconsin beat the Huskers earlier this season and extended them to five in Lincoln. Get ready for the battle of the monster middles in 6-foot-8 Dana Rettke of Wisconsin and 6-6 Audriana Fitzmorris of Stanford.
What if? If seeds hold, we'll get a rematch of the 2016 national championship in a regional final between Stanford and Texas on Saturday. The teams have not met since the Cardinal won their seventh NCAA title with a 3-1 defeat of the Longhorns in Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. While Stanford graduated All-American middle Inky Ajanaku and Texas graduated starting setter Chloe Collins, both teams are largely intact with two key additions for the Longhorns (26-2). Chiaka Ogbogu, who returned after sitting out last season, is second nationally in blocks. Freshman Lexi Sun ranks second on the team in kills, trailing only sophomore Micaya White.
Another what if: While it's hard to top a potential rematch of the national championship, wouldn't Minnesota (28-5) vs. Florida (27-1) be fun? The Gophers have been to the past two final fours. The Gators are looking to return for the first time since 2003. If form holds, Nebraska (28-4) vs. Kentucky (28-3) will clash in the Lexington regional and as for the other? Keep reading. ...
Checkmark, Big Ten: Eight Big Ten teams made the field of 64 and six (Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State) remain. A regional final featuring two Big Ten teams is a certainty if Penn State defeats Missouri on Friday. That's because the winner of Michigan State or Illinois will await. The Spartans and Illini square off on Friday in their second meeting of the season. The Spartans won the first on Nov. 10; prior to that, Illinois had taken the last four. Illinois leads the series 48-27.
Nittany Lions hiccup: When you've won seven national championships and enter the tournament as the top seed, it's expected that you'll roll early. Instead Penn State opened its quest for an eighth title by dropping a set to MEAC champion Howard. Certainly credit the Bison, conference champions for the past three years, who hit .355 with three aces to snag the second set 25-22. It was the first set Howard has won in its four appearances in the national tournament. The drama ended there as Penn State prevailed easily in sets three and four. The last time Penn State dropped a set to open the tournament was in 1991 to Colorado. The Nittany Lions won that one, too, in five.
Salt Lake sleeper: At 30-2, BYU is very much a contender, appearing in its sixth straight regional semifinal and slated to face Kentucky. The Cougars swept their last seven opponents, including American and Oregon in the first two rounds. BYU's three seniors would love to bookend their careers with a trip to the final four. Four years ago, the Cougars danced all the way to the title game before falling to Penn State. Remember, BYU had match points in last year's regional semifinal at Texas before the Longhorns stormed back 16-14. BYU defeated Kentucky in their lone head-to-head, played in 1990.
Welcome back! It's been 20 years, but Colorado (24-9) is a contender in the regionals. The Buffaloes didn't lose a set in topping James Madison before upsetting 18th-ranked Baylor to advance. Noted junior Alexa Smith, "Words cannot really describe the excitement we have right now." The Buffs next meet fifth-seeded Nebraska in Lexington. They are 7-49 against the four-time national champions, last beating the Huskers in 2008.
Upset-free zone: The Gainesville regional is the only one to feature four national seeds in No. 2 Florida, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 10 USC and No. 15 UCLA. While the Gators have only lost once this season (at Kentucky), they won't want to overlook an under-the-radar UCLA bunch that has strung together five in a row and went the distance against Stanford on Nov. 16. Bruins seniors Reily Buechler and Sarah Sponcil are key cogs for the four-time NCAA champions, who last won the title in 2011.
Fresh faces: Is it going to be Sweet's 16 for Nebraska? We'll see what kind of impression freshman Jazz Sweet will make for the Cornhuskers against Colorado. Sweet is just one of several impact freshmen to watch this postseason. Big Ten freshman of the year Rettke is hitting .446, third in the nation. Minnesota wins behind go-to freshman Stephanie Samedy, whose 4.53 points per set and 465 kills are team bests. Texas, of course, boasts Sun, and Kentucky's Madison Lilley is the SEC setter of the year. While Stanford is full of super sophs, freshman Meghan McClure has put together a special season. She ranks second in digs for the Cardinal, third in aces and fourth in kills and assists.
Best of the best: Love sheer power? Keep your eye on terminators Kathryn Plummer (Stanford), Alexis Hart (Minnesota), Leah Edmond (Kentucky), Adora Anae (Utah), Veronica Jones-Perry (BYU) and Simone Lee (Penn State). Like a leaper? Check out the vertical from Florida's Rhamat Alhassan, the SEC player of the year. Like a good block? Look for Ogbogu (Texas) and Ali Bastianelli (Illinois) along with NCAA leader Alhassan. Like your volleyball clean? Penn State's Haleigh Washington is the national leader in hitting percentage. Love a versatile star? Florida's Carli Snyder knows how to stuff a stat sheet.
Ready, setter: Who's the best QB headed into the Sweet 16? Minnesota All-American Samantha Seliger-Swenson is on the short list; the senior ranks second in the NCAA in assists. Kelly Hunter snagged Big Ten setter of the year honors after leading Nebraska to a .297 hitting percentage during the season. How important is Hunter? Remember, due to injury, the senior missed a pair of matches to open the season, two of the team's four losses. Right behind Hunter in NCAA rankings are Kentucky's Lilley and Stanford's Jenna Gray, who runs the most efficient offense in the Pac-12. Speaking of setters, Penn State boasts a pretty good duo. For the first time in Russ Rose's 38 years of coaching, the Nittany Lions are running a 6-2 offense behind setters Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher. Can't argue with the results. Penn State is 31-1.
Super-thump: Nebraska, which won its fourth NCAA title in 2015 and lost in the national semifinals last year, isn't at home for regional action. But the Huskers had a moment in their final homestand of the season. Senior Allie Havers, who played basketball at Nebraska for four years, walked onto the volleyball team this year. She played in her first match at Michigan on Oct. 29, but didn't record any kills. Coach John Cook sent Havers in to a huge roar against Stony Brook, which turned into a standing ovation when Havers put down her first kill. "She super-thumped it," teammate Annika Albrecht said. Cook said the scene symbolized Nebraska's theme this season. "With each other, for each other," he said. "Allie's a great example. That was one of my coaching highlights."
M-I-Z: During a close loss to Florida in the regular-season finale, Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow thought, "How good could we be if we played like this every week?" Heading into last weekend's first two rounds, Missouri was winless over Top-25 opponents in 2017. The Tigers knocked off a pair in eliminating No. 19 Kansas and No. 20 Wichita State. The win over the Shockers, which ended Wichita State's string of 31 consecutive sets won, counted as Kreklow's 600th victory. Now, Missouri (22-11) faces its biggest test at No. 1 Penn State. But with three of its four tournament teams advancing to the Sweet 16, the SEC has to feel satisfied.
The schedule: We couldn't leave you without the two-day 12-game lineup. Here it is:
State College Regional at State College, Pennsylvania
No. 1 Penn State (31-1) vs. Missouri (22-11), 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Michigan St. (23-8) vs. Illinois (23-10), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Penn State/Missouri vs. Michigan State/Illinois, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Gainesville Regional at Gainesville, Florida
No. 2 Florida (27-1) vs. No. 15 UCLA (21-10), 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 7 Minnesota (28-5) vs. No. 10 USC (24-9), 6 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Florida/UCLA vs. Minnesota/USC, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Stanford Regional at Stanford, California
No. 6 Texas (26-2) vs. No. 11 Utah (24-9), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN3
No. 3 Stanford (28-3) vs. Wisconsin (22-9), 11 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Texas/Utah vs. Stanford/Wisconsin, 10 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Lexington Regional at Lexington, Kentucky
No. 4 Kentucky (28-3) vs. No. 13 BYU (30-2), Noon ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 5 Nebraska (28-4) vs. Colorado (24-9), 2 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Kentucky/BYU vs. Nebraska/Colorado, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN