Is No. 1 and undefeated BYU a legitimate title contender?
We know BYU volleyball is good.
The top-ranked Cougars are 20-0. They ascended to the No. 1 spot two weeks after beating No. 2 Stanford (18-1) in five sets on Aug. 31. It certainly looks as if they will head into the NCAA tournament unbeaten, given they've lost one set against West Coast Conference competition.
But are they national championship stuff?
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer wouldn't be surprised if the Cougars are the last team standing at the final four. BYU ended Oregon's season last year in a second-round sweep in the national tournament.
"We've seen Minnesota and Penn State; we've seen a lot with our nonconference schedule," said Ulmer, whose Ducks also faced Nebraska and Texas this season. "I've had them No. 1 for a while. It's them and Stanford in my opinion. They have a chance to win it all. If they were in the Pac-12, would they drop some matches? Yeah, maybe. But that doesn't mean they're not the No. 1 team in the country. If Stanford drops some matches, that doesn't mean they're not the best, either."
But USC's Brent Crouch isn't convinced, even though his Trojans were swept by BYU this fall.
"BYU was functioning at an end-of-season level in that game," said Crouch, whose team also took a 3-0 loss to Stanford. "Veronica Jones-Perry is really good. She's been good against everybody. I thought after the game that was as good as BYU can play. I thought after playing Stanford there was room for them to grow. They crushed us and there was room."
Cougars coach Heather Olmstead wants no part of the debate. Her focus is on preparing BYU for its next opponent, Portland, on Thursday.
History tells us it's not a stretch for the Cougars to advance to a final four. In 2014, an unseeded BYU team made it all the way to the national title game and lost to Penn State.
Jones-Perry remembers watching her future team on TV in the biggest game of the season, calling it "the icing on the cake" after she committed.
Speaking of Jones-Perry, the team MVP for the last three years, her resume in 2018 is stacked enough to make her a serious candidate for national player of the year. The 6-foot outside hitter is the Cougars' points leader by nearly 100 thus far. Against Stanford, she tallied 20 kills, 10 digs and two aces, hitting at a .341 clip.
"We haven't had an outside we've played in my time who was that difficult to stop," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said of Jones-Perry, who averages 4.48 kills per set and has a team-high 30 aces. "She's just developed into a great volleyball player. She has a good arm, jumps well and is just impressive overall."
Among the reasons she's improved so much? The cast around her, Olmstead said.
Setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich, averaging nearly 11 assists per set, runs the most efficient offense in the nation, going to the middles frequently as well as Jones-Perry and outside McKenna Miller. Sophomore 6-5 middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg is lethal at the net, averaging 1.43 blocks, and Heather Gneiting has been a huge addition, averaging 1.22 blocks while hitting .394. The 6-4 freshman, on campus since January, plays with the confidence of an upperclassmen, Olmstead said.
"She's tall; she's got length. She's active at the net," Olmstead said. "She's quietly doing her part."
Libero Mary Lake, averaging four digs per set, is the reigning WCC defender of the year and fuels the team with energy.
Another freshman, Madelyn Robinson, is transitioning to the role of opposite, and has impressed Olmstead with her athleticism and ability to learn a new position.
"We recruited her as an outside, and she's doing a really good job," Olmstead said.
Ulmer catches as many BYU matches as he can. He regards Jones-Perry and Stanford's Kathryn Plummer as the two best hitters in the nation. He touts Jones-Perry for improved vision, shot selection and more precise passing than a year ago when she posted 27 kills in the sweep of the Ducks.
"That's a lot in a three-set match," he said, noting her hard, flat ball is tough for opposing teams to dig. "She's legit."
Crouch spent eight seasons in the West Coast Conference at Saint Mary's and Portland prior to be hired by USC in January. He touts the coaching in the league, particularly the job Olmstead has done, but believes BYU would have trouble against Stanford or a more physical Power Five team on a neutral floor. In Smith Fieldhouse, they can play with anybody, he said. "They are exceptional when you play them on their home floor in front of that crowd."
BYU is 92-3 at home since 2011.
"BYU and Stanford are the best serving teams we've played," he said. "But I'd give Stanford the edge on a neutral floor," he said.
Odds are the Cougars won't play on a neutral floor in the tournament unless they advance to the final four in Minneapolis. They are almost certainly a lock to be a top four seed, which will allow them to be one of four regional hosts.
It's been 20 years since a team from outside the Power Five has won an NCAA championship in volleyball (Long Beach State).
Haddock-Eppich said she's never played on a team so driven.
"Our freshmen don't play like they're inexperienced, our middles are amazing and Roni is just phenomenal," she said. "This is a fun and special year and there's still so much more we want to do."
Elsewhere in college volleyball last week:
• Nebraska (15-5, 6-4) dropped matches at Wisconsin (14-4, 7-3) and Minnesota (16-2, 10-0) to continue its three-game slide, which started last week at Penn State. The Huskers had not lost three conference matches in a row since 1997 when they were in the Big 12.
• Pitt (22-0) stayed perfect with a four-set win over Louisville (16-5, 9-1) in front of 2,152, the largest crowd to ever see a Panthers volleyball game in Fitzgerald Field House.
• Missouri (18-4, 8-2) won its sixth straight, upsetting Florida in five sets. The Gators (18-4, 9-1) had won 14 in a row.
• Cal Poly improved to 19-1 with a four-set win over Long Beach State. It's the Mustangs' best start in school history. The lone loss is to Pittsburgh.