Tough roads to Kansas City

Figuring out brackets is its own little exercise in conjecture, no matter what the official parties say. You read between the bracket lines and do your own sleuthing, and your conclusions may or may not be right.

But you'd probably be hard-pressed to look at the NCAA volleyball bracket, announced Sunday, and not conclude that three-time defending champion Penn State seems in great shape to head back to another Final Four.

The Nittany Lions, the No. 4 overall seed, just wrapped up the Big Ten title and seem to be playing their best this season at the perfect time. They also have the advantage of hosting both the early rounds and a regional at University Park, Pa.

Penn State had some rebuilding to do this year -- or as much as the Lions ever have -- after graduation, but things are looking familiarly upbeat for them now. Saturday's 3-2 loss at Minnesota could be looked at as a hiccup before the Lions begin another journey to the Final Four. Especially since they have won 90 consecutive matches at home.

The volleyball field of 64 teams seeds just the top 16 teams. The other seeds in Penn State's region are No. 5 Northern Iowa, No. 12 Duke and No. 13 LSU.

Meanwhile, overall No. 1 seed Florida, its only loss this season to Penn State back in September, may have to get out of enemy territory to advance to the Final Four, which is Dec. 16-18 at Kansas City's Sprint Center.

The 27-1 Gators are in the Austin Region, meaning Florida might have to play No. 9 seed Texas on the Longhorns' home court in the regional final. But Texas may first have to defeat No. 8 seed Illinois to make it that far. The other seed in that region is No. 16 Purdue.

Florida has never won the NCAA title; the closest the Gators have come was runner-up in 2003. The SEC champion this season at 20-0 in league play, Florida has been third in the NCAA tournament six times.

The No. 2 overall seed, Nebraska, might be in the toughest of the regions, with the semifinals and final in Seattle. The Huskers, who have won three national championships, are grouped with two very good teams whose stock fell a bit just this past week when they were upset on the same night.

Cal, the Pac-10 champion whose league record tied Stanford's but who beat the Cardinal twice, lost at home to Arizona State on Wednesday. The Bears are the No. 7 overall seed.

Three-time NCAA champion Hawaii, which was upset in the Western Athletic Conference tournament final by Utah State on Wednesday for just its second loss of the season, is the No. 15 seed. Also in the Seattle Region is No. 10 seed Minnesota.

Nebraska hosts the early rounds, and if the Huskers advance, they will go back to Seattle, where they won a dramatic come-from-behind match in the regional final over host Washington in 2008.

Washington is unseeded at 21-8, but geography helps the Huskies and hurts Hawaii in this bracket. Washington will play host in early-round matches, and could face Hawaii in Seattle in the second round. The NCAA tries to reduce air travel as much as possible for the tournament, so Hawaii's loss was all the incentive the committee needed to make the Wahine come to the mainland instead of three teams going to the islands.

Lastly, there is six-time NCAA champion Stanford, which also could face a hostile crowd if it reaches the regional semifinals.

Stanford is the No. 3 overall seed and will play in the Dayton Region, where the host Flyers are the No. 14 overall seed. If seeds hold, they'll meet in the semis. On the other side of that quarter of the bracket is USC, Stanford's familiar Pac-10 foe and the No. 6 overall seed, and Tennessee, a 2005 Final Four participant and the No. 11 seed.

So will this finally be the season that Florida, a very good program for so long, wins a national championship? Will Texas, last year's NCAA runner-up, get in the way of that? Or will some other team?

The general coaching consensus has been that this 2010 volleyball title is more up for grabs among several teams than has been the case in recent years.

But … could it actually be Penn State's year again? The Big Ten led the way among conferences with eight teams in the field (and remember, Nebraska will be joining that Big Ten next season). So Penn State's conference slate was again excellent preparation for another title run.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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