Mid-major conferences use strong schedules to earn at-large bids

The NCAA volleyball tournament begins on Thursday night in Gainesville, Fla.

For top seeds like Stanford, Nebraska, Penn State and Texas, the early rounds are often little more than a formality. For programs that come from less competitive conferences, the experience of playing at a venue like the Wisconsin Field House or Florida's O'Connell Center is the reward for earning a conference championship.

South Dakota State's first trip to the NCAA Tournament will be memorable, albeit a short one. Playing at the Nebraska Coliseum is something every player should get to experience, but there is little hope of the Summit League champion knocking off the second-seeded Huskers.

But for teams from the mid-major conferences, winning a first- or second-round match can have far-reaching implications for their own program as well as an entire conference.

The Missouri Valley Conference has four teams in this year's tournament. Northern Iowa won the conference tournament and Wichita State, Missouri State and Illinois State all received at-large bids. Only the Pac-10, Big 10, Big 12 and SEC had more members in the 64-team field. For the time being, the Valley is on top of the second tier and their coaches hope to keep it that way.

"It is absolutely huge," said UNI's Bobbi Petersen, who also played for the Panthers. "We feel like it's been a long time coming. There were a lot of years where we [the conference] felt like we should have gotten multiple teams in."

Prior to this season, the MVC never had more than two teams in the tournament, and that occurred just five times.

"All the teams that made it are very deserving and we're looking forward to seeing how everybody does," she said.

Northern Iowa drew a tough assignment in the first round, playing Wisconsin in front of one of college volleyball's best crowds at the UW Field House. But the Panthers see the match as an opportunity as well a great experience.

Wichita State will play Western Kentucky at Nebraska, Missouri Valley will face Oregon, and Illinois State will take on Miami (Ohio).

"We have a tough draw with Wisconsin, but I think we're playing our best volleyball right now," Petersen said. "Our kids are feeling good about that and I think it helps that we played them earlier in the season so we know a little bit about them.

"We would much rather play in an environment like that than to go somewhere where there is nobody in the stands. Even though the crowd is for the other team, you can feed off the energy of the crowd. It's awesome for volleyball. It's just a great place to play."

The key to getting four teams in the tournament was scheduling. Not only did the top MVC teams post 20-win seasons, they also made a point of playing top-25 opponents during their nonconference schedule. The Panthers played five NCAA tournament teams, while Wichita State, Missouri State and Illinois State played four apiece.

Geoff Carlston used that same formula at Ohio University, and it may have paid off in a big way at the end of the season. The Bobcats were stunned by Miami (Ohio) in the championship match of the Mid-America Conference tournament, but OU played six tournament teams during its nonconference schedule and picked up a crucial victory over Louisville in its final match of the regular season.

"Was I sleeping soundly thinking that we were in? … No," Carlston said. "We scheduled the 16th-hardest nonconference schedule for a reason, because we know our conference is pretty darn strong. But when we beat Louisville, I felt a lot better about it, but you still have no idea what's going to go down."

After seeing their conference members get passed over for at-large selections in favor of teams from the major conferences, members of the NCAA selection committee told the mid-major conferences scheduling was the key to their inclusion. Teams responded by scheduling better opponents and the committee seemed to reward their efforts.

"I thought the committee did a good job," Carlston said. "When you see seven or eight teams from some conferences get in, that's not good for your sport. It's great to see four teams get in from the Missouri Valley and two in from our conference. It was getting a little ridiculous with eight teams getting in from certain conferences."

Ohio University was rewarded in two ways. Not only did the Bobcats earn an at-large selection, they were selected to host the first and second rounds for the first time in the program's history.

Cal Poly (Big West), Purdue (Big 10) and Xavier (Atlantic 10) will make the trip to Athens.

"Getting an at-large bid and hosting, those two things say a lot about our program," Carlston said.

It also says a lot about mid-major programs.

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.