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5 burning questions for NCAA tourney

Take a look at this year's NCAA tournament bracket for women's volleyball, and you might just wonder if somebody hacked into the organization and inserted a gag bracket as a prank.

Your first clue? USC's seed. Here's a program that is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, took the regular-season title in what's historically the toughest volleyball conference in the country, and has lost just two matches since Labor Day. And those losses were at three-time NCAA champion UCLA and at six-time champion Stanford.

You see No. 7 next to USC -- which went to the Final Four last year and has won three NCAA titles -- and think, "Oh, very funny. Now where's the real bracket?"

Unfortunately, this is the real thing. The Trojans' inexplicable seeding is just one example that the NCAA selection committee is either very bad at evaluating teams, intent on pretending/fantasizing there is true coast-to-coast parity in this sport, or thinks that by artificially rewarding some teams and conferences, it's helping "grow the game." Never mind if that's potentially at the expense of some teams and conferences that seem to be getting punished only because they've been consistently so strong.

Maybe it's a combination of all of that. Whatever the case, the bracket seems to indicate that the committee relied robotically on the RPI, which looks to be an especially flawed tool in women's volleyball.

"I do feel our sport is expanding with quality teams," USC coach Mick Haley said. "However, what upsets us coaches is that the committee and the RPI are not on the same page with the coaches. When we vote in the coaches' poll, it's with the knowledge of what we've been watching all year. We know these teams.

"I wonder if the committee has done their due diligence and watched the number of matches that the coaches watched. And if they haven't, that's what makes me think they rely on the RPI so much."

He's right. There's no way the committee could put the Trojans at the No. 7 seed unless: (1) the members don't really watch much volleyball, or (2) they're not qualified to evaluate what they do watch, or (3) they are fulfilling an agenda that has nothing to do with USC's actual talent or results. Or, again, a mix of all of that.

It's not that USC is the only squad with something very legitimate to complain about. Just that the Trojans are one of the most glaring examples.

USC lost star outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana, last year's league freshman of the year, just before this season as she was declared ineligible. It took the opening week for USC to get its bearings, and during that time the Trojans fell at Penn State -- the four-time defending NCAA champs -- and at Central Florida, USC's one "bad" loss.

It would be absurd if the committee was somehow penalizing USC for those two defeats three months ago, instead of evaluating the team it has been ever since. But that's not the only injustice: Take a look at the Honolulu Regional, which has six of the top 18 ranked teams according to last week's coaches' poll -- including those ranked first (USC), second (Nebraska) and third (Hawaii).

Yes, that region has not just Pac-12 champion USC, but also Western Athletic Conference champ Hawaii, which at 29-1 is the No. 10 seed. And Big Ten champ Nebraska, the No. 2 seed. And West Coast Conference champ Pepperdine, the No. 15 seed. And last year's national runner-up Cal, whose six losses were all to other Pac-12 teams.

By the way, the Bears are unseeded, despite the fact that they spent time ranked No. 1 this season. Cal isn't one of the 16 best teams in the country? Really? It's incomprehensible.

Whoever survives out of the Honolulu Regional -- clearly, the host Rainbow Wahine will have an edge in their perpetually sold-out arena -- may have to play the competitive equivalent of two NCAA championship matches just to get to the Final Four.

That's in San Antonio, and the Texas Longhorns -- who have been to the Final Four the last three years -- would love to make the short trip from Austin to the Alamo City. The Longhorns, 22-4, are the overall No. 1 seed -- another questionable decision by the committee -- after winning the regular-season title in a weakened Big 12 conference that now no longer has powerhouse Nebraska.

Nonetheless, the Big 12 got seven teams into the NCAA field, as did the Pac-12. The Big Ten led the way with eight teams, including No. 13 seed Minnesota, which at 18-11 has the most losses of any seeded team. The Gophers are hosting a regional, but to get there Minnesota may have to defeat Washington -- like Cal, the Huskies are another strong Pac-12 team that wasn't seeded -- in the second round.

After the obvious "How did the NCAA release this bracket with a straight face?" here are five more burning questions:

1. So how will USC and the other Pac-12/West Coast teams respond?

Here's an idea for the committee members if they have such a problem with the West Coast's traditional dominance in volleyball. Why not make all West Coast (Hawaii, too) teams wear ankle weights during the NCAA tournament? Gee, maybe that will allow an ACC team or Big East team to make the Final Four for the first time ever. Or an SEC team to win the NCAA championship for the first time ever.

USC has three senior standouts -- Alex Jupiter, Lauren Williams and Kendall Bateman, who recently became the program's all-time assists leader -- and that helps keep the Trojans from getting rattled, even by this seeding nonsense and being in the "Group of Death" in the Honolulu Regional.

"We aren't going to let this upset our team," Haley said. "Our kids almost expected something like this. We feel like we have to beat whoever's in our path to be national champions. So we'll take this on."

Since the NCAA tournament started in 1982, there have been only three years where the Final Four didn't have a team from a school now in the Pac-12. (Although technically, the Pac-10 didn't begin sponsoring women's sports until 1986-87.) And each of those three years, the Final Four still had a representative from the West Coast.

No doubt, the West Coast will be represented in San Antonio this year. Some team(s) just might have to go through an unjustly difficult path to get there.

2. Can Penn State somehow do it again?

Obviously, things have been quite turbulent for the last month in Happy Valley, although that didn't directly involve the volleyball program. After losing senior standouts like Blair Brown, Alyssa D'Errico and Arielle Wilson, Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose needed his younger players to grow up very quickly.

Penn State went 23-7 in what some coaches -- but not Rose -- might have accepted as a kind of rebuilding year. The Lions are the No. 8 seed and could end up in a regional semifinal with No. 9 seed UCLA. At the top of Penn State's bracket is Texas, a team the Lions have defeated at the Final Four the last two years.

Penn State is very talented, and the Nittany Lions have to be pleased at their placement in the Lexington, Ky., Regional. Don't discount another Final Four trip for the Nittany Lions. It could happen.

3. Is that any way to treat the Big Ten champ?

If the committee respects the Big Ten enough to give it the most bids of any conference, then why was the league's champion, Nebraska, placed in the hardest regional?

Furthermore, if the NCAA wants to try to cut down a little on red ink in holding this tournament, why put the Huskers in a regional that's a zillion miles (a slight exaggeration) from Nebraska and was guaranteed to be sold out anyway?

Hawaii fans will fill the Stan Sheriff Center. So why place a team that has probably the best traveling fan base in the sport -- Nebraska -- in a region where Huskers faithful might be hard-pressed to get a ticket to the matches even if they can afford the plane flight?

That's assuming the Huskers make it to the Sweet 16, although they should be heavily favored to do that with the early rounds at home in Lincoln. Admittedly, Nebraska stubbed its toe a bit with its surprising regular-season finale loss at Northwestern. But the Huskers already had clinched the Big Ten title before that defeat.

4. Which teams have nothing to gripe about?

No. 3 seed Illinois and No. 6 Northern Iowa, both in the Gainesville, Fla., Regional, and No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Purdue in the Minneapolis Regional have to like their potential in this bracket. For that matter, so does Stanford, which might not mind being seeded No. 11 because its placement on the bracket in the Gainesville Regional seems more favorable than that of Pac-12 compatriots USC and Cal.

The farthest Northern Iowa traveled west for a match this season was Brookings, S.D. The only West Coast team that the Missouri Valley Conference champion Panthers faced was UC Irvine, which they played in a September tournament in Delaware. They beat Iowa State; their sole loss came to Minnesota, which finished fifth in the Big Ten.

Yet Northern Iowa at 32-1 is four seeds higher than 29-1 Hawaii, whose only loss was to UCLA (another Pac-12 team that spent time this season ranked No. 1). Try figuring that out.

The Panthers host the opening rounds, and in order to get to the Sweet 16, they will have to beat Niagara and then either regional host Florida or Missouri, the team that upset UNI last year in the first round on the Panthers' home court.

Whoever gets out of Cedar Falls, Iowa, to the regional semifinals seems very likely to face Stanford there. With big senior losses, this is about as close to a rebuilding year as Stanford gets, reflected in a 21-7 record in which all its losses (no surprise) came against fellow Pac-12 foes.

And guess what is not in the Gainesville Regional for Stanford to worry about? You got it: There's no other Pac-12 team. The Cardinal are the only one. Last year, Stanford fell to USC in a regional final. Suffice to say, a bracket in which Stanford would not have to meet any Pac-12/West Coast foe before the Final Four is an advantage for the Cardinal.

The Illini, who started the season 20-0 and were ranked No. 1 at one point, are trying to make their first Final Four trip since 1988.

Meanwhile, Iowa State and Purdue are in a Minneapolis Regional that has only one past national champion: unseeded Washington, which is also the only West Coast team in that quarter of the bracket.

(Nebraska, which swept Iowa State and split matches with Purdue, surely wouldn't mind swapping spots with either the Cyclones or Boilermakers in the Minneapolis Regional.)

5. Who's going to be in the Alamodome?

This would be a slightly easier question to try to answer if the seedings and bracket made more sense. But even then, it would be difficult to correctly nail all four regions.

Let's take a wild guess: Texas, Purdue, Stanford and Hawaii. Or … it could be none of them.

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

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