Four years ago, Texas and Penn State met in one of the all-time classic NCAA women's volleyball championship matches. This year, might the two teams face off again to decide the national title?
To no one's surprise, the Longhorns and Nittany Lions were the top two seeds in the NCAA tournament bracket released Sunday night. Texas (23-2) is the defending champion and brought back almost all of its stars from last year.
Penn State (28-2), which won four consecutive volleyball titles from 2007-10, including an epic 3-2 victory against Texas in the 2009 final, is seeking its sixth overall NCAA title.
The Longhorns (Big 12 ) and Nittany Lions (Big Ten) won their respective conferences, and are currently riding 19-match winning streaks. The two volleyball superpowers have met already this season. On Sept. 7 in Austin, Texas, the Longhorns won 3-2 in the Nike Volleyball Big Four tournament.
Texas, which went undefeated in Big 12 play for the first time since joining the conference in 1996, will host Texas State in its tournament opener Friday and could face former Big 12 foe Texas A&M in the second round. And if the Longhorns make it to the regional semifinals, they will be in familiar enemy territory -- former Big 12 foe Nebraska, now in the Big Ten, is a regional host.
"I think the biggest thing is how we balance our decision-making as a coaching staff," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said of how his Longhorns have stayed so even-keel this season. "Not trying to over-train them, giving them ample time to rest. We've done everything we can to get this team ready."
If the Huskers, the No. 8 seed, advance to play the Longhorns in the regional final, that will be a barnburner. The Huskers are the last team this season to push Texas the distance; Nebraska lost 3-2 in Austin on Sept. 22.
Which teams could get in the way of Texas and Penn State reaching the final four? We mentioned the potential Texas-Nebraska clash, but Penn State may have to face Michigan State in the regional semifinals. And if Penn State advances to the regional final in Lexington, Ky., the Nittany Lions could face six-time NCAA champion Stanford, which finished second to Washington in the Pac-12.
So, now that we've set up a potential Texas-Penn State clash of the titans, here are five other big questions as we look over the 2013 bracket:
1. Will Washington advance to be the final four's "home" team?
The Huskies, the No. 3 overall seed, have been pointing toward this final four in Seattle for quite a while (the matches will be at KeyArena on Dec. 19-21). They won the Pac-12 title with an 18-2 record, with both losses coming on the road against Colorado and Stanford. Washington went to the final four three seasons in a row from 2004-06, which included winning the 2005 NCAA title, but it hasn't advanced that far since 2006.
Led by junior star Krista Vansant (422 kills, 262 digs), Washington should have a pretty good path most of the way. Yes, they may have to face upset specialists Michigan in the second round, but it looks favorable for Washington to advance to the regional final. Will that regional final yield a very tough road game against No. 6 seed and regional host Southern Cal?
The Huskies won both matches against fellow Pac-12 power USC 3-1. The Trojans finished third in the league at 16-4.
2. What are the toughest first-round matchups?
• No. 9 San Diego versus UC-Santa Barbara: The Toreros won the West Coast Conference title and were ranked as high as No. 2 this season in the AVCA poll. But San Diego could be challenged by the Gauchos, who were "tri-champions" in the Big West with Hawaii and Cal-State Northridge. All finished 13-3 in the league.
• North Carolina versus Cal: The Tar Heels finished third in the ACC, with two of their four league losses coming to conference champion Duke. Cal tied for fifth in a loaded Pac-12.
• Wichita State versus No. 14 Kansas: The Jayhawks finished second in the Big 12 behind Texas, while the Shockers won the Missouri Valley title. Last year, Wichita State upset host KU in the NCAA tournament's second round. The match this year will again be in Lawrence, Kan.
• Arizona State versus BYU: The Sun Devils were the ninth-place team in the Pac-12 at 8-12 in league play, but still made it into the field on the strength of their conference and their very big upset win against Texas back in September. BYU was second to San Diego in the West Coast Conference.
• Iowa State versus Colorado: The longtime Big Eight/Big 12 mates meet again, this time from different conferences. The Buffs tied for seventh in the Pac-12 (9-11), but were one of two teams to beat league champ Washington in league play. The Cyclones tied for third in the Big 12 (11-5).
3. What are some tough potential second-round matchups?
• No. 9 San Diego versus Arizona: The Toreros could have their work cut out for them just to reach the Sweet 16, with UCSB in the first round and possibly Arizona (which tied for fifth in the Pac-12) in the second.
• No. 8 Nebraska versus Oregon: Wowza! Last year, these two met in the regional final in Omaha, Neb., and the Ducks won. This year, they could face off in the second round in Lincoln. The Huskers were second in the Big Ten; the Ducks were fourth in the Pac-12.
• No. 5 Florida versus Florida State: It could be the battle of the Sunshine State; the Gators swept the Seminoles at Florida on Sept. 17.
• Colorado State versus No. 6 Southern Cal: The Rams were one of two teams that had a perfect season … until this past Wednesday, when they were upset at home by San Diego State. Still, Colorado State finished 28-1 and won the Mountain West Conference. The Rams' reward for such a great season? A first-round matchup against a tough Cal-State Northridge team, and then potentially having to face Pac-12 power USC on the Trojans' home court in the second round. Ouch.
• Purdue versus No. 4 Missouri: Speaking of perfection, the Tigers were the only team to do that this season. Mizzou finished 34-0 and won the SEC (18-0). The Tigers host early-round matches and open against IUPUI, which is making its tournament debut. But then, Purdue, which finished sixth in the Big Ten and beat Nebraska twice, could be Mizzou's second-round foe.
4. Can unbeaten Missouri make the final four?
The Tigers have had a magical year, including two victories against traditional SEC power Florida. In Missouri's second year in the SEC, the Tigers engineered their best regular season in program history.
If you are wondering, though, why the only unbeaten team in Division I volleyball was not the No. 1 seed, it's because the Tigers didn't play an especially challenging non-conference schedule, and the SEC is not traditionally regarded as highly as the Big Ten or Pac-12. The No. 4 seed is a fair one for Mizzou.
So, can the program make a run at the final four? Yes. If they advance past potential second-round opponent Purdue, the Tigers could then face Illinois on the Illini's home court in Champaign, Ill., in the regional semis. And then … it could be another meeting against Florida in the regional final. Or perhaps Wisconsin.
But, all things considered, this is a pretty good draw for the Tigers. They won't have to deal with the likes of Texas, Penn State or any of the top Pac-12 teams to reach Seattle. It won't be easy, but it's definitely achievable.
5. Our final four picks are …
We'll go with Texas, Washington, Penn State and Missouri. Pretty safe going with the top four seeds? Absolutely, but they've all earned that.