The NCAA Division I women's volleyball bracket was revealed Sunday night, and now we know everyone's potential road to Omaha, site of the final four on Dec. 17-19.
Will the 2015 championship be a three-peat for Penn State? The first title in more than a decade for Pac-12 co-champion USC? A statewide celebration in red for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, whose campus is just an hour's drive from Omaha? A first-ever national title for Big Ten champion Minnesota? Or something that may be a bigger surprise than any of that?
First- and second-round action will be on campus sites Thursday through Saturday, and here are some of the things we're pondering after a look at the bracket.
1. Who will be left standing from the Big Ten?
As expected, the Big Ten led all conferences with nine teams selected to the NCAA field, including two among the top-four seeds: No. 2 Minnesota and No. 4 Nebraska. And guess which team the Golden Gophers may have to face to advance to the program's fourth final four? Penn State, winner of the past two NCAA titles and seven overall.
Penn State, the No. 7 seed overall, and Minnesota could meet in the Des Moines regional final. Last year, the Nittany Lions beat the team that won the Big Ten title, Wisconsin, for a trip to the final four.
Penn State ended this regular season Saturday after being swept at Nebraska. The 26-5 Nittany Lions went 15-5 in the Big Ten, finishing fourth, and have shown vulnerability this year. That's not surprising, considering they lost high-caliber senior setter Micha Hancock and have redshirt freshman Bryanna Weiskircher replacing her.
Still, Penn State is a talented squad, and coach Russ Rose has helped his team play exceptionally well in the NCAA tournament in years prior, regardless of how the regular season ends.
The Nittany Lions are making their 35th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and are 90-27 all-time in that event. And they've been particularly dominant in the past decade, making the final four in seven of the past eight years and winning six national championships in that stretch. The last time Penn State lost before the regional semifinals was 2002.
Minnesota and Penn State split their regular-season meetings this year, with both winning at home. Minnesota has advanced to the final four three times -- 2003, 2004 and 2009 -- but has not won an NCAA title. Led by Daly Santana, who averaged a Big Ten-best 4.44 kills per set, Minnesota should be a strong candidate for the regional final, and Penn State may be the only team that can stop the Golden Gophers from a final four trip.
Minnesota's other Big Ten loss was at Purdue, which is in the Austin regional and could face No. 3 seed Texas in the second round. Wisconsin is the No. 6 seed and is also in the Austin regional, as is Michigan.
On the other side of the bracket, the Huskers will be trying to make it a state-wide party at the final four in Omaha. The past two times the event was held in that city, Nebraska made it there -- winning the NCAA title in 2006 and losing to eventual champ Penn State in the semifinals in 2008.
Potentially waiting in the Lexington, Kentucky, regional final for the Huskers is familiar postseason foe Washington, the No. 5 seed and Pac-12 co-champion (along with USC). The Huskers and Huskies first faced off in the NCAA tournament in the 2005 championship match and have met four times in NCAA play since then, including last year.
There's no chance it can be an all-Big Ten final four, though, as the San Diego regional doesn't have a team from the league.
2. A packed Pac-12 makes a statement
While no conference is as loaded as the Big Ten, the Pac-12 is no slouch with seven teams represented in the NCAA tournament, including No. 1 seed USC, also the top school in the RPI.
The others are Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.
What's not to love about this Trojan team that relies on the showy Samantha Bricio, the first USC player to breach 2,000 kills and just the second to amass more than 700 points in a single season?
"We have to work on finishing and keeping our rhythm," Bricio said after her team swept California on Senior Night.
USC comes in tested, having only dropped its match at Washington and a five-setter on Friday to UCLA. The Trojans (30-2) are looking to win their first NCAA title since they went back-to-back in 2002 and 2003.
We're already anticipating a rematch of USC's Sept. 27 meeting with Stanford in the regional final in San Diego. Bricio recorded five aces and 27 kills when the Trojans edged the Cardinal in five in Maples.
USC shared the Pac-12 title with the Huskies (28-2), who have won their past 11 matches and have a No. 2 RPI. A Nebraska/Washington regional finals meeting could play out -- the Huskies could meet a dangerous Ohio State team in the regional semifinals. The Buckeyes (23-9) pushed No. 2 seed Minnesota to five on Friday and have a win over No. 4 seed Nebraska.
While No. 8 Stanford could square off against Colorado State in the second round (see below), we like the Cardinal's chances for a date with Kansas in the regional semifinals. The teams could have their first-ever meeting in San Diego. The Jayhawks' only two losses are to Texas.
The Bruins (23-7) could face Texas in the regional semifinals in Austin. UCLA leads the series 16-8 and has split the six matches with the Longhorns in the NCAA tournament. Their last meeting was in the regional final in 2011, en route to UCLA's fourth national title. Don't overlook a Bruin team that is one of two teams to defeat USC.
Arizona plays Western Kentucky in the first round, and an Arizona State (19-12) team that is 4-11 since losing all-time kills leader Macey Gardner to a knee injury matches up against Florida State (24-7). The Seminoles were ACC runners-up to Louisville in the regular season.
Oregon (16-13) meets Wisconsin (24-6) in the first round. The Badgers are 13-2 at home.
With a win over Stanford and a sweep of Arizona, Colorado did not make the NCAA field. The Buffaloes (19-13) had an RPI of 66.
3. Will Texas cash in on home cooking, cohesion?
The Longhorns have advanced to the final four in six of the past seven years but have just one NCAA title (in 2012) to show for that. Saying "just one" may seem harsh. But the reality is that Texas certainly has been talented enough to win a few more national championships during that stretch. It just hasn't panned out.
Texas' squad isn't considered as athletically gifted as some Longhorn teams in recent years. Yet the 2015 Longhorns, who are the No. 3 seed and host a regional, have great chemistry and a grittiness that might be enough for another final four run -- or more.
Texas won its fifth consecutive -- and ninth overall -- Big 12 title this season. The Longhorns' lone league loss was at TCU on Oct. 28, and coach Jerritt Elliott said it might have been the best thing that could have happened because his team refocused as a result.
Texas will not have to leave its home, Gregory Gymnasium, to make a run to the final four. The Longhorns will host the early rounds, which could include a tricky, second-round matchup with Purdue. If Texas advances, it will play in the Austin regional. Texas' top challengers at that point might be UCLA in the semifinals and Wisconsin (which beat Texas in the 2013 national semis) in the final.
But the comfort of home is a big factor for Texas. Since they started playing at Gregory Gym in 1982, the Longhorns are 338-52 there. They've lost just 12 matches at home in the past 12 years, including one this season (to Florida).
4. Do they have a gripe?
How did the committee reward the four teams outside of power conferences that have eight losses among them?
Let's start with Hawaii (26-1), which can't be too happy about a potential second-round matchup against SEC champion Texas A&M on the Aggies' home court. The Aggies (23-6), winners of their past 14, are coming off their most successful season in school history behind SEC player of the year Stephanie Aiple and conference coach of the year Laurie Corbelli. Texas A&M dropped just one match in College Station (to Arkansas), finishing with a 12-1 mark at home.
The Rainbow Wahine went unscathed through the Big West and dropped its lone match of the season in four sets to a UCLA team seeded 14th on Sept. 6. The Bows are holding opponents to a mere .142 hitting percentage and boast a No. 8 RPI.
Even the first round will be tricky for the Bows, one of two teams in the field of 64 to have one regular-season loss (Arkansas State is the other). Hawaii is slated to meet TCU in the first round, and fan support will likely be behind the Horned Frogs. TCU, which recorded arguably the biggest upset of the season with a sweep of Texas on Oct. 28, sold out all of its conference matches in 2015. We expect TCU fans to pack Reed Arena, given it's only a three-hour drive south from Fort Worth.
Colorado State (26-3), meanwhile, can't be too excited about its projected second-round opponent, Stanford (22-6), the eighth seed. The Mountain West champions haven't lost since falling in five to the Aggies on Sept. 15 and have one of the elite players in the game in Adrianna Culbert, whose eight triple-doubles lead the nation.
But the Rams, 0-11 all time vs. the Cardinal, would have to play at Maples Pavilion, where Stanford has dropped just two matches, both to USC, since 2012. Even CSU's first-round opponent is no gimme: Loyola Marymount (22-8) upset Brigham Young earlier this season. Yikes!
Speaking of the Cougars (26-3), a win over Ohio in the first round would pit them against the Arizona/Western Kentucky winner, one of the better first-round matchups. The 31-3 Hilltoppers are making their second straight appearance in the national tournament, winning Conference USA and their final eight games.
Advance past that one, and BYU has a possible date with No. 4 Nebraska in the regional semifinals. But don't be quick to count out a BYU team that was the NCAA runner-up last season and the Cinderella of the tournament.
It has been a magical season in 2015 for Arkansas State (28-1), which is seeking its first win in the NCAA tournament in four tries. The Sun Belt champs, whose lone loss was to Missouri, will try to get by a Michigan State team that endured a seven-game losing streak before ending the season by winning its final four matches. The Red Wolves are in the tournament for the first time since 1999.
5. ACC or SEC breakthrough? Well ...
Eventually one or both of these leagues might produce a national champion in Division I women's volleyball. But it hasn't happened yet. How about this year? Probably not.
Texas A&M was the surprise SEC winner, recording its first-ever conference championship in the sport. It has been a fantastic season for the Aggies, who clinched the title last week by handing Missouri its first home loss of 2015.
But it's a tough road in the NCAA tournament for the No. 10 seed Aggies, who may have to beat the likes of Hawaii and Penn State just to reach the Des Moines regional final. Then again, Texas A&M was picked to finish sixth in the SEC this year, so the Aggies have already proven they can defy expectations.
Florida, Kentucky and Missouri were picked to finish 1-2-3 in the SEC. The Tigers and Wildcats ended up tying for second, with the Gators fourth. All three teams join the Aggies in the NCAA field with Florida seeded No. 11.
As for the ACC, Louisville won the regular-season title and is the No. 15 seed. Three other ACC teams also are in the field: Florida State, Miami and North Carolina.
The Tar Heels will face a tough challenge in the first round from UNC-Wilmington, which is one of six schools -- along with Harvard, Howard, SIU Carbondale, SMU and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi -- making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Seahawks stunned the Tar Heels in five sets in September in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.