Stanford earns No. 1 seed in NCAA volleyball tournament, but a fellow giant stands in the way

Led by Kathryn Plummer (2) Stanford is the No. 1 overall seed and a big favorite to win its second national title in three years. Courtesy Stanford

The 2018 NCAA volleyball title is Stanford's to win.

The Cardinal (28-1, 20-0), the first team to sweep the hazardous Pac-12 in 15 years, earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team bracket unveiled on Sunday night.

Big Ten champion Minnesota (25-3) got the second seed, and fellow Big Ten power Illinois (26-3) is No. 3. BYU (27-1), unbeaten the entire season until being swept in its regular-season finale at Loyola Marymount on Tuesday, is fourth. Defending champion Nebraska was seeded seventh. The Pac-12 placed eight teams in the field; the Big Ten landed seven spots.

The top 16 seeds host first- and second-round matches from Thursday-Saturday at campus sites. If the top four seeds survive the opening two rounds, they host regional play on Dec. 7 and 8. Regional winners advance to the final four at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Dec. 13 with the national championship set for Dec. 15.

Stanford, which won the 2016 national title behind a star-studded freshman class that includes reigning national player of the year Kathryn Plummer, has won its past 26 games. The Cardinal became the first team to sweep their Pac-12 matches since USC went unscathed in 2003.

BYU is the only team to beat the Cardinal this season, in a five-setter in Provo, Utah, on Aug. 31. Colorado is the only other opponent that extended Stanford to five sets; the Cardinal prevailed in a 15-8 final set on Nov. 2.

Stanford opens the tournament against SWAC champion Alabama State (23-17). The winner of that match meets the winner of Loyola Marymount (20-9)/Duke (16-11) in the second round.

Looking further along the Cardinal's path, Stanford is in the same quarter of the bracket as Penn State (23-7), which is seeded eighth. The two titans of the sport own seven NCAA titles apiece, tied for the most. They are also the only two teams that have played in every NCAA tournament.

When the teams met on Sept. 7 at Maples Pavilion, Stanford swept the youthful Nittany Lions. But Penn State made a late statement by upsetting Minnesota in five sets on Friday. The Gophers were attempting to become the first Big Ten team to sweep conference play since the Nittany Lions did it in 2009. Minnesota hadn't lost since falling to Stanford 3-1 on Sept. 9.

For the second year in a row, Penn State will host a first-round match against Howard (20-10). The Bison took a set from the Nittany Lions a year ago before Penn State prevailed in four.

If seeds hold, Stanford will play fellow Pac-12 member Washington State (21-9) in the Sweet 16 and Penn State will host Creighton.

The Cougars, who took a set from the Cardinal on Nov. 16, dropped three of their past five. The Bluejays (28-4), meanwhile, are among the more dangerous teams in the tournament. The Big East champions and No. 9 seeds have won their past 20. They started their season by upsetting Kentucky and extended Nebraska and USC to five sets.

Stanford lost in the final four a year ago to Florida. The freshmen who led the Cardinal to the 2016 title are now seasoned juniors led by Plummer with 447 kills, Audriana Fitzmorris with 284 kills, setter Jenna Gray with 1,230 assists and libero Morgan Hentz with 474 digs.

Here are some other storylines that emerged from the annual unveiling of the bracket.

Big Ten showdowns?

With the final four in Minneapolis, an appearance by the hometown and second-seeded Gophers practically would blow the roof off the Target Center. But the Big Ten champions have some obstacles to face -- including, potentially, conference rival Nebraska, the defending national champion.

In fact, the four highest seeds on the right side of the bracket are all from the Big Ten: No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Illinois, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Nebraska. That's also the order they finished in the Big Ten standings, with the Gophers at 17-1 (their only league loss was Friday at Penn State in five sets), the Illini 17-3, and the Badgers and Huskers 15-5.

There is one other Big Ten team on that side, too. Purdue, which finished sixth in the league at 12-8, could meet Nebraska in the regional semifinals. Although, the Boilermakers likely would have to upset No. 10 seed Kentucky to do that.

Minnesota might have to face No. 15 Oregon in the regional semifinals; the Ducks beat the Gophers 3-1 on Sept. 7 on a neutral court. Oregon went 20-10 overall, but tied for second in the Pac-12 at 13-7 and got a set off Stanford both times the Ducks faced the Cardinal.

Ultimately, if seeds hold, the two regional finals on this half would pit Illinois against Wisconsin and Minnesota against Nebraska. All are previous final four participants, but only the Huskers -- who are five-time NCAA champions -- have won it all.

During the regular season, the Illini and the Badgers split, with each winning 3-1 on the other's home court. The Gophers beat the Huskers 3-1 in both their meetings.

BYU holds on

BYU suffered its first loss in its regular-season finale, but it can still reach the final four without leaving home.

As the fourth seed, the Cougars will host regionals if they beat Stony Brook (21-8) in a first-round match on their home court in Provo, Utah, and defeat the winner of Denver (27-2)/Utah (18-13) in the second round.

The West Coast Conference champs were swept by Loyola Marymount on Tuesday. Prior to that match, BYU had dropped only three sets in winning its first 17 conference matches. Not to mention nonconference wins over Pac-12 powerhouses Stanford and USC.

BYU had been rolling behind senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, who is hitting .346 with 419 kills. Jones-Perry leads a veteran core that includes setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich and libero Mary Lake. Freshman Heather Gneiting has made an immediate impact at middle blocker.

But the Cougars' title chances suffered a huge blow due to an injury to hitter McKenna Miller. The team's second option to Perry tore her ACL against Santa Clara on Nov. 8.

If seeds hold, BYU will meet Texas in the regional final. BYU holds a 10-9 edge over Texas.

The Cougars are looking to reach the final four for the first time since the 2014 season. That's when unseeded BYU reached the title game with a 3-1 victory over Texas. They lost in the national championship to Penn State.

Longhorns solid, but Big 12 wasn't

Texas (20-4, 15-1) won its 11th Big 12 regular-season title, got the No. 5 overall seed and will attempt to make the final four for the 13th time. The Longhorns have gotten that far eight of the past 10 years, and they won their second NCAA title in 2012.

The road this year, starting Thursday against Stephen F. Austin, looks favorable for the Longhorns, who are the only past national champion in their quarter of the bracket. There are two schools who've made it to the NCAA final, No. 4 seed BYU and Florida, which was national runner-up last year.

It's questionable, though, how well the Big 12 prepared the Longhorns for postseason play. The conference has its fewest ever representatives in the NCAA tournament with just two: Texas and Baylor. The previous fewest for the conference was four, which has happened three times, including last year. The most the Big 12 ever had was eight in 2001. The conference has changed, of course, since it launched in 1996 as a merger of the Big Eight and four Southwest Conference schools. Now it has just 10 teams. Three teams that used to be in the Big 12 made the NCAA field this year: Colorado of the Pac-12, Nebraska of the Big Ten, and Missouri of the SEC. Iowa State, 16-13 overall and 9-7 in the league this season, had been to the previous 12 NCAA tournaments. Kansas, which went to the final four in 2015 and gave Texas its only Big 12 loss this season, had made the NCAA field the past six years. But the Jayhawks went 15-12 and 8-8 this season, losing their last five. The Longhorns did play a tough non-conference schedule, as usual, but lost twice to No. 1 overall seed Stanford and to No. 6 seed Wisconsin.

Beware the bracket busters

Got your pencils handy for filling out the bracket? Make sure you've got a good eraser, too. If form holds, Stanford, Minnesota, Illinois and BYU will reach the final four.

But here are a few teams that just might bust your bracket along the way:

• Pitt's 29-1 record is its best in school history and means first- and second-round games are coming to Fitzgerald Field House. The Panthers are one of three teams in the field, along with BYU and Stanford, who have just one loss. Pitt won its first 23 before being stunned at Duke on Oct. 28. The ACC does not stack up with the Pac-12 or Big Ten in terms of conference strength. Nor is it as powerful as the Big 12 and SEC. But winning 29 games is no fluke for this bunch, led by terminators Kayla Lund and Nina Markovic. Pitt has victories over eight teams that earned tournament bids (Cal-Poly, Washington, Dayton, Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Pepperdine and Duke). The No. 13 seeds host Iona (20-7) in a first-round match with that winner scheduled to play either Michigan or Navy.

• What do you know about Central Florida (27-3), seeded 13th? Here's the lowdown on one of the sleeper teams in the tournament. The Knights beat Florida and USC during nonconference play. The American Athletic Conference champs have won 24 straight. Central Florida, which didn't make the field of 64 a year ago, wins behind McKenna Melville, the Minnesota Gatorade player of the year who played for the Northern Lights club prior to this season. The freshman's 504 kills are a team-high. Central Florida hosts Florida Gulf Coast (26-6) in a first-round match; the Knights swept the Eagles earlier this season. A rematch with Florida could await in the second round. After that, they could challenge BYU.

• At 24-4, Kentucky is under the radar considering these Wildcats completed the SEC season without a loss for the first time since 1988. Not surprisingly, they dominated the SEC awards announced Sunday with player of the year going to junior Leah Edmond. The Wildcats' Alli Stumler is freshman of the year and Gabby Curry is libero of the year. Craig Skinner is the coach of the year. How hot is Kentucky? These Wildcats, who started the season 0-3, haven't lost since Sept. 7 at Texas. They were achingly close to the final four a year ago, staving off three match points to eventual national champion Nebraska in the regional final. Don't be surprised if they make a run in 2018. They'll play Murray State (22-9) in a first-round match in Lexington with that winner facing either Purdue or ETSU. If seeds hold, they'll be hungry for a rematch with Nebraska, this time a round earlier than last. The teams could play in the Sweet 16.

• Nine losses might seem like a lot, but unseeded Northern Iowa (24-9) can do plenty of damage. It has early-season victories over Creighton and Kentucky and capped its weekend by claiming its 17th Missouri Valley Conference championship. If the Panthers get by Pepperdine (21-8) in the first round, they could be a challenge for No. 6 Wisconsin (22-6) in the second round.

Thrilled to dance

Some programs view making the NCAA field as a formality. But for others, seeing their name on the bracket represents a dream come true. Such is the case for six first-timers who made the NCAA tournament this year: Bryant, Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast, South Dakota, Syracuse and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Navy's story is particularly inspiring. The Mids' six seniors started their careers in 2015 going 2-19 overall and 0-6 in the Patriot League before turning things around.

Since then, they have become the program's winningest class, compiling 75 victories. That includes 23 this year as they tied American for the Patriot regular-season title at 13-3. Then Navy beat American in five sets on the Eagles' home court for the league tournament championship last Sunday, securing the Mids' first NCAA berth. Navy will face the Big Ten's Michigan in the first round Friday at Pittsburgh.

This was Navy's fourth time playing in the conference tournament final in 27 seasons in the Patriot League, and the sweetest of finishes for the seniors. Those women also last week got their service assignments for after they graduate in the spring. Four of them -- Taylor Holland, Kelsey Kingsland, Patricia Mattingly and Sydney Shearn -- will be Navy pilots. Darby Minton was assigned to a Marine Corps ground unit, and Katie Patrick to Navy surface warfare.