Home isn’t always so sweet as there were some stunning happenings last weekend and now some noteworthy developments as the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament heads into Friday’s regional round of 16.
There will be a new champion, since just one of last year’s Final Four participants, Southern Cal, remains. Defending-champion UCLA and semi-finalist Florida State were sent packing on their respective home courts and the other team that played in San Antonio year, Illinois, failed to make the tournament field.
“We’ll see how it goes. As we advance, we know that we’re 8-1 against the other 15 teams that are left,” said Penn State’s Russ Rose, whose top-seeded Nittany Lions are trying to win their fifth title in six years. So far they’ve swept both games they’ve played in the tournament against Binghamton and Bowling Green. “We probably have the best record but I don’t know if we’re playing the best. I’d rather be playing the best than having had the best season.”
Who is playing the best? Well, there are more teams left from the Big Ten (Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue) than any other conference, although the Pac-12 (Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington) makes up a quarter of the field.
The SEC (Florida, Kentucky) and the Big 12 (Texas, Iowa State) each have two teams remaining and rounding out the field is BYU of the West Coast Conference. But the biggest surprise of the final 16, is certainly Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference.
What’s more, the sweet-16 pairings just ooze of rivalries and intrigue, especially after Michigan State ousted UCLA and Michigan stunned Louisville at Louisville, the site of the national semifinals Dec. 13.
They have to go to Berkeley, Calif., to do it, but Michigan plays Michigan State in one Big Ten matchup. The visiting team swept both matches when the teams faced in Big Ten play, with State winning 3-0 at Ann Arbor on October 17, and Michigan winning 3-0 in East Lansing on November 21.
Whereas Louisville won’t be coming home, some of the Wolverines will when they play in California on Friday.
“Ironically we have a couple of kids from California and they really wanted to get back home, so it’s good for them to be able to play in front of their families,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “Actually their families didn’t come this weekend hoping we would get back there. It puts a lot of pressure on ‘em.”
In another Big Ten battle, Minnesota will play Purdue at Purdue. The Boilermakers are no doubt happy to get the Gophers on their home court after losing in Minneapolis in four in their only matchup this season. Purdue advanced by beating Colorado State and then taking down Florida State in five on the Seminoles’ home court. Eighth-seeded Minnesota swept Liberty, but dropped the first set before beating Creighton.
“The good news is they don’t have to spend time on scouting reports,” Rose pointed out. “They can work on their team and getting their team healthier.”
The winner of Minnesota vs. Purdue might not have to prepare any scouting reports either, since the other match at Purdue puts Penn State against Kentucky.
“I’m not surprised Michigan State won because they play awfully hard,” Rose said. “They’re very athletic and have some new kids who make them a little more formidable.
“I guess Purdue beating Florida State at Florida State is a surprise, but Purdue has terrific talent … They’ve got players who have been to the final 16 before. Minnesota, they’re as physical as any team in the country.”
The only Big Ten team to lose was Ohio State, which opened with a victory over Notre Dame but then lost to Kentucky.
The first round was filled with some head-shaking results, from Northern Iowa upsetting Kansas State in three, to College of Charleston ousting Miami, to St. Mary’s surprising defeat of San Diego State in five, to Western Kentucky sweeping Loyola Marymount, and North Carolina taking down Cal.
But things all shook out during the second round, with quite a few of the remaining top 16 seeds escaping with their tournament lives. Washington, for one, had to rally on its home court to win in five against Hawaii after facing elimination at 24-25 in the fourth set, but they will continue on to play another day and are up against Nebraska on Friday.
Iowa State is a story in itself, as it became the only team to survive two five-set matches in the first two rounds. The Cyclones will play Stanford in the bracket opposite the two Michigan schools this weekend.
“The way those two matches went were probably a reflection of the season,” said Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, whose Cyclones escaped IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne) in what would have been yet another stunning upset. Then they beat North Carolina, after falling behind 2-1 then winning the fifth 15-13.
“A little bit of a roller coaster ride where you don’t know what to expect but you eke it out at the end,” she said.
Iowa State, the 15th seed, was playing at home, but Johnson-Lynch admitted her team might have been nervous. They may get more nervous still, since they play the No. 2 seed Stanford, not on Stanford’s home court but not too far away from Palo Alto in Berkeley.
“We’ll do what we always do, which is watch a lot of film and get prepped and work on the things we need better on from what we saw this weekend,” said Johnson-Lynch, whose team has won a school-record 12 matches in a row. “We’ll work hard this week and we’ll see what happens.”
The remaining matches have fifth-seeded Oregon facing BYU, while host Texas, the No. 3 seed, faces Florida and sixth-seeded USC takes on upstart Wichita State.
Texas played at home and gets to stay at home for the regional.
“That is fantastic to be at home,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott understated.
Oregon beat Northern Colorado and Dayton in a pair of sweeps—BYU did the same to New Mexico State and Oklahoma. Washington swept Central Arkansas before stepping back from the edge of the cliff against Hawaii, and Nebraska made short work of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Northern Iowa.
Texas swept Colgate before ousting cross-state rival Texas A&M in four, Florida swept Tulsa and Charleston, USC rolled past Fairfield and St. Mary’s, but what about Wichita State?
“I have no problem saying we are playing with house money,” Wichita State coach Chris Lamb said. “The Shockers will be loose and we will go play the Trojans and I can’t wait.
“We have now taken that next step. We deserve to have a great week of practice and we will. We will have a game plan and we are going to go out there and give it everything we have.”
Middle blocker Ashley Andrade capped off a career weekend as Wichita State knocked off cross-state rival Kansas in four to make the school’s first appearance in the round of 16. It followed a five-set upset of Arkansas in the first round, the first time the Shockers won after being down 0-2 in more than a year.
Andrade, a junior from Glendale, Ariz., had a career-high 23 kills against Arkansas and then 18 kills and nine blocks against Wichita State.
The Shockers know they can hang with the big kids, since they lost in five earlier this season to BYU and Tennessee. But this is still something else.
“Honestly, how many mid-majors are in the sweet 16 ever?” Lamb asked after the game. “We think we made quite a statement today and these things don’t come around every day, so we are going to enjoy it.”