Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Nov. 29, 2006

And Then There Were Seven

When the NCAA tournament bracket was announced on Sunday the Pac-10 conference got as much as it could have hoped for - all seven teams eligible for the tournament were invited to participate. That equaled the most teams from any conference, with the Big 10 and SEC also garnering seven spots in the tournament. Although the Big Ten has five teams that are seeded, Pac-10 teams were seeded higher than any other conference, with four teams being seeded sixth and higher. Three of the six teams also get to host the first and second rounds of the tournament while Washington is hosting one of the four regional tournaments. Perhaps the best news for the Pac-10 is the four highly-seeded teams are spread into three different regions. UCLA and USC are in the same region and could face each other in Honolulu, Hawaii for a berth to the Final Four (they did that in Nebraska in 2003), while Stanford could face California in the sweet sixteen in Austin, Texas. Washington has no other Pac-10 team in its region, but do have No. 3 Penn State standing in the way of the Huskies third consecutive Final Four. Looking at the bracket, the Pac-10 could have three teams in the Final Four as they did in 2004. With the past five national championships coming from the conference the Pac-10 has national respect and a number of teams that could make it six in a row.

A couple of things really jumped out at me when I took a good look at the bracket. First, a very tough second round match-up looms for UCLA if Utah gets past Michigan State. The Utes are ranked No. 11 in the AVCA coach's poll but did not get one of the top 16 seeds in the tournament, likely due to the fact they lost in the championship match of the Mountain West Conference tournament to Colorado State and they had no significant wins. However, they are a dangerous team because of their size - they lead the country with 3.79 blocks per game, and have the top blocker in the country in 6'7' Emillie Toone. This is one of those matches that make me scratch my head. Last year Texas and Hawaii met in the second round (they were tied at No. 7 nationally) which was unfortunate, and this match up is similar. Many times I have talked about the regionalization of the NCAA tournament and how it continually hurts teams on the west coast. There are so many good teams in the west, and in California in particular, that when the NCAA decided to minimize travel for the first and second rounds they made it tougher for teams, regardless of seed, that are located close to good competition. For instance, there are five teams from Northern California in the NCAA tournament. All five of those teams are together in one bracket - check out the bottom of the right side. Of the 8 teams in that bracket, only Missouri, LSU and Michigan are not from Northern California. And consequently, five of the eight teams are ranked nationally which makes it the toughest group of eight. Certainly not a benefit to the second seed - Stanford.

The other thing that stood out is the sense of deja vu I felt looking at some of the first and second round groupings. Last year Washington was grouped with Colorado and Colorado State and played in Fort Collins. This year they have the same grouping but are going to Boulder instead. The Huskies first round match with CSU is a rematch of their second round match a year ago. Perhaps there is good karma for Washington, however, since its march to the title a year ago started in Colorado. USC once again plays host to BYU and Santa Barbara as they did last year. The Women of Troy play Mississippi in their first round and could face Santa Barbara in the second round - a team they beat in the first round a year ago. However, they could also be facing a BYU team that was the only non conference team to beat Stanford this season. Stanford, Santa Clara and Sacramento State are together again in Palo Alto. This marks the fourth time in the past five years that Sac State has been sent to Stanford for the NCAA tournament, and the third time it has faced Stanford in its first match. Santa Clara is in Palo Alto for the third time in six years and plays Missouri, a team it beat earlier this year at a tournament in Austin, Texas. Santa Clara is the team that knocked Stanford out of the tournament a year ago and made its improbable run to the Final Four, defeating Arizona in the regional final at Stanford. Santa Clara got over the hump last year at Maples Pavilion and finally beat Stanford for the first time in 24 tries - a loss that must still sting the Cardinal. If both Stanford and Santa Clara win in the first round, their match in the second round will be a highly-anticipated rematch. The final grouping that is similar to last year does not affect a Pac-10 team - Penn State is reunited with Long Island and Cornell. The fourth team going to Penn State this weekend is Hofstra, which makes a very weak schedule for the host Nittany Lions. Once again the argument for regionalization is appropriate. Penn State absolutely destroyed its competition last year in the first and second rounds, but that easy competition may have hurt it in the long run as it lost in the regional semi-finals to Tennessee a year ago. I do understand the desire of the NCAA committee to keep teams somewhat close to home, but they need to do a better job of adjusting the match-ups.

Stanford was rewarded for its first conference title since 2001 with the No. 2 overall seed and the chance to play at home for the first and second rounds. Winners of 14 of their last 15 matches, including wins over UCLA and Washington during that time, have made the Cardinal one of the favorites to win it all. Stanford is the most successful women's collegiate volleyball team ever with six national championships, including two in the past five years. The Cardinal won two years ago as the No. 11 seed overall because they got hot at the right time and rode their star player, Ogonna Nnamani, to the championship. They do not have a single player as impressive as Nnamani was, but they are as well rounded as any team in the tournament. They have the physical talent to stay with Nebraska and Penn State and the experience, both on the floor and with the coaching staff, to make the adjustments necessary to win in the NCAA tournament. If they play as they have down the stretch in wins over Washington and UCLA they can win it all. My only concern with this team is their reliance on their outside hitters Cynthia Barboza and Kristin Richards. Barboza was injured during the NCAA tournament last year so she has not experienced the intensity of the tournament yet, and she can be error prone. Richards, a senior, will not wilt under the pressure but may have to carry more of the load. If Stanford stays balanced it will get to the Final Four.

UCLA is the No. 4 seed overall and, like Stanford, will stay home for the first and second rounds. It has the toughest match, by far, for a highly-seeded team when it will likely face 11th ranked Utah in the second round. I don't know who to feel worse for - UCLA for facing such a tough opponent early on or Utah who might get bounced from the tournament much earlier than it should based on the season it has had. The Bruins will not lose at home and will make it to Honolulu for regionals. Hawaii is where we first knew UCLA was going to be very good this year as it swept both Florida and Hawaii at the Hawaiian Airlines Classic in September. I am very high on this team and think they will be in Omaha in December. I like its balance on offense; it has an outstanding setter and one of the most dominating middles in collegiate volleyball this year. I just don't see many weaknesses with this team.... with the exception it could not beat Stanford. Those two are on a collision course - if both teams make it to the Final Four they would play again in the semifinal match. And that is where we will see if UCLA has figured out how to beat the Cardinal. I think UCLA is one of the two best teams in the country - and Stanford is the other.

USC, the fourth-place finisher in the Pac-10, is the No. 5 seed overall. What a year the Women of Troy have had. After losing their setter and top two attackers from last year there were some real questions heading into fall camp. I watched their match at Pepperdine and although they looked good at times I felt they had a long way to go to be near the top of the Pac-10. They certainly have made tremendous strides as the season has progressed. Only two of their top six players played last season - libero Deborah Seilhamer and middle Diane Copenhagen. Outside hitter Asia Kaczor was playing Junior College ball one year ago and Jessica Gysin was out due to an ACL tear after redshirting her true freshman year due to an ankle injury. Middle Bethany Johansen was at Santa Barbara and setter Taylor Carico was playing at Mira Costa High School. Yet they have pulled together to be one of the teams capable of winning a national title. As good as the USC teams were that won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003, and the job coach Mick Haley did in getting his team to that level, I think this is his best coaching job at USC. And the best may be to come, with Seilhamer the only starter they will lose to graduation. The question for USC is can it beat Hawaii, in Hawaii, in the regional semifinals? That will be the toughest test for the Women of Troy......unless they win and have UCLA the next night.

Washington, in the hunt for the Pac-10 championship through the final weekend, slipped to the No. 6 seed overall. However, that was actually a good break for the Huskies as it kept them away from other Pac-10 schools. And they have the biggest advantage of all - they get to host the regional finals should they get there. The Huskies have not lost at home since the 2004 season - they were undefeated in Seattle last year and so far this season. They will be challenged early in this tournament - with their second round match against either Colorado or New Mexico State. Colorado is the only team to beat Nebraska this year so they can play at a very high level, and New Mexico State is 33-3 and ranked No. 19 in the coach's poll. But Washington has Pac-10 Player of the Year Christal Morrison and perhaps the best setter in the country with Courtney Thompson, a combination that will not let Washington lose early. And I don't think anyone will be able to beat the Huskies in Seattle. The fans in Seattle have embraced Washington volleyball and Bank of America Arena will be absolutely crazy for regionals. Penn State is as good physically as anyone in the country and is big everywhere on the floor, but they have a freshman setter and a freshman outside hitter that can get rattled. The combination of home court advantage and the way that Washington plays will be enough to rattle Penn State and get Washington to its third straight Final Four. Then a likely rematch of last year's championship match with Nebraska awaits.

California is ranked No. 15 nationally but did not get a top 16 seed in the tournament. And, depending on how you look at it, the Golden Bears either have a good draw or an incredibly tough draw. Their first round match is against LSU, ranked No. 16 in the nation and winners of the Western Division of the surprisingly strong SEC. But, the SEC is not the Pac-10 and you would have to think that California is more prepared for the rigors of the NCAA tournament than LSU. But LSU did beat Minnesota and Tennessee this year, and nearly took out No. 2 Penn State in the preseason. LSU is for real, and a tough first round match for Cal. Why two teams ranked so high face each other in the first round is a mystery to me. Michigan and Cal Poly will be a battle as well - this is the one group of four teams where any team can win and get to the sweet 16, and whoever wins will earn it. This is the fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament for Cal. In each of the past four years the Golden Bears have made it past the first round but only once, in 2003, did they make it to the round of 16. This year is as good an opportunity for Cal to get there. They have great senior leadership, two reliable outside hitters and are solid everywhere. As good as Cal is, it has not won a big match this year against a higher ranked team. It did beat Pepperdine at home which was a good win, but it did not beat a Stanford, a UCLA or a Washington this season. Can the Bears elevate their play now, at the end of the season, and come up with the one big win that has eluded them this season? They could see Stanford again if they survive the first and second rounds - that would be the time for the big win.

Oregon sighed a breath of relief when they heard their name called after finishing the season with a seven-match losing streak. Actually, the Ducks did not hear it during the selection show as they were returning home from Los Angeles when the announcement was made. They clearly did enough early to convince the committee they belonged in the NCAA tournament and now the Pac-10's longest NCAA drought is over. The Ducks travel to Long Beach State where they played, and won, earlier this year - one of only five losses for Long Beach. But the Ducks play the No. 12 seed Hawaii Rainbow Wahine, a team that is used to winning in the NCAA tournament. This is uncharted water for the Ducks, but they have done things this year no one expected and a win over Hawaii would be just another step for this Duck team. However, to win this weekend the Ducks will need to get better, more consistent offense from their young stars. During their losing streak at the end of the year the young Ducks have struggled to have success consistently, and if all their weapons can be clicking at the same time they are dangerous. But this is a young team and this won't be their only NCAA tournament - they will be back, and lessons learned from this year will only aid their future success.

How big was Arizona State's win over Arizona last weekend? It was NCAA tournament big. Without that win ASU cannot even be considered, but the win gave them the winning record they needed and a trip to the tournament. With 14 losses on the year the Sun Devils have more losses than any other team in the tournament. But it goes to show that if you come out of the Pac-10 season with an overall winning record you deserve to be in the NCAA tournament. Off to Florida goes ASU and a first round date with the College of Charleston, the Southern Conference Champion. The winner of that match gets the Florida Gators playing at home, which essentially ends their season. For ASU just getting there was quite a feat. It is coach Brad Saindon's first trip as the coach at Arizona State and an important step in its progress. And seniors Tierra Burnley, Nina Reeves and Nicole Morton have to be thrilled to finally get the chance to be in the NCAA tournament. They might not be there a long time, but just being there is an accomplishment in itself.

Congratulations to the teams in the NCAA tournament! Best of luck!

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