Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Nov. 29, 2007

I have to admit that I love this time of the year - NCAA Championship volleyball. I love getting the bracket and checking out all the match-ups. I love seeing where the Pac-10 teams are going and who they are playing. And, of course, I love to dissect the bracket and figure out which teams have the best chance to move forward.

As usual, all six Pac-10 teams that were eligible for NCAA tournament consideration were selected for the tournament, and five of those teams were seeded in the Top-16. Stanford has the good news/bad news scenario of being the top seed overall, surpassing both No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Nebraska for that honor. Stanford is tops in the all important RPI and have defeated more Top-10 teams than any other team in the country. But is being the top seed a good thing? In the past six years the No. 1 seed has won three times, including Nebraska last year. But Nebraska was the No. 1 seed in 2004 and 2005 as well and could not win in all. If you told Stanford they had a fifty percent chance of winning the NCAA Championship I think they would take it. There is always that notion that the top seed has a target on their back, but let's face it, Stanford always has a target on their back. USC is the No. 5 seed overall, Washington No. 6, UCLA No. 8 and California No. 10. Only Oregon, currently ranked 13th in the AVCA coaches poll, was not awarded a top 16 seed, likely due to their RPI of 37.

Stanford got the No. 1 seed but otherwise got no favors from the selection committee. They easily have the most difficult first and second round matches of the top four seeds, and perhaps of any seeded team. They do get to play at home throughout the championships which should prove to be a huge advantage. . . should. We cannot forget that only two years ago the Cardinal also had home court for the first four rounds but were stunned by Santa Clara in the second round. Yes, I know, Stanford was decimated by injuries in 2005 with setter Bryn Kehoe and outside hitter Cynthia Barboza out, but it was still a shock for the No. 5 overall seed to lose at home. And who does Stanford have to start off the 2007 national championships? Yep - Santa Clara. And with Minnesota lurking as a potential second round opponent the Cardinal will face a league co-champ from a strong conference (Santa Clara tied with San Diego atop the West Coast Conference) and the third place finisher from an always strong Big Ten. In fact, Minnesota has been to the Final Four twice in the past four seasons, losing to Stanford in the championship match in 2004. They also played Stanford earlier this season at home, with Stanford defeating Minnesota 3-1. I am sure that Minnesota coach Mike Hebert could not have predicted that his Golden Gopher team would be sent to Stanford for the first and second rounds when he scheduled that September match. This is not an easy start for the Cardinal.

And compare the three teams in Palo Alto this weekend with those headed to No. 3 seed Penn State. They will face Siena in the first round and then will be looking at either Albany (NY) or Cleveland State. The RPI for those three teams are 145 (Siena), 129 (Albany) and 99 (Cleveland State). The best team that Penn State could face, Cleveland State, has an RPI slightly higher than Washington State (101), a team that went 10-22 on the year. The RPI for Stanford's opponents? Santa Clara is 58, Sacramento State is 67 and Minnesota is 29. Nebraska, the No. 2 seed, has South Dakota State, Western Kentucky and Wichita State in their bracket, and No. 4 Texas hosts Texas State, LSU and New Mexico State. Texas State, New Mexico State, South Dakota State and Western Kentucky have never won a game in the NCAA tournament while Wichita State is 1-1. LSU is 10-8 overall but has not won a tournament game since 1992. Normally I blame the tougher schedule for the west coast teams on the regionalization of the NCAA tournament that began in earnest after 9/11, but Minnesota is certainly not a west coast team and did not need to be sent to Stanford. And while Stanford has a tough road early on it really sets up for them at Regionals. If they can get past the No. 16 seed, Cal Poly, either Kansas State, the No. 9 seed or No. 8 UCLA could be waiting. And neither of those teams can challenge Stanford. I am not convinced that Kansas State will come out of their bracket, and although UCLA should they have proved to be no match for the Cardinal this year. Everything sets up for Stanford to win it all - No. 1 seed, hosting the first four rounds, and playing the championships up the road in Sacramento in what should be a very pro-Stanford crowd. Their biggest question? Can they survive the first two rounds? The answer? There is no way that seniors Bryn Kehoe and Franci Girard and juniors Cynthia Barboza, Foluke Akinradewo and Erin Waller will lose at home in the first or second round. They will be challenged, and they will likely lose games, but the level of experience they have will secure them victories. This team will be in the Final Four.

Southern California also gets to host the first two rounds and then will go to Gainsville, Florida for Regionals. Florida dropped all the way to the No. 13 seed after losing to Long Beach last weekend - a team that USC may have to face to make it to Gainsville. Like Stanford, the Women of Troy will have more difficult first and second round matches than most, with Pepperdine, Long Beach and UNLV coming to Los Angeles. UNLV is making their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament but are talented. Long Beach is ranked No. 25 in the AVCA poll after their big win against Florida and Pepperdine is making their 10th appearance in the past 11 years, including a win at USC in 2005 and a trip to the Sweet 16. USC and Pepperdine faced each other earlier in the year with USC winning in three games in Los Angeles. USC is having a terrific year and have proven they can win big matches, especially at home. Since the Galen Center opened last season, the Women of Troy are 23-1 home, losing only to Stanford last year in their first match in the new arena. They have rattled off 23 straight wins, including 17-0 this year, and I do not think they will lose this weekend either. Long Beach will be playing with a lot of confidence after the Florida win and could put some real pressure on Southern California, but look for All-Pac-10 performers Asia Kaczor and Taylor Carico to lead the way, and with Diane Copenhagen finally back from her injury they could be playing the best they have all year.

The Gainsville Regional is the one most coveted by those not hosting this year, mostly due to the fact that Florida has not beaten a Top-10 opponent this year and are largely untested. No one wanted to be sent to Stanford or Penn State, and Wisconsin, the No. 7 seed, is very, very good at home. This leaves Florida, and being sent there is the good news for USC. Even better news is that Florida is on the other side of the bracket, so if the Women of Troy make it to Regionals they will likely face St. Johns, the No. 12 seed that won the Big East this season. St. John's did face USC earlier in the year when they traveled to LA in August and took a game off the Women of Troy, and they also have wins over Michigan State and Long Beach. But they have not played of team of this caliber for a very long time - Louisville is the other team from the Big East to make it to the NCAA tournament, but they are no USC. It would obviously be tougher to open against Florida on their home floor than against St. Johns on a neutral floor. That is where it is really going to get tough - either the No. 4 seed Texas or No. 13 Florida would stand in their way for a Final Four berth. I think Texas will beat Florida and set up the hotly contested No. 4 vs. No. 5 match which will be a terrific one. I have seen Texas twice this year and they are as physical as anyone in the country. They are huge at the net and have outstanding young players, especially Destinee Hooker, Ashley Engle and, with all due respect to Alix Klineman, the best freshman in the country in Juliann Faucette. USC will have their hands full in this one, and will need much more offense than just Kaczor as Texas has the size to neutralize her. The Women of Troy are looking to get back to the Final Four for the first time since they went three years in a row, winning twice, from 2002-2004.

Washington, the No. 6 seed, is looking for their fourth consecutive Final Four. To make it there they will have to do something they have not had to do the past three years - win a regional final on an opponent's home court. The Huskies hosted Regionals in both 2004 and 2006, and in 2005, the year they won the national championship, they were sent to College Station, Texas. However, Texas A&M did not make it out of the first round that year so their home gym became a neutral court for those in attendance. The Huskies have the luxury of hosting the first and second rounds and we all know that they just don't lose at home, at least not against teams outside the Pac-10. Since the start of the 2004 season, Washington has lost only two home matches - to USC in 2004 and this year to Stanford. I do like Missouri as they are tested, like Washington, night in and night out in the Big 12 and are used to playing with large, loud crowds. BYU has had the ability to win matches against highly ranked opponents the past couple of years, defeating No. 4 Stanford last year and No. 10 Wisconsin this season, but both of those matches were in Provo. Winning a match like that on the road is a much tougher proposition. The Huskies will cruise into the Elite 8.

Right when the brackets were made available the first thing I looked to see was if Washington and Penn State were in the same region. They have been two of the past three years and I just had a feeling, based on how the seeding might go that they could be facing each other again. And indeed, they were on a crash course again, but this time in State College. Penn State was sent to Seattle in both 2004 and 2006, each time as the favorite, and did not make it to the Final Four in either year. In 2004, UCLA upset Penn State so they did not face Washington in the regional finals, but they did face off last year in a match that Washington dominated. So now Washington has the tables turned - they will have to go to Penn State to make it to the Final Four. Before Penn State, however, the Huskies will most likely see the 11th seed Hawaii but could see Louisville if they can upset the Rainbow Wahine in Louisville in the second round. Hawaii has struggled this year against the Pac-10, losing to both Oregon State and UCLA at home in three games. They will have their hands full at Louisville for sure, and if they can make it to Regionals they will not make it past the Huskies. Washington is just too good and knows what it takes to win these big matches. That would set up the ultimate show down - Penn State verses Washington in State College. You have to think that is what Penn State wants and that is what their fans want - a change to avenge last year and take it to the Huskies on their home floor. Penn State is bigger and more physical; Washington is faster and has better ball control. Penn State does not have the seniors that Washington does, but the Huskies do have a freshman setter. Penn State's Megan Hodge, now a sophomore, struggled last year as a freshman in that match in Seattle as the Huskies put all kinds of pressure on her. How will Jenna Hagglund fare in the same situation? Her performance could be the difference between winning and losing, just as Hodge's was a year ago. I will be at Penn State working for ESPN and I hope it is a match I get to see.

I was somewhat surprised that UCLA was the No. 8 seed while California was the No. 10. UCLA struggled through much of this Pac-10 season, going only 9-9 which tied them with Oregon for fifth in the Conference. They lost their final match of the year to an Arizona team that amassed only four Conference wins all year and lost in October to Oregon State who won only three times in the Pac-10. They did start the season strong and had some good wins, but their last good win was back on October 5th when they beat USC. They do have a high RPI - 7th - and are still ranked No. 10 in the coaches poll. California finished three games ahead of UCLA in the Pac-10 standing and did not lose any matches in the Conference against teams that were not ranked nationally. Cal, however, did not play as difficult a non-conference schedule and their RPI reflects that as they are only 18th. Both teams will have to travel across the country to make their NCAA dreams come true.

UCLA does not have a difficult bracket for the first and second rounds with the possible exception of their potential second round match up with Clemson. Clemson is a terrific 28-3 on the year but has not played any ranked teams and are making their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1999. Just that UCLA across the front of the jerseys might be good for a few points. Clemson lost at home earlier this year to Furman and Purdue and I have a hard time imagining that they can defeat UCLA. If the Bruins get to the final 16 they will be back in familiar territory - at Stanford. There they could see the No. 9 seed Kansas State or possibly Oregon who could claim an upset in Manhattan, Kansas. This is where the Bruins will have to step up and see what type of team they have. They split the season with the Ducks so if they play Oregon it would be a toss up, and the same with Kansas State. The Bruin upperclassmen, in particular senior Rachell Johnson and juniors Nellie Spicer, Ali Daley and Kaitlin Sather will have to find a way to elevate their team and play their best. We have not seen the best from this team since very early in the year and if they can find it again for the end of the season they can be a force in the NCAA tournament.

California will head to Durham, North Carolina and Duke University for the first two rounds. The bad new for Cal is that they have to travel across the country, but the good news is that they see teams that have not played a difficult conference schedule. They start with Liberty, the Big South Conference champion, which will be a warm up for a much more competitive second match against Duke, the runner up in the ACC. Duke is ranked 22nd in the coaches poll and after being as high as 11th earlier this season and has seen some good competition this year. They beat Purdue at home and narrowly missed defeating USC in Los Angeles in a hard fought five-game loss. This match will be a challenge for California but one that I believe Cal will win. That would send them to Madison, Wisconsin for Regionals and a match-up with the No. 7 seeded Badgers. At a neutral site this would likely be a toss up, but Wisconsin has an unbelievable following and a very knowledgeable fan base and they will have the field house packed. I have been there each of the past three years and I can tell you that Cal will have to be ready for that atmosphere as there is nothing in the Pac-10 that can rival it. They had over 10,000 for their match with Penn State earlier this year and will likely have similar numbers with a Final Four berth on the line. This may be the best match of the first round of Regionals, as both teams have a case for being seeded even higher (meaning a lower number) than they were. All I know is that whoever survives that match will have an even greater challenge remaining as Nebraska will await the winner.

Oregon made the tournament for the second year in a row after missing the tournament for 16 years, but this year they have a decidedly different attitude. Last year's team was just happy to be in the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round to Hawaii. This year they feel they can and should win and they are in a bracket to do just that. Their first match is against Missouri State who finished the season in a three way tie for 2nd in the Missouri Valley Conference. The MVC received a record four berths in the NCAA tournament which came as a great surprise to me. Missouri State has played just one ranked team - conference foe Wichita State was 25th when they played - and has no significant wins on their record. They do have one opponent in common with Oregon, Kansas, who beat Missouri State but lost to the Ducks. This is a match that Oregon should easily win. Next up for the Ducks should be host Kansas State, the No. 9 overall seed. Oregon Coach Jim Moore is no stranger to K-State as he coached there from 1994-1996 and took the Wildcats to two NCAA tournaments. That familiarity may help the Ducks as they try to go where they have never been before - to the Sweet 16. Kansas State finished third in the always tough Big 12, although with six conference losses they were well behind co-champions Nebraska and Texas. This is one of those matches when I have to question the NCAA. Kansas State is ranked 11th in the coaches poll and Oregon 13th. To have two such highly ranked teams playing in just the second round of the NCAA tournament makes no sense to me and while it is unfair to Oregon, it is really unfair to Kansas State. I am sure they would love to trade seeds with No. 12 St. John's who play Long Island followed by Delaware or Princeton.

Oregon and K-State are both led by junior outside hitters that were born outside the United States. Oregon's Gorana Maricic, from Serbia, will go against Natalya Korobkova from Russia. Maricic led the Pac-10 in both kills per game and points per game while Korobkova was sixth in the Big 12 in kills per game and third in points. It should be a terrific match-up between players, and schools, both of whom play in major conferences and see great competition every night. The winner heads to Stanford and a possible meeting with UCLA - a place both of these teams would love to be.

I do love this time of year. I can't wait for the Final Four, and hope to see the Pac-10 well represented there. And I hope to see a Conference team celebrating another championship on December 15th.

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