Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Oct. 18, 2006
Six things that are true about Pac-10 volleyball:
1. Stanford is in the best position to win the Pac-10 championship
Stanford came up huge this weekend when it went to Los Angeles and came away with two wins, giving USC and UCLA their first losses of the season. It may have seemed that the Cardinal were the underdog in both matches - if you looked at national rankings, or looked at each team's record - but I felt that Stanford was the favorite at USC and the UCLA match was a toss up. The only hope for the Women of Troy was to use the grand opening of the Galen Center as a way to play above their abilities and to hopefully have the Cardinal play below theirs. And yes, USC started strong with a 5-0 run in game one that had the 5,000 in attendance thinking big. But it was all Stanford after that as the Cardinal outscored USC 30-16 the rest of the way in game one and rarely trailed again in the match. Stanford beat USC in every statistical category, had four players register double digit kills (to only one for USC) and hit .316 on the night. Stanford showed they were just a better team, top to bottom, than the Women of Troy that night. The UCLA match was another story, with two evenly matched teams playing their hearts out to get a win. After four games each team had scored the same number of points and were neck and neck statistically. However, the turning point in the match came with Stanford holding a 5-4 lead in game five - the Cardinal went on a 4-0 run to get some separation. UCLA battled back to get within two points at 12-10 but Stanford scored the final three to get the win.
The reason why Stanford is in the driver's seat for the Pac-10 championship is that it has already been on the road for most of its toughest matches. The only ranked team left for the Cardinal to play on the road is California on November 3. Stanford's only conference loss so far was at Washington, and it will get to host the Huskies, the Bruins and the Women of Troy during the second half of Pac-10 play. Stanford is very good at home, losing only four conference home matches in the past five years. It will be a battle, but Stanford's wins this weekend put them in very good position.
2. California is the best sixth place team in the nation.
It is hard to imagine that a team could be ranked No. 8 in the nation with a losing conference record and sitting at sixth place in their conference standings. But, that is the case with the Golden Bears of Cal. Cal has lost four times, all in conference play, and only to teams ranked ahead of them nationally. Oh, did I mention - they were all on the road. Talk about a tough schedule. The Pac-10 scheduling department did no favors for Cal when this schedule came out. Now that it is past this rough stretch they have, along with travel partner Stanford, the most favorable part of its schedule upcoming. It hosts the Oregon schools this weekend, after which is the halfway point of conference play. Then its only remaining travel is to Arizona and Oregon, which features three teams at the bottom of the conference and the upstart Ducks. Look for Cal to rack up some wins against the bottom of the conference and then see what they can do when it hosts the top of the conference in November.
3. Oregon will make the NCAA tournament.
After this weekend I am convinced the Ducks are headed to the NCAA tournament. They still have some work to do, but already with four conference wins they are in position to do what they have not done since 1989 - taste the postseason. This is what Oregon must do. It must beat both the Beavers and Cougars when it plays them back to back on October 27 and November 2. That would give the Ducks six conference wins and would assure them of a winning record at the end of the year. The last time a Pac-10 team finished the year with an overall winning record and did not get an invitation to the NCAA tournament was back in 1996 when UCLA was 17-14 overall, 9-9 in conference play and missed the tournament for the first time in school history. Oregon State also had a winning record that year (19-12) but were left at home as well. If the Ducks did not win another match they might be a bubble team - no Pac-10 team has gone to the tournament with only six conference wins. Only twice have teams with 7 wins received at-large berths - it was California both times, back in 1988 and again in 2002. But, a win at Arizona or Arizona State would get that needed win, and they proved this weekend they can and should beat those teams. The only thing working against Oregon is the lack of a quality win. They did beat Long Beach in the preseason, and it is helping Oregon that the 49ers are having a good year in the not-so-strong WAC and getting points in the AVCA poll. But one win over one of the ranked teams in the Pac-10 would cement the Ducks place in the postseason.
4. No team from Arizona will make the NCAA tournament.
Either Arizona or Arizona State has been in the NCAA tournament every year since 1992, but that streak is about to end. Both teams have fallen off the pace they needed to set to have their best chance at postseason play. Arizona needed two wins last week in Oregon - it got one. At least the Wildcats have one in the win column but they have a lot of catching up to do if they want to be eligible for NCAA play. At 10-9 overall they would have to play the rest of the season at .500 or higher, and with 11 matches remaining that means going 6-5 the rest of the way. They still have to play Washington twice and the other highly ranked teams - Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA once. That is six matches against team ranked in the top eight nationally, so in order to get 6 wins they will need to upset someone on that list and not drop another match along the way. That is a lot to ask of this young Wildcat team that has tasted success only once this conference season. Arizona State has two conference wins and a 10-8 record, so they have a little more room for error. The Sun Devils could, theoretically, go 5-6 the rest of the way and still have a winning overall record. So every match they play against the unranked teams in the conference is a must win unless they can upset a ranked opponent. The bottom line for both teams is this - even if they can somehow scrape together a winning record, will it be enough? Arizona has a win over a ranked opponent this year (they beat No. 12 Louisville, at Louisville) which will help them, and to get a winning record they would need a second. ASU, on the other hand, has no wins over ranked opponents. They did compete well against Purdue, losing in five, and the selection committee will look at teams that 'play up' to better competition. But, realistically, it is a long shot for either of these teams to be in the NCAA conversation. And sorry Northern Arizona - you are not getting in either.
5. The Pac-10 will send at least two teams to the Final Four.
Probably Stanford and UCLA, but Washington has an outside shot since they get to host one of the four regionals. The Pac-10 and the Final Four has been synonymous. This conference has had at least one team in the Final Four every year since 1999 and in those seven years sent two or more teams three times. On three separate occasions teams from the Pac-10 played for the National Championship. In 1992 Stanford defeated UCLA to win it all, and in 1994 the same two teams battled it out with the same result. In 2002 Stanford again faced a conference foe, losing to USC in the title match. This year will once again be an opportunity for the Pac-10 to show that playing the caliber of teams you see night in and night out in this conference prepares teams for the rigors of the NCAA tournament.
Also, the experience factor goes a long way in determining the National Champion each year. It took Washington a few years, and some disappointment, to get where its team had the experience on the floor to win it all. Ditto USC in 2002 and 2003. Both No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Penn State are relying on freshman setters to run their teams, and freshman setters don't lead their teams to NCAA championships very often. It certainly isn't impossible, as we learned in 2004 when Stanford won it all with freshman setter Bryn Kehoe at the helm. But the fact that Stanford, UCLA and Washington have outstanding setters and experienced players at every position give them an edge over teams with less experience. Last weekend was a perfect example of experience paying off when Stanford beat USC in Los Angeles when the Women of Troy had so much to play for. USC has great players, but less experience in key positions which will hurt them this year. The best news is that inexperience does not last, and the young players will not be young forever. But for now, look for the teams with the most experience to rise to the top of the conference, and the country.
6. Pac-10 volleyball is the best in the country.
Five straight National Championships. Enough said.