Thursday, December 20, 2012

NCAA | What we learned from the 2012 Final Four

Lessons from Louisville for next year’s host: Seattle

We’re back from 12 days in the Midwest, soaking up Sweet 16/Elite 8 volleyball in Omaha, the Final Four in Louisville, with a few days in Chicago in between. Here’s what we learned:

Seattle—host of the next Final Four—has its work cut out for it

Louisville was the eighth Final Four we’ve covered since 2004, and it was neither the best nor the worst.

An Oregon fan cheers her Ducks in Louisville
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

On the plus side, Louisville has a great arena and decent hotels and restaurants. On the minus side, it’s one of those cities that has not yet succeeded in bringing housing—and therefore vibrancy—to its downtown. The place felt kind of empty at night and on weekends.

The KFC Yum! Center (Lordy, what a name) is a gleaming new (2010) sports arena which seats 22,000. The championship match crowd of more than 16,000 was impressive considering the 10th-seeded hometown team was upset in the second round by eventual semifinalist Michigan. It was, in fact, the second-largest crowd in NCAA Volleyball championship history, trailing only Omaha.

"Yum!" is the actual name of the Louisville corporation which owns
several fast food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut.
Even so, they serve hometown Papa John's Pizza at the arena.
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Seattle’s Key Arena is neither new nor gleaming, but it can hold 17,000 fans, and offers a more intimate feel than some of the recent championship arenas. (San Antonio is a great city for championships, but the Alamodome is built for football, not court sports like volleyball.) Seattle’s downtown is a fun and lively place to be before and after big events like a national championship.

The calendar dictated that this year’s championship fell on December 15, the earliest possible date. In Seattle, it will move back to December 21, the latest possible date. That could be a problem.

As you might imagine, air travel is more expensive and crazy during Christmas week. While legions of Nebraska fans buy up tickets far in advance when the Final Four is held in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska or Florida, they might wait until the last second to decide whether to head up to the Northwest.

2013 will be only the second time in 9 years (Sacramento 2007) that the Final Four is west of the Central time zone. It should be an opportunity for west coast fans to get a rare glimpse of the championships in person. In other words, why wait? Buy your tickets now. Could be one of the most memorable holiday gifts you’ll ever buy.

And the host in 2014? Oklahoma City, of course … in the same arena which now houses the team formerly known as the Sonics.

Oregon has its work cut out for it

The Ducks made a valiant run to the championship match, only to be folded, stapled and mutilated by a strong, disciplined Texas team.

Oregon coach Jim Moore will have to replace two star hitters in 2013
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Next season, Oregon will be without National Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma and sparkplug Katherine Fischer. In many ways, the Ducks may miss Fischer more than Bergsma; Fischer was smart, fearless and resilient, providing Oregon with the energy it needed for its back-to-back upsets of Nebraska and Penn State.

All-Americans Lauren Plum and Liz Brenner will return, along with powerful middle Ariana Williams. Brenner, who will be a junior, is the best of the three. She plays with rare abandon and endless energy. In the six Oregon matches we saw in person this season, we found Plum to be talented, but moody, especially when her team fell behind.

In most other conferences, Oregon would be a lock to finish first or second. In the Pac-12, replacing two starting hitters will be a major challenge.

That said, Oregon fans would be silly not to build on this season’s enthusiasm … and ought to be gobbling up tickets to the Seattle Final Four as soon as possible.

The thin line between winning and losing

After witnessing nine tournament matches in person (three each in Seattle, Omaha and Louisville), we were struck by a couple of patterns.

Michigan played--and danced--with enthusiasm against eventual champion Texas
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
When two elite teams went head-to-head, one team usually stopped being aggressive when it slipped behind late in the match. Strong athletes starting tipping when they should have been pounding. Great servers started handing lollipops to the opponent’s best passer. Big outside hitters grew timid after being blocked.

Oregon's Katherine Fischer (12) never quit
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Top coaches like to say that—at the highest levels—volleyball is more mental than physical. We humans hate to feel embarrassed, especially in front of a huge crowd and a national television audience. Too often, we start avoiding mistakes instead of taking risks.

That, in a nutshell, is how Michigan—with just one big star—beat a loaded Stanford team and nearly beat an even more loaded Texas team. The Wolverines stayed loose, even dancing between sets. They played as if worrying about losing was the furthest thing from their minds. And they almost didn’t lose.

That’s also how Fischer and Brenner played against Nebraska and Penn State, they simply refused to be affected by bad plays. Against Penn State, Fischer had an absolutely horrible first set, but never stopped attacking and never dwelled, even when she was pulled twice from the lineup.

Fischer never quit against Texas, either. We knew the Ducks were roast, however, when Brenner started tipping.

For more of our analysis of the Omaha and Louisville, please read our posts for The Seattle Times and The Eugene Register-Guard:

  • The sites for the 2013 regionals will be Los Angeles (USC), Lexington (University of Kentucky), Gainesville (University of Florida) and Champaign (University of Illinois). Seattle (University of Washington) is one of three announced sites for the 2014 regionals.
  • As some of you know, we are producing a one-hour volleyball documentary, to premiere in conjunction with the 2013 Final Four. While in Louisville, we interviewed a number of volleyball luminaries for the documentaries. We’ll update you in the weeks ahead about the program’s progress, including how you can make a tax-deductible contribution to support the production.
  • Wonder what we were doing in Chicago? We’re also authors of the nonfiction book, On American Soil. Roy Montgomery, one of the real-life subjects of the book, passed away on December 6, and we attended his funeral in Chicago. Mr. Montgomery was a real hero, a sentiment expressed at the service by his grandson, former Seattle Sonic Kendall Gill. Please see:
Roy Montgomery, wrongly convicted in POW’s lynching, dies at 91, by Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times 

Roy Montgomery, man exonerated in 1944 Fort Lawton case, dies at 91, by Casey McNerthney, 

Funeral scheduled for last of 28 wrongfully convicted in WWII riot, by Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune


  1. How would one go about acquiring tickets for next year's championship? I want to be there like nobody's business!

    1. The NCAA uses Ticketmaster. You can click through the NCAA site at!tickets

      ... or try directly at:

  2. Is there any news on Amanda Gil's request to the NCAA to play another year?

  3. Jack, love the blog! Will you be doing a "state of the program" analysis for the UW team in the near future? I'd love to know what your thoughts are for 2013 for this team - seems like it should be pretty good, given the youth this year. Thanks!


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