How do the Huskies stack up against the remaining contenders?
- Fri, Dec 11 | 4:30PM | #1 Washington vs. #14 Ohio State | ESPN 3
Washington enters the Sweet 16 ranked #1 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann
AVCA coaches rank Washington number one in the nation. NCAA tournament seeders say the Huskies are #5. The convoluted RPI has UW down at #9.
So now that 64 have been pared to 16, how should the rest of us rank the Huskies against the remaining field?
This season, your Volleyblog correspondents had a chance to watch 11 of the remaining 16 either in person or on the tube. We've only missed Hawai'i, Texas, Ohio State, Kansas and Creighton. With those glaring absences in mind, here's how the other 11 stack up:
TOP CONTENDERS: Washington, USC, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Every team that advances to the third round has talent. From here on, the margins are thin, and teams that prevail usually share one ingredient: players with grit. All four of these schools—two each from the Pac-12 and Big Ten—have refuse-to-lose athletes, players who find a way to win when the score is tied at 23.
Each of the four has what should be First Team All-Americans: Washington middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon, USC outside hitter Samantha Bricio (the likely Player of the Year,) Minnesota outside hitter Daly Santana and Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini.
Of the four, Washington has the most balance. If Bricio or Santana have an off night, their teams can struggle. Carlini is sometimes far better than her hitters. But while Sybeldon is the nation's best middle, she is only one of many weapons for the Huskies, any of whom have shown they can pick up the slack when a teammate isn't clicking. Outside hitter Tia Scambray has been particularly impressive as matches wear on, rarely revealing disappointment when she makes an error.
And although Washington libero Cassie Strickland gets overlooked when postseason awards are tallied, there are few athletes on the remaining 16 teams who can get to a ball better than she can. The Huskies have a knack for frustrating opposing hitters by keeping the ball in play for impossibly long stretches.
POSSIBLE BREAKTHROUGHS: Penn State, UCLA, BYU, Nebraska
Just like last postseason, Washington, BYU and Nebraska are all in the same regional, easily the toughest of the four. BYU has several players back from last season's national runner-up team, a group that defeated Nebraska on its way to the Final Four.
Last season, BYU was coached by National Coach of the Year Shawn Olmstead, assisted by his sister, Heather Olmstead. Since then, Shawn has shifted over to coaching the BYU men, while Heather has guided the Cougars to another impressive season. BYU is disciplined and patient, and its ability to play with abandon was a big asset last season. But 6-7 All-American Jen Hamson has graduated, and that might be too big a hole to fill for another Final Four run.
That said, Nebraska looks vulnerable. Although the team is loaded with talent, it tends to play tight when under duress. The Cornhuskers' passing is not as consistent as the elite teams, meaning Nebraska could have a tough time getting past BYU. With the Final Four in Omaha, the NCAA will not be disappointed if the Huskers find a way to advance.
It's odd not to list Penn State as a favorite: The Nittany Lions are two-time defending champs and have won 6 of the past 8 titles. This year's team is young and has lost twice to Nebraska, and once each to Minnesota, Ohio State and *cough, cough* Northwestern. Not a bad season, especially with wins over Stanford, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin, but still below the Final Four lock of previous years.
FINAL FOUR LONGSHOTS: Loyola-Marymount, Florida, Illinois
LMU beat UCLA at the beginning of the season and Stanford last weekend. The Lions are quick and—here's that phrase again—play with abandon. Loyola could beat Kansas, but if they face USC, we doubt they'll make it 3-for-3 against Pac-12 powers.
Florida has one impressive win: a 3-2 preseason upset against Texas in Austin. Otherwise, the Gators finished fourth in the SEC—a conference without any other teams still standing. Wisconsin defeat Florida easily.
Kudos to Illinois for making it this far. The Illini beat ACC champ Louisville to start the season, and did it again this weekend, knocking the last of that conference's contenders out of the tournament. But Illinois lost 12 times this year, with no other notable wins. Head coach Kevin Hambly is a good friend (and former BYU teammate) of Minnesota's Hugh McCutcheon, but McCutcheon's Gophers should end Hambly's season.
EDUCATED GUESSES: Hawai'i, Texas, Ohio State, Kansas and Creighton
For the five teams we haven't seen, we assume Texas is a contender, especially since they'll play their regional at home. But the Longhorns play in the weak Big-12, so its record is always a poor predictor of postseason performance (which, of late, has been pretty solid.) That said, we'll guess Wisconsin beats the 'Horns in the Elite 8.
Hawai'i has thumbed its nose at the RPI (and the tournament selection committee) by traveling to Texas (instead of Seattle, for once), and emerging with wins over TCU and Texas A&M. So much for that RPI of 26, not to mention vindication for to the AVCA poll ranking the Wahine at #7. Now the 'Bows face AVCA's #8, Penn State. And to tell the truth, a lot of folks will be rooting for .
Kansas is the only Big-12 team other than Texas to advance, but the Jayhawks don't have any impressive wins despite just two losses, both to the Longhorns. Creighton got a surprise #16 seed, but didn't bid to host the first two rounds. It's season will end when it faces USC.
And then there's Ohio State, Washington's next opponent. The Buckeyes have 9 losses this season, including Wyoming, Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State, among others. Wins against Florida State, Arizona, Wisconsin and Nebraska are notable, but OSU was 4-6 in its last 10 regular season matches. On paper, Washington should win.
But, of course, they don't play on paper.
- 13 of AVCA's top 16 teams advanced to the third round. Only #6 Stanford, #13 Colorado State and #15 Texas A&M missed the cut. Likewise, only three of the NCAA's seeded teams were eliminated: #8 Stanford, #10 Texas A&M and #15 Louisville. The RPI overestimated four: #6 Texas A&M, #12 Stanford, #13 Western Kentucky and #16 Arkansas State, but was a poor predictor of Hawaii's success, pegging it as #26.
- Broadcasts for the first two rounds were disappointingly uneven. BYU-TV and several Big Ten Network matches had decent production values and competent announcers. But the Pac-12 Network passed on covering their teams, and many of the Pac-12 athletic department-produced online streams were downright awful. We reserve a special raspberry for Stanford, which offered the bare minimum in both video and announcing. Washington had one announcer but needed two, and its fans deserve a live score graphic throughout the match.