The final four is set. Louisville, Wisconsin, Pitt and Nebraska will vie for the 2021 NCAA volleyball championship.
Louisville is seeking college volleyball’s first perfect season since Penn State had two undefeated seasons (2008, 2009) in a four-year dynasty from 2007 to 2010. The 32-0 Cardinals have dropped just one set throughout the tournament thus far.
Trying to stop them is fourth-seeded Wisconsin, which ranks third in the country in assists per set, thanks to Sydney Hilley. The Big Ten champs haven’t won an NCAA title, although the Badgers were runners-up in 2019, 2013 and 2000.
On the other side of the bracket, 30-3 Pitt was recently boosted by the return of Kayla Lund. The grad student and two-time ACC Player of the Year totaled five kills in a quarterfinal win over Purdue.
The Panthers will not be playing second-seeded Texas, but rather 10th-seeded Nebraska, which upset the Longhorns in the Elite Eight on Saturday. The Cornhuskers, who won titles in 2015 and 2017, look to get back to the top thanks to junior Madi Kubik, who has double-digit kills in six of her past seven matches.
Our analysts break down what happened in regionals and look ahead to the final four, which begins Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Let’s break down Texas-Nebraska. What went wrong for the Longhorns?
Mechelle Voepel: Texas played with fire in getting down 2-0 in both of its regional matches, and then got burned. The Longhorns were able to scramble out of danger against Washington, but not against Nebraska. And so we have another season of missed potential for Texas
It’s kind of hard to find a comparison in other college sports to what we’ve seen with Texas volleyball over the past decade. The Longhorns won the NCAA title in 2012, and they’ve been good enough every season since to win it again. They’ve been to three championship matches and two other final fours in that stretch, but still haven’t won the program’s third overall title.
You could say it’s similar to UConn’s current run of 13 consecutive women’s Final Four appearances, except the Huskies have won six of those titles. The frustration level at Texas — to keep being so close, but tripped up before the finish line — has to be enormous.
Paul Sunderland: If you pass poorly, which Texas did all match, life is hard, even with all the weapons the Longhorns had. They just made the match so difficult on themselves. Still, credit Nebraska for excellent serving and strong, steady defense.
Missy Whittemore: I think the Texas-Nebraska match is not so much a matter of what went wrong for the Longhorns as it is what went right for the Cornhuskers: serving and passing. Combine that with the solid play of their freshmen who played well beyond their years, and it was the perfect recipe for an upset.
Karch Kiraly: Passing went wrong for the Longhorns — they were passing in system at about 46%; against Nebraska, they were at 17%, close to one-third their normal level. It was actually amazing they kept it as close as they did, a credit to Skylar Fields and Logan Eggleston, who had to take most of those broken-play swings.
Jenn Hoffman: The Longhorns lost the serve and pass game against Nebraska. The Longhorns have been inconsistent the entire year when it comes to it, and against Nebraska, they had 14 service errors, and passing woes kept their offense predictable at the most inopportune times. Nebraska freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst showed up when it counted and made big-time swings to give her squad the edge.
How is this year’s Nebraska team different from championship teams of the past?
Voepel: The Huskers have just taken a little longer to find themselves this season, due both to youth and injuries. But in the postseason, they became a major threat. With Stanford and Penn State out of the tournament after the first weekend, Nebraska remained as the most successful program, championship-wise, in the field. Coach John Cook has been in charge for four of the Huskers’ five NCAA titles, and he was able to bring this team through some of its rough times — such as consecutive losses to Utah, Stanford and Louisville in September — to be ready for when it matters most.
Sunderland: Nebraska is not nearly as good offensively as in its recent championship years. The Huskers start three freshmen — two in vital attacking roles. That said, Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst broke through against Texas. They were as incredible as anyone. If they can come close to that level of performance in the semis, look out.
Whittemore: While Nebraska has always been a great defensive team, I think this edition of the Cornhuskers might be even more dependent on its defense. The question is whether or not they can convert enough of those digs into kills. That will go a long way in determining the outcome of their season.
Kiraly: This year’s Nebraska team doesn’t have a superstar outside hitter like Jordan Larson or Mikaela Foecke, but the Huskers have all of what they need to win, especially on the defensive side, with Lexi Rodriguez & Co.
What does Louisville need to do to finish off a perfect season?
Voepel: The Cardinals are facing a tough defensive team with more size in Wisconsin in the semifinals. Great passing means a lot in trying to overcome the Badgers’ block. Louisville also has the advantage of a versatile attack, with five players who have at least 200 kills. The Cardinals don’t have the final four experience that the Badgers do, but Louisville has played with tremendous confidence all season. If the Cardinals can keep that mojo going, they can win it all.
Sunderland: Louisville has had a wonderful season and is the best all-around team in the tournament. Wisconsin is another beast, however, because of its length and talent. The Cardinals’ middles are very strong, but how can they match up with Dana Rettke?
Whittemore: Louisville just has to be Louisville: diverse, determined and disciplined. The Cardinals have the offense, the defense and the leadership to match up with anyone. I think their biggest test actually comes in the semifinals against Wisconsin.
Kiraly: It won’t be easy, but Louisville has risen to all challenges so far. But how will the Cardinals respond if they fall down 2-1 in sets, or even 2-0? They haven’t faced deficits like those yet this season; they’ll have to respond with poise and grit, and I believe they’re capable of doing just that.
Hoffman: Louisville needs to not think it needs to change anything. The Cardinals’ passing game is airtight with Elena Scott leading the way. They are balanced in their attack and never let teams go on runs. What sets them apart is that they have been consistent the entire year. With a team like Wisconsin, they will need a lot of discipline to go against the duo of Dana Rettke and Sydney Hilley.
What has Pitt learned about itself in its two regular-season losses to Louisville?
Voepel: It was big psychological boost to beat seven-time national champion Penn State in the second round. It wasn’t an upset — Pitt is the better team this year — but it gave the Panthers the belief that no one was going to stop them on the way to this final four. And when they had to beat another Big Ten team in the regional final, Purdue, Pitt didn’t get rattled, even after the Boilermakers tied the match 1-1. The way the Panthers rolled through the fourth set to a 25-15 victory and final four berth showed how confident they were by that point.
Sunderland: The Panthers have learned a lot about themselves. Like Louisville, they are solid and balanced. I like the insertion of Rachel Fairbanks. Pitt is vertically challenged, however, and it is going to be tough when the Panthers match up against Nebraska’s size, especially if Kayla Lund is not 100 percent.
Whittemore: It was clear Pitt had the offense, but more importantly, the Panthers might have proved to themselves that they have the defense to win the championship as well. Many did not expect them to come out of their region, and for Pitt, which loves to play with a chip on its shoulder, that underdog mentality seems to suit them just fine.
Kiraly: The Panthers just needed to get outside hitter Kayla Lund back to health. It appears they managed that quite well, holding her out of that second Louisville match and a number of others, then playing her back row only in the first round before she ramped it back up vs. Penn State.
Hoffman: I don’t think Pitt learned anything about itself. The Panthers were playing without Kayla Lund, and Dan Fisher might have wanted to see his team perform without its floor general. Leketor Member-Meneh has been Pitt’s go-to attacker, and I don’t expect for her to waver as her team fights for a championship. If anything, Pitt maybe taught the world to not count it out.
Which player has the best chance at being named the Most Outstanding Player of the final four?
Voepel: Is it finally Wisconsin’s turn to win a title? Perhaps, and if so, it could be Dana Rettke’s ultimate moment to shine as the final four’s star.
Sunderland: I would go with Sydney Hilley for tournament MVP. She’s experienced, talented and an excellent leader — similar to Madison Lilley last year for Kentucky.
Whittemore: Choosing a most outstanding player is very difficult, but I am going to narrow my options to six rotation players because I have so much respect for setters and hitters who are asked to pass in every rotation. With that being said, I’m going with the small but mighty Leketor Member-Meneh of Pitt. If she can match the performance she had against Purdue, the Panthers have a real chance — not to mention the fact that she is so much fun to watch.
Hoffman: Tori Dilfer. What she has done for the Louisville Cardinals on and off the court has been remarkable. Her style of play, her strong instincts, her consistency and composure in pressure situations is why they are where they are. The coaching staff labels her a coach on the floor and her decision-making is rarely questioned. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Pitt have their fair share of talent worthy of taking home MOP honors, but Dilfer is nothing short of amazing.
What is your championship prediction?
Voepel: Experience doesn’t always add up to titles, but we’ll go with it here. Wisconsin will beat Nebraska for the championship.
Sunderland: Wisconsin over Nebraska, but very close. Wisconsin won both regular-season meetings, but the second in Madison was a pick ’em. Dana Rettke is unstoppable in the front row, and she gives Wisconsin the edge.
Whittemore: Since this seems to be the year of the ACC, I’m taking Louisville over Pitt in the championship. Two ACC teams in the finals for the first time ever and Dani Busboom Kelly will become the first woman coach to take home the trophy in undefeated fashion. What can I say? I like fairytale endings.
Kiraly: Louisville has such an impressive résumé: beating Pitt twice, Nebraska once, plus three wins over Georgia Tech and another victory over Purdue. It would be a great story to see Louisville close out the season undefeated. I think Nebraska has a slight edge over Pitt in the other semi thanks to its defense.
Hoffman: Louisville and Nebraska met early in the regular season. They are comparable teams on paper and offensively. Louisville, though, ranks second in the nation in blocks per set, and that will win the Cardinals a national championship.