2021 NCAA volleyball tournament – Previewing the Sweet 16, final four picks and more


Louisville continued its march to perfection. Longtime powerhouses Stanford and Penn State are out of the tournament. And by Saturday, we’ll know who is headed to the women’s volleyball final four in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 16-18.

The early round matches ended this past Saturday with 14 of the 16 seeds moving on, including the 30-0 Cardinals, who are No. 1 overall. Louisville and the other top-four seeds — Texas, Pitt and Wisconsin — host the regionals this week. The upset teams are Kansas, which beat No. 14 seed Creighton in the second round, and Illinois, which eliminated defending champion Kentucky, the No. 7 seed, in the same round.

Of the 16 teams remaining, four are past national champions: No. 2 Texas, No. 10 Nebraska, No. 13 UCLA and No. 15 Washington. (In volleyball, only the top 16 are seeded).

The NCAA has added a day between the semifinals on Thursday and the finals on Saturday this season as part of the overall effort to enhance the tournament and the student-athlete experience. The semifinals will start at 11 a.m. ET on Thursday, with all eight of those matched broadcast on ESPNU or ESPN+.

The four regional finals begin at 4 p.m. ET Saturday, and are all televised on ESPNU.

Our experts break down the first weekend of the tournament and look ahead to this coming weekend.

1. What surprised you from the first two rounds?

Mechelle Voepel: I can’t say anything was totally shocking. The tournament is set up to favor chalk advancing, and the two upsets were both by teams with past final four appearances: Illinois and Kansas. Admittedly, I’m not sure we expected the defending champions to go out in the second round, but Kentucky had a tough matchup with the Illini of the Big Ten.

Missy Whittemore: I’m actually surprised that the first two rounds were not full of surprises. Over the course of the season, I thought this might be the year of upsets, but the vast majority of seedings held true. Perhaps the regional pairings and home-court advantage will always make it difficult to upset the course of things.

Sam Gore: The most unexpected surprise was to see how Kansas handled Oregon and Creighton. Then again, Kansas head coach Ray Bechard is a brilliant tactician. It’s as if he sees each matchup as a chess match, and he looks for ways his team can expose and take advantage of any weakness in opponents. He’s incredible at X’s and O’s, and his scouting reports are well executed.

Eric Frede: The defending national champions not surviving to the regional semifinals has to qualify as a surprise. This means Florida is now alone carrying the banner for the SEC.

Alex Loeb: The Kansas Jayhawks have been one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament. A month ago, they were sitting at 12-11, having lost eight of nine and hadn’t beaten a ranked team all year. They’re a different team now, defeating the Nos. 19 and 20 teams in the first two rounds. Credit to head coach Ray Bechard. He has his team playing loose and carefree volleyball during the most pressure-packed time of the year.

Pat Sunderland: I thought that Washington State would offer a real challenge to Baylor, but without Jordan Timmer, not so much. I also expected Miami to take down Florida, which didn’t have T’ara Ceasar. Stanford-Minnesota seemed like more of a pick ’em, but the Gophers won easily.

Karch Kiraly: How few five-set matches there were in the second round — only two of the 16 went the distance. Maybe home-court advantage has a larger impact this season than normal. I was also surprised at defending champion Kentucky going down so quietly to the Big Ten’s seventh-place team, Illinois. Getting shellacked 25-10 in the third set was a stunner.

Salima Rockwell: There were so many fun matches the first two rounds, but I must say the way Raina Terry and the Illini beat reigning national champion Kentucky was remarkable. Kentucky was one of the hottest teams in the country coming into the tournament, on a 27-set win streak and primed to make a deep run. Illinois always had the potential to snag an upset along the way, but the manner in which the Illini did it was one of the most impressive performances of the tournament thus far.

Jenn Hoffman: I’m not surprised by any of the outcomes in the first two rounds. Reigning champion Kentucky showed its youth on the big stage, and the bright lights might have been too much to adjust to.

2. What quarterfinal matchup do you want to see most and why?

Voepel: Louisville vs. Georgia Tech: The ACC has never had a volleyball team win the NCAA title, but the league continues to grow in the sport. An all-ACC regional final would be another sign of that growth. Also, former conference rivals Texas and Nebraska have had so many big matches over the years, including last season’s 3-1 Longhorns victory in the Sweet 16. When these two meet, the history is always part of it.

Whittemore: Pittsburgh and BYU. I always like a good rematch. Pitt is the only blemish on BYU’s record, and this would be the chance for Pitt to go one step further than it did a year ago.

Gore: I don’t want to look past the regional semis yet because all 16 teams are capable of winning it all, but the Sweet 16 matchup I’m looking forward to most is Baylor-Minnesota. It’s a matchup of two of the top coaches in the country loaded with some of the nation’s most dynamic players. Hugh McCutcheon has a wealth of experience from coaching the U.S. Olympic team. Stephanie Samedy is an incredible talent who has seemingly turned Minnesota into a favorite each tournament. This season, the Gophers don’t carry the same expectations, but they are still loaded with enough talent to make a deep run. However, Ryan McGuire has put Baylor volleyball in the nation’s elite. He has a super senior-heavy team, one of the most exciting players in the game in Yossiana Pressley and a national champion in Avery Skinner.

Loeb: Pittsburgh-Purdue could be a really intriguing Elite Eight matchup. The Boilermakers have been a giant-killer this year with seven wins against top-25 squads, including four vs. the top 10. But Pittsburgh got a huge boost when All American Kayla Lund returned last weekend, and the Panthers will also have home-court advantage in front of a raucous crowd at Fitzgerald Field House.

Kiraly: Two of those would have extra spice: a Wisconsin-Baylor rematch from their first match over three months ago, which Wisconsin won 3-1; and a Texas-Nebraska showdown. We don’t get to see this fierce rivalry nearly as much as we used to — their last battles were last spring’s NCAA tourney win for Texas, and then splitting matches in 2016, with Texas winning in the final four.

Rockwell: Louisville-Ohio State. Louisville is still undefeated, and their training and preparation all season long is so impressive. Ohio State has won 11 out of its last 12 matches, and Jen Flynn Oldenburg has this group believing in themselves. And what more motivation could a team need than the very real potential of playing in the national championship at home? This has the potential to be a five-set thriller, and it would be surreal to see one of these two amazing former players and relatively new head coaches lead their team to the final four.

3. Which of the top four seeds is most in danger of not making it to Columbus?

Voepel: Texas might have to get past two other former national champions to make it to the final four: Washington and Nebraska. The good news for the Longhorns is that they are at home and they’re very hungry after last year’s NCAA final loss. The bad news is that the Huskies and the Huskers both could be formidable challengers.

Whittemore: Pitt. Whether the Panthers play BYU or Purdue, it will be a battle of big hitters, several of whom are super seniors with lots of experience. Of course, Pitt will have to first get past a red-hot Kansas team that happens to have a pretty good super senior of its own in Jenny Mosser.

Gore: For the first time I’ve been covering this sport, I can honestly say all top four seeds could be in danger. Of the 16 teams left, any one of them has the capability of beating anyone on a given night. It has been an interesting dynamic to see fifth- and sixth-year seniors mix with a freshman class — and most of these freshmen are skilled beyond any other freshman class in history. Teams are tremendously deep.

Frede: Pitt got past Penn State, so that was the first hurdle. Kansas is up next and then Pitt would face the winner of BYU-Purdue, so there are still some big obstacles to clear.

Loeb: For Pitt to make the final four, it will first have to get through a Kansas team that is on fire, coming off two major upsets last weekend. If the Panthers can accomplish that, they will then have to face either a Purdue team that has taken down a ton of ranked teams this season or a BYU squad that haas only lost once all year — to Pittsburgh back in September.

Sunderland: Pitt is the most vulnerable among the top four seeds. There’s a lot of uncertainty with Kayla Lund returning, but she was strong and excellent against Penn State. BYU is balanced and capable to upset Pitt.

Kiraly: I might say Pitt, because Kansas has nothing to lose after dropping only one set in two fierce upset wins. Because BYU is always dangerous and very well-coached by Heather Olmstead. And because Purdue survived a huge scare, down 2-0 but winning, and seems best in an underdog role — witness its two wins vs Big Ten champ Wisconsin.

Rockwell: Pitt. Purdue has proven its worth with some impressive wins this season, highlighted by two marquee wins vs. No. 4 Wisconsin. Rallying to beat Dayton 25-15, 25-6 and 15-5 in the last three sets not only showed their resolve, but also their ability to shift gears after being down. BYU has lost only one match this season, and that was a close one to Pitt in the beginning of the season. The Cougars been here before and were a few unforced errors from a potentially different outcome. The way they battled against Utah, albeit at home, was something that might give Pitt cause for concern if they meet again.

Hoffman: I’d say every top-four seed is in danger. This is a scary time to be undefeated in the tournament. Louisville has an extremely tall order to clear against Florida, and the Gators have all the weapons to make it a hard-fought battle.

4. Which low seed has the best chance of making the final four?

Voepel: I think many of us thought BYU was underseeded at No. 11. After a tough second-round victory over Utah, the Cougars enter the regional at Pitt at 30-1. And they might have a chance to avenge their only loss of the season if they face Pitt in the regional final.

Whittemore: As a lower seed, Minnesota has the best chance of making the semifinals. The Gophers are in a very tough region, but I think they will be hungry for a chance at revenge against Baylor and Wisconsin — both teams they lost to this season. Not to mention, they have Stephanie Samedy.

Gore: There is a strong case to be made for either Georgia Tech, Minnesota or BYU, but there’s no guarantee any of those teams wins its Sweet 16 match.

Frede: Washington has looked pretty good, but can the Huskies get back to the national semifinals by winning in Austin? That’s a tall order, but they’re playing well at tournament time again.

Loeb: BYU hasn’t lost a match in nearly three months, and if the Cougars are able to get past Purdue, which is a huge if, they will be battle tested and looking for revenge against a Pittsburgh team that handed them their only loss of the season.

Kiraly: No. 11 BYU. The Cougars got a lot better with transfer Kenzie Koerber. Her addition has given them multiple threats at both sidelines.

Rockwell: BYU has a number of attackers that can hurt its opponent, excellent block and defense and a fantastic setter In Whitney Bower running the show. It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but they have the potential to beat the rest of the teams in their path.

Hoffman: Minnesota has the best chance of making the semis simply because of its arduous schedule in the regular season. The Big Ten is a tough conference to play night after night. Six of the final 16 teams remaining are from that conference.

5. Who makes the final four?

Voepel: Louisville, BYU, Texas and Wisconsin.

Whittemore: If the first two rounds taught us anything, maybe we should trust the seeding. My final four teams are Louisville, Wisconsin, Pitt and Texas.

Gore: The top four seeds are seeded that way for a reason. Louisville, Texas, Pitt and Wisconsin are the favorites, and I’m sticking with them, but I can’t wait to see if they do it.

Frede: I’m sticking with my original pick until it’s wrong: Wisconsin, Louisville, Texas and Purdue.

Loeb: Louisville, Texas, Wisconsin and Purdue.

Sunderland: Texas, Wisconsin, Louisville and BYU.

Kiraly: I really like the recent change to hosted regionals — it adds a ton of energy and atmosphere to those third- and fourth- round matches. But that also means home-court advantage is a factor, so I’m going with the top four seeds advancing: Louisville, Texas, Pitt and Wisconsin.

Rockwell: Texas, Wisconsin, Purdue and Louisville.

Hoffman: Louisville, Minnesota, BYU and Texas.

6. Kentucky is out, meaning there will be a new national champion. Who will it be?

Voepel: Texas took the first set of the NCAA final last year and appeared on its way to the program’s third national championship. But Kentucky derailed that, winning the next three. The Longhorns are seemingly always in the mix to win it all, and maybe this will be their year again.

Whittemore: In the end, I think Texas gets another shot, and with Logan Eggleston as its steady anchor, the Longhorns walk away as national champions.

Gore: Louisville has an excellent blend of experience and top-level freshmen. The Cardinals are a team with tremendous composure, and handling the moment is just as important as talent at this stage of the tournament. No one has been able to beat them. They have stayed calm and determined, and I don’t see that changing. It will take a team that plays an incredible, overpowering match to upend them. No one has been able to do that, although Texas has the capability of playing at that level.

Frede: The national championship trophy stays in Kentucky. Louisville claims the crown.

Loeb: Texas’ entire core is back from a squad that nearly won it all last season. They have six All-Americans, and the bitter taste of defeat from last year’s national championship match has provided motivation all season long. Just getting there won’t suffice this time.

Sunderland: It’s a numbers thing. Texas last won in 2012, and the Longhorns will win again in 2021. Logan Eggleston is this year’s Alli Stumler.

Kiraly: Who cares what the predictions are? This is an epic time of year for any volleyball fan. Still, Texas and Wisconsin have suffered so much, been so close to the summit — three runners-up for Texas and two for Wisconsin in the last eight finals — that I give them a small edge. I can empathize; our USA women also suffered, coming up short in 11 previous Olympics before breaking through in Tokyo this year. Since Texas has suffered more, I lean slightly to the Horns.

Rockwell: Winning the title is no easy feat, but all of the teams that win have one thing in common: left sides that can terminate both in and out of system. In my mind, the two most consistent left sides come from Texas. Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields are hitting .307 and .339, respectively, on the season and have prove they can get it done no matter where the set is coming from on the court. Combine that with the motivation from losing in the finals last season, the improvement in service pressure and the rest of the offensive weapons they have at every position. I think Texas is ready to finally run it back in 2021.

Hoffman: My heart is with Louisville.

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