NCAA women's volleyball: Five storylines to follow as the regular season winds down
Nearly 80 days ago, the women’s volleyball season kicked off with a bang when Florida upended No. 1 Texas in four sets. Since then, it’s been a rollicking ride, but the regular season is reaching its end soon, which means things are going to start getting dramatic as stakes get higher. Let’s take a look at a few of the best storylines from around the country as we near tournament season:
1. Who will stop Penn State?
Or, really, the question could be can anyone stop Penn State? The Nittany Lions haven’t been ranked No. 1 for weeks by accident: they’ve lost just once this year (to a very talented Nebraska team) and are currently riding a 14-match win streak. They haven’t dropped two sets in a month. They handed Stanford two of its three losses this season. They have seven ranked wins. They haven’t lost on the road or at neutral sites.
Ali Frantti with a monster block!! pic.twitter.com/5htAfkJRX9— PennStateVolleyball (@PennStateVBALL) November 9, 2017
Alright, we’ll stop there. The point’s been made: Russ Rose’s team is in fine form, just as it’s been all season long. Led by seniors Ali Frantti and Simone Lee, PSU has the combination of talent and veteran leadership every coach dreams of, and the Nittany Lions should be the top seed in this fall’s tournament. They have as good a chance as any team in the country at emerging from the maelstrom victorious.
2. The Big 10 continues its supremacy
Last season, the Big 10 earned just three spots in the NCAA tournament’s quarterfinal matchups, and didn’t have a representative in the championship match. It wasn’t necessarily a down year for volleyball’s strongest conference — after all, Nebraska was the tournament’s No. 1 seed — but there was room for improvement.
Fast forward nearly a calendar year, and three of the best teams in the country — arguably the three best teams — all call the Big 10 home.
The triumvirate of Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota — Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the NCAA Selection Committee's rankings revealed on Nov. 1 — along with Wisconsin, an “any given night” kind of squad, make Big 10 volleyball’s decided powerhouse. Depending on how tournament seeding shakes out, the conference could have four or more teams in this year’s quarterfinals (don’t sleep on Michigan State), and an appearance in the championship seems highly likely.
3. Eyeing a few dark horses
Last season, 10-seed UCLA used a favorable tournament path to its advantage, knocked off No. 7-seed UNC, and made it all the way to the quarterfinals before falling to Minnesota. Unseeded Creighton upended 5-seed Kansas and 12-seed Michigan before losing to Texas in the quarters. Florida State and Arizona reached the third round by toppling top-10 seeds.
The regular season is regular for a reason; when the postseason begins, anything can happen. Here are three teams who could make life hard for the top seeds:
BYU: As is often the case, the Cougars have proven (along with San Diego) to be the cream of the West Coast conference crop, meaning they've coasted to a 23-2 record. The early-season Baylor loss is a big reason they are ranked behind six-loss Michigan State in the latest AVCA coaches poll, but the Cougars are very much for real.
Creighton: Creighton made noise as an unseeded team in the tournament last year, and this year the Bluejays are a 20-win team that can’t fly under the radar anymore. Their RPI ranks in the Top 15, they have 13 wins in their last 14 matches, and they just might be strong enough to take down an unsuspecting Top 10 squad before the season is over.
NCAA women's volleyball: Molly Lohman provides Minnesota with stability in the middle
Michigan State: Six losses or not, like we said, don’t sleep on Michigan State. The Spartans have a few more losses than they'd prefer, including a middling 5-4 record on the road, but they've taken down Minnesota, and Wisconsin twice, and they're a classic example of the kind of team that pulls off an upset in the tournament.
4. Minnesota might be peaking at the perfect time
The old “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” adage is normally forgotten when things go sideways in the first month of a season, but it always holds true. In fact, sometimes it’s best to get those growing pains out of the way early on. Minnesota did, and now it looks like one of the strongest teams in the country.
The Gophers worked their way up to No. 1 very early in the season before taking back-to-back losses on the chin in late September, tumbling to No. 6. Since then, Minnesota has won 11 straight matches, and only dropped five sets in total, dominating its opponents 33-5 during that stretch. It’s survived an always-trying Big 10, including bouts with Top 25 RPI squads Wisconsin and Purdue, and emerged better than ever. And with one of the country’s best players in tow in Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Gophers might be ticketed for big things.
5. Which juggernaut has the biggest chip on its shoulder?
Often, the driving force behind a truly great season can be the ultimate motivator: payback. Was a team overlooked by the volleyball world a year before? Did a season come to an unexpectedly early end? It doesn’t matter what the perceived slight was; as long as a team feels the need to prove itself, great volleyball normally lies ahead.
How about Kentucky, a decidedly elite team this season? The Wildcats weren’t even seeded in last year’s tournament, and they won just one game before being dispatched. This year, they have the personnel to finish their SEC slate and go on a deep postseason run to avenge last year’s underwhelming campaign.
Maybe Florida, which was seeded 11th overall last year before succumbing to unseeded rival Florida State in five sets in just the second round? The Gators are 20-1 this season, tearing through a schedule replete with ranked matches, and spent time this season ranked No. 1 for the first time in many moons. It might be time for UF’s revenge.
Or how about maybe the most obvious answer, the aforementioned No. 1 team in the country, Penn State? It’s hard for the best team in the country to feel aggrieved, but if any squad can do it, it’s this year’s Nittany Lions. They were the 16th seed in last year’s bracket, fell to No. 1 Nebraska before the quarterfinals, and spent all offseason stewing before coming back and looking nearly unbeatable since late August.
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No one wants the Nittany Lions on their schedules right now, and it’s not hard to see why.
Adam Hermann has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia magazine, SB Nation, and NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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