Check out the entire NCAA Bracket
Let’s talk about the match ups across the bracket by quadrants. We will start in the top left and move around clockwise.
Top Left: Louisville is the #1 team in the country, and also the only undefeated team in the country. They, perhaps, are also the most doubted team in the country. I suppose that is because they are not a traditional powerhouse program and they haven’t ever won before. But they have beat, destroyed, toppled some of those storied programs this year and yet many choose other teams as their predicted national champion.
The question remains, can Louisville win the national title?? In the last twenty years, the #1 seed has won 6 times. That is roughly 30% of the time. That doesn’t seem like a high enough percentage for the #1 picked team in the country.
Louisville just keeps beating team after team, so there really isn’t a reason to doubt that they will do the same in the tournament. They will have a small test against University of Michigan in the second round. The Wolverines play without fear of losing, and play that way until the very end. They have some experience in Paige Jones and May Pertofsky. Louisville will win and move on to face, most likely, University of Florida.
Florida has to get through University of Miami, and while that will be a good match, there is a ton of experience and talent on this #16 Gator team. T’ara Ceasar, Thayer Hall and Marlie Monserez are all talented seniors with lots of tournament experience.
Also in this top left corner is Ohio State. They have last year’s national freshman of the year Emily Londot. She is even better in her sophomore year, with a wider variety of shots, but still has a heavy heavy hammer of an arm swing. She just crushes the ball. She gets most of the swings for the Buckeyes, but Mia Grunze and Gabby Gonzales carry some of the load on the outside.
No matter who comes out of the Tennessee and North Carolina match, the Buckeyes will beat them. That said, this first round matchup between the Vols and the Tarheels is one of the tougher ones for me to call. Both teams have some respectable wins. Tennessee beat Baylor! North Carolina beat Michigan! I’m calling for a Tennessee win, and the Vols move on to face OSU.
Last part of this corner is the 8 seed, Georgia Tech. This seeding still has me scratching my head. Georgia Tech is 23-5 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. This season they beat South Carolina, Penn State and Pitt (first match up). They lost to UCLA, Notre Dame (not in the tournament), Pitt (second match up) and Louisville twice in straight sets. Is that a good enough resume for the number 8 seed? Hmmmm.
Admittedly, the ACC was a much more competitive conference this year with Louisville and Pitt in the top of the national rankings most of the year. Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Miami and Florida State had strong seasons but I cannot rationalize this seed.
Regardless of my confusion about their seed, I don’t think the Yellow Jackets make it past Western Kentucky and, if they do, they certainly will not get passed Ohio State.
Top Right: #14 Creighton meets Ole Miss in the first round. Former Nebraska libero and then assistant coach Kayla Banwarth is the head coach at Ole Miss. This is a tougher than average first round opponent for Creighton. Ole Miss comes out of the SEC and has notable wins over Indiana, Western Kentucky, South Carolina and a five set loss to Kentucky.
Ole Miss runs a balanced attack setting all five of their players somewhere between 13% and 30% of the time. The top set getters for Ole Miss are an outside and a middle. Creighton, on the other hand, runs mostly outside attacks with Jaela Zimmerman and Norah Sis receiving 62% of the sets, about a third each. The right side Keely Davis receives a great deal of sets as well, leaving very few for the middles.
Creighton comes out on top with their fast offensive system and strong serve receive passing.
Penn State and Pitt should face each other in the second round. Penn State is used to being the host in this round but I don’t think that will impact their play. Unseeded Penn State should give #3 seed Pitt all they can handle. The Nittany Lions are taller in most positions when compared to Pitt, but Pitt runs a fast offense and tries to beat taller blockers to the hitting spot.
The Panthers run a 6-2 offense, so they sub a good amount and one of their two setters is always in the back row. Penn State runs a 5-1 offense so their setter, Gabby Blossom plays the front row even though she is only 5’9’’. Pitt will look to hit over Blossom, and PSU will look to force Pitt’s setters to play the first ball on defense and slow their offense down by having the libero set.
This could be an upset match if you are looking for that type of thing.
Also in the possible upset category is the likely BYU and Utah match up in the second round. BYU is the 11 seed with a 28-1 record. Their loss is the Pitt. BYU played Utah in September and beat them in 3 sets. Utah is 21-8 with notable wins over Nebraska, Washington and Oregon. They are a real roller coaster team mostly because they rely on star outside hitter and 5th year player Dani Drews for most kills. When she is off, they are off.
There are a few intriguing first round match ups in this quadrant. Florida State and Kansas State, Hawaii and Mississippi State, and last San Diego and Rice. Let’s start with FSU and KSU; both teams played in top heavy conferences where Texas and Baylor in the Big 12 and Louisville and Pitt in the ACC were just blanking other teams. Taking a set from one of these opponents means something. Kansas State did more of that against Texas than FSU did against Louisville, so I give an educated guess that they play Nebraska in the second round.
Nebraska and Kansas State played earlier on this season, and the Huskers won in four sets.
Kentucky and Illinois should meet in the second round. Illinois will give KU a real match but they are still one or two hitters shy of being a really great team. They play good defense and have Megan Cooney and Raina Terry producing kills but it won’t be enough to beat #7 Kentucky. Nebraska and Kentucky in the third round.
Back to the interesting first round match ups, Hawaii and Mississippi State looks simple enough on the surface but is Hawaii the program that it once was? Both teams travel a long way for a match in Seattle, WA. Mississippi State may surprise volleyball historians with a win over one of the most storied programs in the country.
Last interesting first round match in this corner is Rice vs San Diego. Last season, Rice had a good season and really hit their stride at the end of their schedule. They lost in a tough five set match to #6 Baylor and turned around four nights later and upset #2 Texas. They hoped to continue upsetting teams then they were eliminated from the tournament because of something COVID related. They never played a match, and so they’ll be hungry for a tournament run.
San Diego is a fast offensive team that seems to always find a way to be good. Their conference schedule in the WCC leaves some doubts, but they play against enough good teams that they will have a slight edge in this match. They move forward to face Texas in the second round.
I will call this the corner of unseeded great teams. Of course there are seeded great teams too; Baylor, Minnesota, UCLA and Wisconsin. But the sneaky unseeded “power” teams are Stanford, Washington State and Pepperdine. They could surprise a lot of teams.
While I think this corner is VERY competitive, it won’t really start to get interesting until the second round. The first round doesn’t show signs of any upsets or even any close matches. Come the second round, however, the probable matchups of Stanford vs Minnesota, Baylor vs Washington State and UCLA vs Pepperdine should all be very dynamic matches.
Minnesota and Stanford played in September, and the Gophers came out on top in four sets. Stanford is a young team without the experience of match play last season. This team largely sat out of the 2020 season due to COVID restrictions. Of course they have wildly talented players; Sami Francis 6’6’’ OH, Kendall Kipp 6’5 opposite, Holly Campbell 6’3’’ middle and Kami Miner 6’0’’ setter.
The first match starts this afternoon, so get those brackets filled out let’s see how this works out. I’ll write another piece review the first two rounds and previewing rounds three and four next week.