Texas is seeking its first college volleyball championship since 2012, and if the Longhorns are to win it all, they will do so as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Two other 1-seeds, Stanford and defending champion Wisconsin, have combined for four of the last six NCAA titles.
The fourth no. 1 seed, Louisville, reached the national semifinals for the first time in program history last year and could make history as the first ACC team to win it all, but the Cardinals might have to go through second-seeded Nebraska, which would be no small task.
With this year’s final four (Dec. 15-17) returning to CHI Health Center in Omaha, the Huskers are aiming for their sixth national title and their first in their home state since 2015.
Meanwhile, San Diego is 27-1 and hasn’t lost since falling to Louisville in early September, but if the Toreros, a No. 2 seed, want to keep shocking the world, they could have to face 2020 champion Kentucky in a regional semifinal and nine-time champion Stanford in the regional finals.
Before the regionals begin Thursday, we asked our analysts to break down the bracket — which teams have the toughest road to Omaha and what are their predictions for the first weekend of the tournament?
Which team’s seed surprised you the most?
Holly McPeak: Going into the selection show, I thought either Stanford or San Diego would be No. 4, so it’s not surprising that they would have to play each other to get to the national semifinals. I thought Nebraska being seeded ahead of a streaking Minnesota team, which just swept the Huskers and has a better RPI, was a surprise, but the committee told me that while they agreed the Gophers were the hot team of late, Nebraska had a great body of work the rest of the season with no bad losses to unranked teams.
Courtney Lyle: My biggest surprise wasn’t a seed; it was the fact that the SEC had the most teams in the tournament. Seven teams are dancing, the most since the SEC had eight in 2013. We’ve seen conferences like the Pac-12 and the Big Ten reign supreme in the volleyball world for a long time. I think this is a great sign the sport is growing all over the country.
Jennifer Hoffman: I agree with Courtney here. Not that rankings are an indication of conference strength, but only two of the seven SEC teams are ranked in the top 25, and losses down the stretch for a few teams should have left some of their at-large bids among the first four out list .
MA Voepel: The NCAA tournament bubble can be murky in all sports, but it often seems to be really murky in volleyball. As Courtney and Jennifer said, seven for the SEC meant the inclusion of teams such as Tennessee and Auburn. The league might have expected to get one in (Auburn), but not both. That said, overall there really weren’t many strange-looking decisions, especially compared to some past years.
Sam Gore: This is actually the first NCAA tournament bracket that didn’t leave me with a huge question. The Committee did a thorough job, and any initial skepticism about something was met head on and explained by committee chair Pauline Theros. If I had to nitpick, I was minorly surprised Georgia Tech was not a 4-seed.
Paul Sunderland: I was not at all surprised overall by the seeding. The committee for years has been widely criticized … but not this year. However, San Diego earned and deserved a No. 1 seed. The Toreros still would have to deal with Stanford, but they earned the No. 4 overall seed and the advantage of hosting.
Which of the top four seeds has the toughest road to Omaha?
McPeak: Because Minnesota is the hottest team right now, I feel like Texas’ road will be challenging. Texas is one of the most physical teams in the country and Minnesota can match the Longhorns in certain areas. Texas has a special team chemistry this year with all its new players, and led by Logan Eggleston, the Longhorns are on a mission to win it all.
Lyle: Texas has the toughest road to Omaha. The Longhorns could face Ohio State or Minnesota in the super regionals. The Golden Gophers are one of the hottest teams entering the tournament, having won 11 of their last 13 matches. Taylor Landfair averages more than 4.0 kills per set and she’s used to battling a big block in the Big Ten.
Hoffman: I don’t see any top four seeds having an easy road to Omaha. I feel the tournament field had some fans questioning the committee, but overall, the way the field is spread out, whichever teams make it to Omaha most certainly will have earned it.
vopel: The Longhorns may end up with the hardest Elite Eight match, but may not have too much trouble before that. So for the entire road to Omaha, there may be a few more potential potholes for Louisville, which may have to get past Purdue, Baylor and Nebraska to advance to the final four. Overall, every regional final may feel like a national championship match in terms of the quality of play.
Gore: Even though I think Texas is the best overall team in the field, its road to the national semis is full of potential obstacles. Georgia Tech can be really good when it gains momentum, and Julia Bergmann can take over a match. Ohio State and USC are both loaded with talent as well. That said, Minnesota presents the biggest challenge before the Texas quarterfinal starts. The Gophers finished strong in the Big Ten, and I always feel the caliber of competition Big Ten teams play is a positive intangible in NCAA tournament play. With this also being Hugh McCutcheon’s final season, there’s an emotional component in play as well. Make no doubt, Texas can get through its quarter, but it will be a well-earned, hard-fought effort.
Sunderland: Texas. Julia Bergmann and Georgia Tech await down the road, and Minnesota is healthy, hot (7-1 in the last eight) and has Taylor Landfair rolling.
Which low-seeded or unseeded team has the best chance to make a deep run in the tournament?
McPeak: This is a tough question. USC has the potential to upset somebody because the Trojans compete well, but they have been battling some serious injuries. Washington is a senior-heavy team that has tons of NCAA experience and could make a long run if it catches fire.
Lyle: I’m excited to see what Auburn can do. The Tigers went into the season looking to gain experience and grow the different weapons they have. Now Auburn is in the NCAA tournament for just the second time, dancing with nothing to lose. That makes for a dangerous team.
Hoffman: Auburn is young and plays fearlessly. The Tigers had highs and lows throughout the season, but that never seemed to affect them. Akasha Anderson and Kendel Kemp are forces to be reckoned with, and Auburn is positioned to take this tournament by surprise.
vopel: No. 7 seed BYU had only one “bad” loss — 3-2 at Pacific in October — and could have a rematch with No. 2 Pitt in the second round. The Cougars lost to Pitt 3-1 in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 3, and may relish another shot at the Panthers.
Gore: I’m going to go with Kansas or UNLV. Both teams are underrated and have the pieces to pull off some upsets.
Sunderland: BYU and USC are both capable of a run. The Cougars are healthy now with the return of setter Whitney Bower. For the Trojans, Texas transfer Skylar Fields and top setter Mia Tuaniga can carry them. Setters make the difference, especially this time of year.
Who is the tournament’s must-watch player?
McPeak: I think there are so many special players that it is hard to pick one. Madi Skinner has developed into one of the best six rotation left-side attackers in the country, and her counterpart Logan Eggleston is a four-time All-American on a mission. Taylor Landfair of Minnesota is a dynamic attacker who can take over a match as well.
Lyle: Logan Eggleston of Texas has done pretty much everything except win a national championship. Her teammates want to win it for her — that tells you what kind of person she is. Eggleston is must-watch TV for her powerful swings, her nasty serve and just her pure drive.
Hoffman: I don’t hear enough about Brooke Nuneville from Oregon. She’s exciting to watch but also does it on the defensive end and can be a spark for the Ducks.
vopel: If you love the big hitters, you’ll enjoy watching 6-foot-5 opposite Kendall Kipp of Stanford. She was a freshman on the Cardinal’s 2019 national championship team, when Kathryn Plummer was Stanford’s star. Kipp is averaging 4.31 kills per set and was just named the Pac-12 player of the year. She is the 13th Cardinal player to win the conference’s top honor, and the first since Plummer won it back-to-back in 2017-2018.
Gore: There are two must-watch players that give fans instant highlights every match: Texas’ Logan Eggleston and Georgia Tech’s Julia Bergmann.
Sunderland: There are so many must-watch players, but let’s start with Wisconsin’s Devyn Robinson. She is explosive and can be unstoppable — just ask Nebraska and Ohio State. Next is Claire Chaussee of Louisville. She’s this year’s Jordan Larson award winner as the best all-around player in the country. (OK, so what if I made that up?) Lastly, Rice setter Carly Graham is unique and led the Owls to a sweep over San Diego in last year’s tournament.
Which teams will make it to the final four?
Hoffman: Minnesota, San Diego, Wisconsin and Louisville. December is the best time of the year. Let the games begin.
vopel: Texas, San Diego, Wisconsin, Louisville. But if Nebraska, Creighton or both make it, the energy in the building will be through the roof.
Gore: The four that win all their matches! Sorry, I couldn’t resist! I’m delighted to say this year’s NCAA tournament is full of potential upsets, so let’s enjoy how it all plays out.
Sunderland: Let’s get down to it. Wisconsin is playing at an incredible level and Louisville is getting healthier by the day with Anna Debeer returning. I’ll pick Stanford by a whisker over San Diego (which is the real deal). Lastly, not to be boring, but Minnesota over Stanford. It’s a long shot, but Minnesota is Texas’ kryptonite based on style.