The NCAA Tournament is here! The selection committee released the bracket Sunday night and action starts Thursday at 4:30 pm ET.
If you’re a diehard fan, you’ve no doubt already seen the bracket, clearied your weekend schedule to make sure you can watch, and maybe even highlighted what you think are the biggest first- and second-round matches.
Allow us to help you geek out even more by giving you some in-depth analysis of the bracket, the tournament, and matches to come.
The committee gave the Big Ten plenty of credit for how competitive the conference was this year. The Big Ten led all leagues with seven teams making the tournament: No. 4 seed Wisconsin, No. 5 seed Nebraska, No. 7 seed Minnesota, No. 11 seed Penn State, No. 16 seed Purdue, Michigan, and Illinois, which got in by the skin of its teeth (more on that in the “Last In, Last Out” section below).
The SEC and Pac-12 each got six teams in, while the ACC and Big 12 scored four slots each.
In a surprise turn of events, the Big East got three teams (more on that story in the “Conference Upsets” section). The Big West also sent three teams, while the AAC, A10, Conference USA, Horizon League, MVC, and WCC are represented by two teams each: one automatic bid winner and one at-large.
Conference Tournament Upsets Shake Up NCAA Field
For a number of those conferences with multiple teams in the field, league tournament upsets are the cause.
Take the Big East for example, where Creighton and Marquette, ranked No. 15 and No. 16 in this week’s AVCA poll, were both upset by St. John’s. The Johnnies swept Creighton in the conference semifinals and then got past Marquette in four in the championship, earning the conference’s automatic bid. Of course, Creighton and Marquette deserved, and were given, spots in the tournament based on their RPIs (Creighton No. 20 and Marquette No. 13), thus the Big East celebrating three teams in the tournament for the third time in seven years.
Illinois State pulled off the upset in the Missouri Valley Conference, downing favorite UNI in the championship match. Illinois State, at 78 in the RPI would not likely have gotten in without the automatic bid, but UNI got in all the same after boasting a season-end RPI of 40.
And you have to feel for South Dakota of the Summit League and Robert Morris of the Northeast Conference. Both teams entered their conference postseason tournaments with undefeated league records, only to be stalled on their march to an automatic bid. For South Dakota, the blow came at the hands of Omaha, which upset the Coyotes in the conference semifinals before falling to Denver in the championship. Robert Morris also lost in the semis, to Central Connecticut, a team the Colonials had beaten twice in the regular season. Sacred Heart beat CCU in the final to earn the NEC bid. Neither of these regular season conference champions made the 64-team bracket.
Northern Kentucky, the No. 4 seed in the Horizon League tournament, took down the No. 1 Wright State and then toppled No. 2 Milwaukee in the championship match, which prevented Miluwakee and Horizon League tournament No. 3 seed Green Bay from getting into the NCAA Tournament. Wright State, however, with its RPI of 41, did get an at-large bid and will be making its national postseason debut this weekend.
Last Four In, Last Four Out
The last four teams to make the cut for the tournament were Illinois, VCU, Washington State and Wright State.
Illinois, said Michelle Durban, the chair of the NCAA selection committee, in an interview with VolleyballMag.com, got in based on its two top-25 wins (over then-No. 7 Marquette on Sept. 14 and No. 17 Purdue on Oct. 6) and got some credit for playing in the competitive Big Ten.
VCU, which has an RPI of 47, went undefeated in the Atlantic 10 regular season, including beating Dayton (RPI 42), the eventual A10 champs in five sets on Nov. 17, only to lose to the same team in the league tournament final. Durban also pointed out that the Rams have zero losses to teams outside the top 100 of the RPI and went 9-1 in their last 10 matches.
Washington State’s upset victory over Washington on Saturday night made a big impression on the committee, despite the fact that it had lost three in a row and four of the last five. The Cougars also beat the Huskies back on Sept. 25, making for two top-10 wins, on top of a win versus then-No. 18 Utah on Oct. 27.
Wright State had four wins over teams in the top-50 RPI and no losses below 100.
Cal, Georgia Tech, Green Bay and South Dakota were the unlucky last four out.
Cal had a hot start to the season, but was 3-7 in its last 10 matches and 0-6 to finish the season. With an RPI of 48, the Bears were one higher than Washington State, but the recent results overrode that factor.
South Dakota finished the year with an RPI of 38, but with losing in the conference semifinals and having no top-50 wins, its schedule wasn’t strong enough to warrant an at-large.
Green Bay had an RPI of 45, but lost in the Horizon League semifinals. And finally, Georgia Tech... Poor Georgia Tech. The Yellowjackets finished the season winning 13 of the last 14 matches, losing only to No. 2 Pittsburgh in that stretch and beating two teams that made the NCAA Tournament, Florida State and Notre Dame. With a 14-4 final ACC record, they ranked second in the conference standings, ahead of FSU, Notre Dame, and Louisville, which also made the tournament. But it wasn’t enough to get GT, which finished the season with an RPI of 56, in.
Which brings us to...
Certainly Georgia Tech feels snubbed. Cal, too, especially with its fellow Pac-12 team Washington State getting in instead.
But there were a few snubs in the seeding as well. Pittsburgh, host of the Final Four, is the No. 2 team in this week’s AVCA top-25 poll, No. 4 in the latest RPI, and has not lost since Sept. 22, but was given the No. 6 seed in the tournament. By not being a top-four seed, the Panthers will have to travel to No. 3 Stanford for regionals and possibly face Penn State in the round of 16 before maybe meeting Stanford in the regional finals.
Rice and Marquette each had solid resumes for a top-16 seed. The Owls are No. 21 in the AVCA poll and No. 14 in the RPI. Marquette is No. 16 in the poll and No. 13 in the RPI. Instead, BYU (No. 17 in the RPI) and Purdue (No. 21 in the RPI) got the seeds and the first weekend hosting rights.
The Geographical Trap
As you probably know, unlike the NCAA basketball tournaments, the women’s volleyball bracket is not seeded all the way out to 64. Instead, the top 16 seeds get to host the first weekend and the rest of the assignments are made based on geography in hopes of reducing costs, the main caveat being that a team can’t play another team from its conference in the first or second round.
So that means a number of repeat assignments for some unlucky teams. Teams like Texas State, which has made the NCAA Tournament 11 times in program history and played its first round in Austin eight of those times, facing Texas in the first round five times. This year, the Sun Belt champion has UCSB in the first round, but would likely get Texas in the second if the Bobcats win Thursday.
As a whole, the state of Texas had a ton of good teams this year, and has six teams in the tournament. Rice got sent to No. 13-seed Texas A&M; SFA’s playing in Waco, home of No. 1 Baylor; and of course Texas State in Austin.
Then to Florida where Florida State once again gets stuck playing at Florida in Gainesville. The Seminoles will play UCF in the first round, but if they win, they’ll get the Gators in tournament play for the seventh time in program history. FSU got its first NCAA Tournament win over the Gators back in 2013 and did it again in 2016 in the second round when Florida was the No. 11 seed.
Although it would be understandably unpleasant to have to take on the same powerhouse program year after year in the NCAA Tournament, Florida State can tell you that built up frustration makes upset that much sweeter.
Watch First- and Second-Round NCAA Tournament Matches Right Here on FloVolleyball