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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Teams make final push for NCAA seeding

By Mechelle Voepel

The volleyball season is winding down, and teams have their final matches in which to make a case for a favorable seeding. The NCAA bracket will be revealed at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPNU.

Last year, we saw a bracket that seemed to rely far too much on a by-rote RPI formula, which resulted in the silliness of no Pac-12 team being among the top six seeds. Nonetheless, two teams from that always-powerful league, UCLA and USC, advanced to the final four, where the Bruins defeated Illinois in the championship match.

UCLA started 2012 ranked No. 1, but the Bruins lost at Nebraska in the second match of the season. UCLA's other losses have been to USC, Washington, Arizona, Stanford (twice) and Oregon. The most recent defeats were last Friday at Pauley Pavilion to the Cardinal (who were irritated they had lost to USC the night before) and Tuesday to the Ducks (who were having senior night in Eugene, Ore.).

UCLA's hard work this week before the NCAA selection isn't over. After the rough trip to Oregon, the Bruins finish with archrival USC at home Friday. But even if UCLA also loses that one, the Bruins actually shouldn't be discouraged entering the postseason.

Last year, UCLA lost three of its last five matches before the NCAA tournament … but then lost only three sets in its six-match run to the national championship. Coach Michael Sealy got the Bruins in a Zen state of mind at just the right time in 2011.

By the way, a memo to the NCAA selection committee: This year, don't penalize the Pac-12 for being perpetually great at this sport in an attempt to manufacture more national parity. Let that happen naturally.

And good luck trying to equitably spread throughout the bracket all the Pac-12 and Big Ten teams. We know that's not easy.

1. Penn State (27-2)

Look who's back atop the power rankings (and the AVCA poll) after Stanford's slight stumble. The Nittany Lions defeated Indiana and Purdue last week. They end the regular season at home against Ohio State and Michigan State. Sophomore Micha Hancock has pretty much owned the Big Ten setter of the week honor; Monday, she won it for the sixth time this season. Like a quarterback totally in tune with receivers, Hancock and her hitters are clicking, and the Penn State offense is in high gear heading into the NCAA tournament.

2. Stanford (25-3)

The Cardinal's 22-match winning streak ended with a 3-1 loss at USC last Thursday. So they won't finish perfect in the Pac-12, which would have been crazy if they'd somehow pulled it off. Still, with a 3-1 victory over UCLA last Friday, Stanford clinched its 15th league championship. We can safely predict the Cardinal will clobber visiting Colorado on Wednesday, but it could be interesting as they visit desperate-for-a-win Cal on Friday.

3. Texas (23-3)

The Longhorns swept Texas Tech and West Virginia last week, and probably could have done so blindfolded against the 8-20 Mountaineers, who are winless in their first Big 12 season. Now only Saturday's match at Iowa State stands between Texas and its first perfect conference season since the Big 12 began in 1996. (Obviously, it helps to have Nebraska gone to the Big Ten). The Longhorns are hosting a regional this year, so things are looking pretty good in Austin.

4. USC (27-4)

Last week, the Trojans upset Stanford 3-1, then had to avoid being upset by Cal 3-2. Monday, USC's Natalie Hagglund -- who had a career-high 44 digs against the Cardinal -- won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for the third time this season, while teammate Samantha Bricio won her fifth freshman of the week honor. With a sweep of Oregon State on Tuesday, the surging Trojans are now 15-4 in the league and battling Oregon for second place. USC finishes at UCLA on Friday. It should be a barnburner, as usual.

5. Washington (22-5)

In an amazing 3-2 win over visiting Oregon last Friday, the Huskies denied a mind-boggling 14 match points, 12 in the fifth set. Really, we're not making that up, ludicrous as it sounds. When Washington finally won on its first match point, the 4,000-plus fans at Alaska Airlines Arena nearly blew the roof off the place. Call it the biggest "refuse-to-lose" classic in the coaching career of the Huskies' Jim McLaughlin. He hopes his team can take that attitude into their last two regular-season matches this week -- against Arizona State and Washington State -- and then the NCAA tournament.

6. Oregon (24-4)

Yes, the Ducks did lose that insane marathon at Washington; they simply couldn't finish off the Huskies, who won the fourth set 32-30 and the fifth 25-23. But Oregon recovered from that draining drama the next day to beat Washington State, and then swept UCLA on Tuesday. Alaina Bergsma was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after a combined 63 kills against the Huskies and Cougars. Then she pounded another 18 kills to celebrate her senior night against the Bruins. Friday, Oregon finishes at Oregon State.

7. Hawaii (24-2)

There was an upset at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu last week, but it didn't involve volleyball. Stanford's women's basketball team beat No. 1 Baylor at a tournament in Hawaii on Friday. That same night, the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team had some drama on the mainland, going five sets to win at Pacific. Saturday, Hawaii swept UC Davis. Hawaii finishes this week back home against Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside.

8. UCLA (21-7)

The defending champs are in danger of heading into the NCAA tournament with three consecutive losses. To avoid that, senior Rachael Kidder and the Bruins will need to hold off USC on Friday.

9. Nebraska (21-6)

It's hard to guess who the Huskers might be in the postseason. The gritty team that will get it together for a long NCAA tournament run with a regional in nearby Omaha? Or the squad that too often has been unable to win tight matches? Last week, Nebraska lost in a razor-close, long fifth set at Minnesota, then swept Wisconsin. The Huskers finish at home this week with Iowa and Northwestern.

10. Louisville (28-3)

The final four host school added the Big East tournament title to its regular-season crown with tourney sweeps of Cincinnati and Marquette, the same teams the Cardinals had swept the previous week. It's the first time Louisville has won both league titles in the same year. Although they're finished in the Big East, the Cardinals do have one more match before the NCAA tourney: They host Ohio Valley tournament champ Belmont on Nov. 23.


• Stanford (automatic bid), USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA are NCAA tournament locks. But what about the Pac-12's bubble teams: Cal, Arizona and Arizona State? At 15-14 overall and 9-10 in the league, Cal has the best RPI (39) of the three but has lost twice to Arizona State. It certainly would help Cal to upset Stanford on Friday; the Bears threatened USC last week but lost a tough five-setter.

• Kudos to Hofstra, which got hot at the right time and now has a berth into the NCAA tournament. After falling to Delaware on Oct. 20 for their fourth consecutive loss, the Pride knew their season was slipping away. They rallied for four wins in a row, qualifying for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Then, Hofstra won that event and the automatic NCAA bid. The Pride stunned CAA tournament host Towson in the semifinals; the Tigers had gone undefeated in league regular-season play.

• Florida clinched its 20th SEC title Sunday by beating South Carolina. The Gators, 23-4 overall and 17-1 in league play, finish this week at Auburn and Georgia.