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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Michigan, Oregon join stalwarts in final four

By Mechelle Voepel

Let's dispel the notion -- if it exists -- that Michigan and Oregon came out of nowhere to earn berths in the women's volleyball final four. Yes, it's the first time either program has advanced this far. But neither one is an overnight success story. Each has been building toward this for several years.

The Wolverines and Ducks will join final four mainstays Penn State and Texas this week in Louisville. The way the bracket is set up, the "newbies" face the "old guard" in the semifinals. No. 3 seed Texas meets unseeded Michigan at 7 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN2), followed by top-seeded Penn State against No. 5 Oregon. The winners play for the championship at 7 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2).

Penn State has won five NCAA titles and is making its 10th final four appearance. Texas has one national championship, but it was eons ago -- 1988. This is the eighth final four for the Longhorns, who were denied another NCAA title by Penn State in an epic five-set final in 2009.

From a historical-experience perspective, Penn State and Texas have a big advantage over Oregon and Michigan. But the same could have been said for the Ducks and Wolverines in their regional finals Saturday against Nebraska and Stanford, respectively. The Huskers and Cardinal have nine NCAA titles between them. And they were the "home" teams in the regionals, with Nebraska playing in Omaha and Stanford in Berkeley, Calif. They weren't on their official home courts, but not far away, and had by far the greater fan support. Yet both were upset 3-1 by programs that were looking to make a breakthrough -- and did.

The Cardinal won the Pac-12 and had three losses coming into the NCAA tournament. Two were in August, when the freshman-heavy team was just coming together: at Hawaii and at Penn State. Stanford's only Pac-12 loss was Nov. 15 at USC. Meanwhile, Michigan went 11-9 in the Big Ten, finishing tied for sixth with Michigan State.

So from a records standpoint, the more surprising of Saturday's upsets was Michigan's win over Stanford. But it's not the first time the Wolverines have defeated the Cardinal on Stanford's "turf" in a regional.

Michigan defeated the Cardinal in the 2009 regional hosted by Stanford, in a semifinal before falling to Hawaii in the final.

Under coach Mark Rosen, Michigan has been on a long-term track for reaching the final four. He's in his 14th season in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines have had at least 20 wins in eight of the past nine years. Michigan has made the round of 16 in three of the last five years, plus the aforementioned regional final.

You could say Michigan had been knocking on the door for a while. And although the Wolverines came into this NCAA tournament with a 23-11 record, there were signs they were jelling as the season went along, including victories over Nebraska and Minnesota in November.

But in that same month Michigan also lost at Northwestern and Illinois, teams that didn't make the NCAA field this year. Which tells you a lot about how challenging the Big Ten is.

Of course the Pac-12 is also very tough, and fans of those two conferences will always have their "who's better?" rivalry. This final four, there are two Big Ten teams, one from the Pac-12 and one from the Big 12.

There might have been three from the Big Ten, but Oregon prevented that. The Ducks' victory over the Huskers wasn't a shock; both teams were second in their respective power conferences (Nebraska tied Minnesota as runner-up to Penn State).

The surprise element was more that it happened when Nebraska had the equivalent of the home-court advantage. But that didn't rattle the Ducks. After losing the first set Saturday -- which Michigan also did against Stanford -- Oregon regrouped and took charge the rest of the match.

"After Game 1, we decided enough is enough," Oregon setter Lauren Plum said. "One of our themes is, 'Empty the tank.' I can't say enough about our passing; it was fabulous."

The Huskers have been to the final four 11 times, and Big Red fans got used to that. But the Huskers haven't made it that far since 2008, which is an indicator that it has become an even more difficult thing to do in this sport. Last season, Florida State was a final four first-timer.

"There are a lot of good teams, and all [NCAA tournament] matches today are up for grabs," Nebraska coach John Cook said. "I'm not sure we could say that five years ago.

"You look at us last year going out in the second round, and UCLA going out [this year in the second round]. I think it's good for college volleyball, but it makes it more difficult for us to say, 'We're going to the final four every couple of years.'"

Michigan's Rosen and Oregon coach Jim Moore have another connection, besides making their first Division I final four in the same year. They each coached earlier in their careers at Division II Northern Michigan; Moore from 1989 to 1993 and 2003-04, and Rosen from 1994 to 1997. Each won a national championship at Northern Michigan.

Now they'll be in underdog roles -- at least according to the seedings -- in this week's final four.

Penn State, the No. 1 seed with just two losses this season, will clearly be considered the overall favorite. And Texas has yet another shot at winning that elusive second title.

But with Oregon and Michigan, the final four has some welcome new faces that definitely earned their way to Louisville.