NCAA volleyball tournament storylines
The 64-team NCAA volleyball tournament begins Thursday at 16 sites, with Texas the surprise top seed when the brackets were announced Sunday night. Last year's upset-filled tournament proved a high seed or past success doesn't guarantee an easy path to the Final Four, which this year is in San Antonio Dec. 15 and 17. Here are five things to watch in the first two rounds:
1. Nebraska's first-set funk
In losing their regular-season finale to Northwestern -- a shocker that likely cost Nebraska the No. 1 overall seed -- the Cornhuskers dropped the first set for the eighth time in 11 matches. How big a deal is that? Nebraska's talent allowed it to come back to win five of the eight, but it wasn't enough to overcome nationally ranked Penn State and Purdue. And it's not the best trait to continue in the NCAA tournament, especially with Nebraska landing in the Honolulu bracket with USC and Hawaii.
2. Who's No. 1?
Six teams -- USC, UCLA, Nebraska, Illinois, Cal and Penn State -- all spent time atop the American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll this season. Four teams jockeyed in and out of the top spot the past six weeks. Now throw in Texas, which received the overall No. 1 seed without ranking higher than its current fifth, and third-ranked Hawaii, a regional host, and you've got the makings of a wide-open tournament. Will it be like last year, when the top-three seeds (Florida, Nebraska and Stanford) never made it out of regionals?
3. Rainbow dreams
Should Hawaii fans book flights to San Antonio now? Probably not, but it doesn't hurt to start shopping around, even with the champions of the Big Ten (Nebraska) and Pac 12 (USC) in the same bracket as the 29-1 Rainbow Wahine. By hosting the first two rounds as well as a regional, Hawaii, led by senior outside hitter Kanani Danielson, is in position to ride the ultimate home-court advantage. Hawaii led the NCAA in average attendance this season with about 6,400 per match at the Stan Sheriff Center, which holds a little more than 10,000. Bring earplugs if your team hails from the contiguous 48.
4. No Khat, no problem
Texas freshman middle blocker Khat Bell, whose sensational hitting sparked the Longhorns through October, sustained a season-ending ACL tear at Kansas on Nov. 5. Instead of collapsing, the 22-4 Longhorns kept rolling. Texas won all six matches without Bell to extend its winning streak to 14 straight, capture the Big 12 title and land the No. 1 overall seed. A trip to the Lexington regional seems almost assured, since the Longhorns have never lost a first-round NCAA match in 27 tries and are 48-9 in tournament play in Austin.
5. One for the thumb?
Penn State's chances of winning a record fifth consecutive NCAA championship probably requires knocking off top-seeded Texas and longtime power UCLA just to get out of the Lexington regional. A meeting with Texas could be a classic; the Longhorns outlasted the Nittany Lions in five tough sets at the Nike Big Four Classic in September. A four-set victory over Nebraska at Rec Hall on Oct. 29 showed the Nittany Lions -- one of eight Big Ten teams to make the tournament -- shouldn't be discounted, even after two losses to Illinois.