Five things to watch in volleyball's Sweet 16
The Big Ten champion, Nebraska, is out. Five of the seven qualifiers from the Pac-12 are done, too. And two of the country's top-three teams -- in the eyes of the coaches, anyway -- are set to meet not in the Alamodome, where they should, but at a regional semifinal about as far from San Antonio as you can get and still be on U.S. soil.
The second weekend of NCAA tournament play cranks up with regional semifinals Friday and finals Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; Minneapolis and Honolulu. Here are five things to watch in the Sweet 16.
1. Why is the best regional semifinal match so far away?
It will be midnight in the East on Saturday morning when USC, ranked No. 1 in the last American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll, tangles with the No. 3 Rainbow Wahine in Honolulu. Why the tournament selection committee seeded them seventh and 10th respectively, forcing them to meet this soon, is something you'll have to take up with the committee. The winner then faces Kansas State, which knocked out Nebraska, or Pepperdine for a ticket to San Antonio. Good luck to visiting players trying to call balls: Hawaii, the host school, led the NCAA in attendance and drew crowds of more than 7,000 for its first- and second-round games at the Stan Sheriff Center.
2. Can three Big Ten teams make it to San Antonio?
It could happen. The conference started with eight qualifiers and put six in the Sweet 16 -- Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State. Since only Illinois and Ohio State meet in regional semis, in Gainesville, it's possible for five to reach the Elite Eight. Gainesville and Minneapolis could see all-Big Ten regional finals, though the latter would require 13th-seed Minnesota to upset No. 4-seed Iowa State on Friday night.
3. What are UCLA's chances of reaching its first Final Four without legendary coach Andy Banachowski?Shaky. Even if the Bruins get past four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State in the Lexington semifinals, a bear awaits in top-seeded Texas (provided the Longhorns don't stumble against host Kentucky). If UCLA makes it happen, there will be much joy in Bruinland. Since its last NCAA title game appearance in 1994, UCLA has reached the Final Four only once, in 2006. Mike Sealy replaced Banachowski after the 2009 season.
4. Who has the easiest road to San Antonio?
Maybe Illinois, the only seeded team left in its quadrant of the bracket now that Northern Iowa, Stanford and Tennessee are out. The 29-4 Illini, which tied for second in the Big Ten, face seventh-place conference finisher Ohio State in the semis, and barring an upset there, either Michigan, the weakest Big Ten qualifier, or Florida for a spot in the Final Four.
5. Got an upset special?
Kansas State. Getting past Pepperdine in the Honolulu semis is no cinch, though K-State is an eye-catching 8-1 in five-set matches this year and was the only team to beat Nebraska this season in Lincoln. If USC and Hawaii pound each other, the winner might be gassed and underestimate the 22-10 Wildcats in the regional final. How crazy would that be?