NCAA volleyball championship: Experts preview the final four

NCAA volleyball championship: Experts preview the final four

We will have an NCAA volleyball champion in 2022. But who will it?

Defending champion Wisconsin lost to second-seeded Pitt in a five set thriller Saturday. The Panthers secured a spot in this year’s national semifinals.

The ACC has never had a national championship team, but this year Pitt will be the opponent. 1 seed Louisville. They split their two meetings this season — Pitt won 3-2 on Oct. 23 and Louisville won 3-0 on Nov. 18. Rematches are more important than ever.

Meanwhile, San Diego outlasted No. In the regional final, Stanford was defeated by No. 1 seed San Diego in five sets. The Toreros, who lost in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament, advanced to their first final four by defeating the nine-time champion Cardinal, who won titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

The only remaining team with national championship game experience remains No. 1 seed Texas, which hasn’t won a title since 2012 and lost three championship matches in 2020 (to Kentucky), 2016 (to Stanford) and 2015 (to Nebraska). The final four NCAA tournament matches will feature two women as head coaches. This is only the second time that two women have been appointed to the position. The first was in 1993, when Florida’s Mary Wise and then-BYU coach Elaine Michaelis both lost in the semifinals. Wise has coached twice in the NCAA final — in 2003 and 2017 — but no woman head coach has won the championship. This weekend could make history.

The national semis will begin on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App. Saturday night will be the championship. Our volleyball experts were asked to break down the field and preview four final four.

Which team, between Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Stanford, is it surprising that they didn’t make the final four?

Holly McPeak: I thought Wisconsin had a really good shot this year. The Badgers had reloaded at key positions and were so dominant defensively. Pitt was able get them out of the system and score runs on them, and that was what made the difference.

Courtney Lyle: I really thought Wisconsin would continue its run to repeat as national champions. Although the Badgers suffered a lot from last season’s team, they reloaded with valuable weapons, including Sarah Franklin, a transfer. The fact that Stanford, Nebraska, and Wisconsin didn’t reach the national semifinals is a sign of how high the competition is across all conferences.

Jennifer Hoffman: As the volleyball landscape continues to change, it is no surprise to see so many regional finals battle it out. Considering the talent of their opponents, it was not surprising that Stanford and Nebraska were unable to play well throughout the tournament. The most surprising thing about Wisconsin’s loss was the number of errors made by the Badgers in the tournament against a Pitt team. All of Wisconsin’s losses in the regular season were marred by errors. The regional final against Pitt was no exception.

Shelby Coppedge: Originally, I truly thought there was no way that Wisconsin didn’t make it past their regional. The Panthers earned it when I saw how Pitt played. It’s not surprising Stanford didn’t make the cut; San Diego has demanded respect and attention every week since opening weekend. The Toreros have been beating Power 5 schools since opening weekend (including Pitt).

M.A. Voepel Many believed that San Diego could have been the top regional seed. So, most people were confident that the Toreros would win, even on Stanford’s court. It was impressive to see San Diego pull it off in five sets. As for the Badgers’ loss, Wisconsin has had more than a few heartbreaks in the NCAA tournament — losing in the elite eight after going up 2-0 to a freshmen-led Stanford team in 2016 was a big one — and this one was painful, too. The Panthers pulled off the upset thanks to Pitt’s experience in the final four last season.

The two teams that are returning to the final four are Louisville (the other team is Pitt). How has the ACC changed over the past few years?

McPeak: Both Louisville and Pitt have established themselves as top national programs, and their growth will help their conference as a whole continue to get stronger.

Lyle: Louisville and Pitt have really set the tone in the ACC. Because the Cards and Panthers have had sustained success, I believe it will attract more high-profile players.

Hoffman: The ACC has largely been dominated by Florida State, North Carolina and Duke, so the addition of Louisville and Pitt was a needed boost to the conference’s dominance. History will be made when an ACC team makes its way to the national championship match, with both Pitt and Louisville making their national semifinals appearances back-to-back. This is the year that an ACC team wins a national championship.

Coppedge: Pitt and Louisville have set the new standard for the ACC. The ACC is coming for the Big Ten. It will only get better once recruits see how these two teams played in the postseason.

Voepel: You have to look at two really good coaching hirings for Pitt (Dan Fisher in 2013) and Louisville (Dani Busboom Kelly in 2016). Before taking over at Pitt, Fisher won a NAIA national championship as head coach. As a player and assistant coach, Busboom Kelly won NCAA titles in Nebraska. Both have transformed the landscape of the nation by turning their programs into powerhouses.

Is this the ACC’s year, or something else? Perhaps. It’s hard enough to get to the national semifinal; winning the title is the next step. Even if neither of these programs wins the 2022 championship they are still perennial competitors.

Considering San Diego lost the first round last year and how impressed are you with this year’s four-round run?

McPeak: I am so impressed with what coach Jennifer Petrie has done with this program. San Diego is consistently in tournaments, and she has a veteran team with Gabby Blossom (from the portal), who is a talented puzzle piece. They are a special team that has been dominant throughout the year and have proven they deserve a shot for the title. I can’t wait for them to play Texas in a big test.

Lyle: San Diego is an excellent example of how much parity there is in college volleyball and how the transfer portal can help a program take a giant leap forward in a short amount of time. This Torero team is physical, tough, and smart. They fully believe in the “why not us?” motto. They are dangerous because they have fully bought into the “why not us?” motto. Other teams should be worried about the match against Stanford. San Diego lost a few sets and never recovered. They have proven that they are resilient to any storm. Can they do it on college volleyball’s biggest stage?

Hoffman: San Diego should have been a No. 1 seed. Petrie and her team cleared a huge hurdle to make it through the first round. This allowed them to play their best ball. They were ranked No. They were ranked No. 3 in the most recent national poll. The big story this year is Texas and their star senior Logan Eggleston. San Diego will now have to face the top team on the national stage. We’ll see if they can prove doubters wrong or if the lights are too bright.

Coppedge: I am extremely impressed. I was privileged to call San Diego’s opening weekend match against Texas A&M. The Toreros beat Pitt in five sets and swept Hawai’i as well as the Aggies. I followed SD for the rest of the season, and each week they were on fire. Because of their dominance throughout the season, it is possible to argue they were the best seed.

Voepel: It’s good to see decades of hard work pay off for Petrie and San Diego. In her 24th season with the Toreros, she is making her first final four trip, a hard-earned one at that. Her team and she deserve a lot for defeating the sport’s most successful on the road.

Petrie has been a regular at the NCAA tournament, but this season all the pieces fell into place. Blossom, a fifth-year senior, was the perfect cap. The Toreros have a veteran setter who has been through many pressure situations at Penn State, including two Elite Eights. She has been crucial in San Diego’s success.

Does Logan Eggleston have a supporting cast at Texas this year to win a title in Texas?

McPeak: With the addition of the talented combination of UCLA transfer Zoe Fleck, freshman Emma Halter and Nebraska transfer Keonilei Akana, the Longhorns have their best shot at the title this year.

Lyle: Logan Eggleston is just one of many pieces for Texas this year. It’s not all on her and that is a plus for the Longhorns. I have been really impressed by the back row play of Texas’ littles: Emma Halter, Zoe Fleck and Keonilei Kana. They have a certain toughness about them, with Fleck setting the tone. This kind of upgrade will help Texas withstand the heavy arms they’ll face at Omaha.

Hoffman: I think the national championship will come down to who’s the better team, not who has the better players. Texas has an all star lineup that is determined to win a title. However, this team has yet face a defensive-minded team at net. Louisville (331 total blocks), San Diego (311) and Pitt (296) all rank above Texas, which has just 229 on the season. These four teams are exceptional and have fought their ways to Omaha. Texas is the clear favorite, with Madi Skinner’s scoring ability and Asija Oleal’s defense. But defense wins championships and that’s what I believe makes this a great match.

Coppedge: Yes, Logan Eggleston has the pieces to win the title. The all-star libero Zoe Fleck has been a great asset. Madisen Skinner is the winner of the title. Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres has created a positive culture. Asjia O’Neal is the spark. Molly Phillips is the wall. Texas’ style of play is the biggest thing that I can see stopping it. Texas loves to play high ball. The Longhorns love to pass and set the ball so high that it almost feels like you are watching slow motion. They will tip over and over until they have to hit. Their style is well-known, but they are not as tested at their conference as other schools. It will be interesting to see how their style evolves.

Voepel: Have to say that Texas has had all the pieces to win multiple times since their 2012 championship, and it just hasn’t happened. I actually think Texas overachieved in 2015 to make the final. In 2016, the Longhorns played great in the semifinals and not as well in the championship match. And 2020, it looked like it would be their title, but Kentucky rallied to win. The Longhorns are consistent in putting themselves in a position to win. They really want to win this title.

What is your championship prediction

Hoffman: San Diego edges out Texas after a lights-out, monster blocking night and will face Louisville in the final — and Louisville hoists the championship trophy.

Coppedge: Texas vs. Pitt. I don’t know who I think would be victorious. I don’t see Texas reaching the final and losing again.

Voepel: Louisville vs. Texas, and the Longhorns get their third championship. This is the third time I have picked Texas to win it all.

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