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Penn State has challengers as NCAA tourney commences

12/3/2008

Penn State enters the 2008 NCAA women's volleyball tournament as the prohibitive favorite to win its second consecutive national championship and third overall.

The Nittany Lions won their sixth straight outright Big Ten title and 12th in 18 seasons. They lead the nation in hitting percentage (.404) and blocks per set (3.19) and are second in kills (15.17) and assists (14.22) per set. Penn State also held its opponents to a .080 team hitting percentage.

Beginning Friday against Long Island, Penn State will play its first four matches -- barring an unimaginable loss -- on its home court at Rec Hall, where it is 36-3 in tournament play. If the Nittany Lions sweep their next three matches, they will break Florida's 2003 record of 105 consecutive sets won.

After winning all 32 matches and 96 consecutive sets this season, it seems highly unlikely Penn State would lose three sets in a match in the tournament. But there are several challengers awaiting the Nittany Lions in the later rounds. Who are they? Our five burning questions on the NCAA tournament answers that and more.

1. Which teams pose the greatest threat to Penn State?

The teams most capable of taking at least a set from Penn State are California in the University Park Regional final, Washington or Nebraska in the national semifinal and either Stanford or Texas in the national championship match.

Cal finished third in the Pac-10 with a 13-5 record and posted a 23-6 overall record. Last season, the Golden Bears advanced to the national semifinals for the first time, where they lost to, naturally, Penn State in three sets. This year, Cal owns victories at both Stanford and Washington, so it has a proven ability to win on the road in hostile environments.

Washington, which won its past eight matches, finished second in the Pac-10 with a 15-3 mark and had a 24-4 overall record. The Huskies, who have a 13-2 home record in the NCAA tournament, could potentially play four matches at Seattle's Bank of America Arena, the site of Washington's first-round match and the Seattle Regional. The Huskies have one national championship to their credit.

Nebraska earned a share of its fifth consecutive Big 12 title with an 18-2 conference record and finished the season 27-2 overall. It was the Cornhuskers' 11th conference title in 13 seasons of Big 12 volleyball. The Huskers are 73-23 all-time in the NCAA tournament, ranking second in both victories and winning percentage (.760). The Huskers have won the national title three times, and if they make it to the national semifinals, they will play at their home away from home -- Qwest Center Omaha.

Texas won a share of the Big 12 title by virtue of its victory over Nebraska on Nov. 19 and finished the season with an 18-2 conference record and a 25-3 overall ledger. The Longhorns have won nine consecutive matches and 19 of their past 20. Texas could play as many as four matches at home court Gregory Gym, where it has won 28 of its past 29 matches.

Stanford won its third consecutive Pac-10 title and 12th overall with a 17-1 conference record, finishing the regular season 26-3 overall record.
The Cardinal have won 22 of 23 matches since losing at Saint Louis on Sept.
6. Penn State needed five sets to defeat Stanford in last year's national championship match. The Cardinal have won a record six national titles.

Kentucky

2. Upset watch: Which unseeded team could go far?

In the Seattle Regional, Kentucky will be looking to make up for its five-set loss to Tennessee in the final match of the regular season that cost the Wildcats a share of the SEC title.

Kentucky finished the regular season 26-5 overall and 17-3 in the SEC, and the Wildcats proved they can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country in pressure situations when they split a pair of five-set matches against Florida.
Kentucky posted a 16-2 record at home and will play host in the first and second rounds.

First-round opponent Michigan finished fifth in the Big Ten with a 12-8 record and
24-8 overall. If Kentucky gets past the Wolverines, it could face Saint Louis in the second round. Saint Louis is 28-4 overall and owns a victory over Stanford, but the Billikens are 0-3 against ranked opponents on the road and 1-4 overall.

If the Wildcats advance to a possible regional semifinal match against Nebraska, it would pit coach Craig Skinner against his former boss John Cook and have freshman middle blocker Becky Pavan playing against the program for which her sister, Sarah, was a four-time All-American. And that matchup would be played in Seattle, not Lincoln.

3. Which regional is the most competitive?

With nine of 16 teams ranked in the latest Bison/AVCA top 25 poll, the Fort Collins Regional appears to be the strongest of the four. That regional will have two first-round matches involving a pair of
top-25 teams -- No. 15 San Diego at No. 12 USC, and No. 23 Pepperdine versus
No. 24 Long Beach State.

Only one first-round match in that regional -- Miami (Ohio) vs. Middle Tennessee -- has two teams currently unranked, but the Blue Raiders were ranked as high as No. 13 early in the season.

The second round could bring a rematch between No. 11 Florida (seeded 15th) and No. 22 Colorado State in Gainesville, along with No. 6 Hawaii (seeded seventh) facing either San Diego or USC.

4. Which first-round site is the best?

Liberty probably won't win a set during its first-round match at Nebraska, but its players and fans will get the volleyball experience of a lifetime during a game played in front of a sold-out crowd at the Nebraska Coliseum.

Nebraska has what many regard as the most knowledgeable and appreciative volleyball fans in the country. Where else does the home crowd clap in unison for the opponents during introductions or cheer openly for great plays by a visiting team? Playing in that environment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many teams.

Other top first-round destinations are Austin, Palo Alto and Seattle, which combine first-class environments and unique cultural opportunities.

If you enjoy nightlife, there is no better destination than 6th Street in Austin. No trip to The Farm at Stanford would be complete without viewing the school's collection of works by Auguste Rodin, including the "The Thinker" and "Gates of Hell." And if you like seafood fresh off the boat, there is nothing like Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market.

Hawaii

5. Which seeded team is most likely to be gone after the second round?

Hawaii earned the No. 7 seed in the tournament, but it didn't get any favors from the selection committee by being sent to USC for the first and second rounds.

If the Rainbow Wahine were playing on their home court, they would go into their second-round match as a favorite. But Hawaii will face either USC or San Diego in its second match, so its stay on the mainland could be a short one.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.