5 questions on NCAA volleyball tourney
Penn State will try to make college volleyball history during the next three weeks by becoming the first women's program to win three consecutive NCAA Division I championships.
The 2009 NCAA tournament begins Thursday with first-round matches at four sites, including Austin, Texas, where the second-seeded Longhorns will attempt to serve notice they are the team capable of dethroning the Nittany Lions.
Penn State -- which won its seventh consecutive Big Ten title and posted a 20-0 conference record for the third straight year -- will begin play on Friday against Binghamton and try to build upon its NCAA-record 96-match winning streak.
Here are 5 Burning Questions about the first and second rounds.
1. What was the biggest surprise of the bracket?
Without question, the biggest surprise in the entire bracket was the level of respect given to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Not only did the ACC earn a record five spots in the 64-team field, but conference champion Florida State received the No. 3 overall seed, matching its RPI.
The Seminoles had a remarkable season, finishing 28-2 overall and claiming their first ACC title since winning the 1998 conference tournament, with a 19-1 record. The Noles defeated Illinois and Notre Dame during their nonconference schedule, while their only losses were at Florida and against Georgia Tech.
Compare FSU's résumé to No. 3 Hawaii, which slid all the way to the 12th seed and will likely face USC on its home court in the second round. The Rainbow Wahine (No. 22 RPI) finished the regular season with a 28-2 record (16-0 WAC) and wins over Stanford, UCLA and Saint Louis, while their only losses were against Texas and California.
It's obvious Hawaii was penalized for playing in the Western Athletic Conference, a conference with only one other team (New Mexico State) in the top 100 RPI. But the Bows' performance during their preconference schedule demonstrates why common sense is a far better tool than RPI when it comes to seeding or selecting teams.
The West Coast Conference, in particular, was a victim of the overemphasis on RPI. San Diego (No. 60) finished second to Saint Mary's in the WCC with a 10-4 record and was 18-7 overall. The Toreros posted wins over Long Beach State and Saint Mary's, while four of their losses were against teams ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25, including No. 2-ranked Texas. But USD will be watching while teams with weaker records continue on.
2. Which region is the most competitive?
The Omaha and Stanford Regionals are clearly the most competitive in the tournament. Each has three teams ranked among the top eight in the most recent Top 25 and a total of nine either in the rankings or receiving votes.
In fact, both regions will have at least one team listed in the poll playing in every first-round match.
But when the tournament reaches the Sweet 16, the intensity at the Omaha Regional will go off the charts when three or four Big 12 teams and their fans descend upon Qwest Center Omaha.
Texas, Iowa State and Nebraska earned three of the four seeds in the region, and Texas A&M gives the Big 12 a chance to send all four teams to the regional semifinals. If those teams had been spread out among the other regions, there would have been a strong possibility the conference could have sent more than one team to the national semifinals.
3. Which seeded team has the toughest road to the Sweet 16?
Minnesota has a golden opportunity to earn its second trip to the national semifinals as host of one of the four regionals, but the No. 11 Gophers will have to get past Louisville and the winner of the Duke-Tennessee match to make it happen.
Minnesota (24-8, 15-5 Big Ten) starts the tournament on the road (Knoxville, Tenn.) for the fifth time in six years, joining No. 6 Washington, No. 9 California, No. 12 Hawaii and No. 14 Oregon as seeded teams not playing on their home courts during the first and second rounds. While Minnesota was 12-1 at the Sports Pavilion, it was 12-7 on the road.
Louisville is riding a seven-match winning streak, which includes victories over Notre Dame and Cincinnati during the Big East tournament. The Cardinals (21-10) have won 11 of their past 13 matches.
Duke is making its fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, winning its first-round match each of the past four seasons. The Blue Devils compiled a 27-5 overall record and its 17-3 mark in the ACC was good for second place.
All three teams should be concerned about playing at Tennessee. The Lady Vols won 12 of 13 matches at home, including victories over Florida and Kentucky during the final week of conference play. Tennessee finished in a tie for third place in the SEC with a 16-4 record and was 23-7 overall.
4. Which first-round matches are the most intriguing?
Football fans would love to see Cincinnati and Ohio State square off, but they'll have to settle with Friday's volleyball match. The Bearcats and Buckeyes will meet for only the second time in the postseason when Cincy travels to St. John Arena. The Buckeyes won the 2001 postseason match and lead the overall series 16-2.
Geoff Carlston has OSU back in the tournament for the first time since 2006 after the Buckeyes finished the season with a 24-9 record and tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 12-8. The last time he coached a tournament match in St. John Arena, Carlston led Ohio University to a sweep of Ohio State in 2005.
Cincinnati is making its second consecutive and eighth overall tournament appearance. The Bearcats earned an at-large bid after completing the regular season with a 25-10 record and finished tied for second in the Big East with a 12-2 mark.
Tulane squares off with LSU for the third time this season, the second in Baton Rouge. The Louisiana rivals played twice in a span of six days in early September, with each team winning on its home court.
LSU won its first SEC title since 1991, finishing one match ahead of Kentucky with an 18-2 conference record. The Tigers posted a 24-6 overall record despite losing at Rice in the final match of the regular season.
The Green Wave completed its regular season with an 18-9 record and finished third in Conference USA with a 12-4 record. Tulane also lost its final match of the regular season, falling to second-seeded Tulsa in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament.
Two programs that have won multiple national championships will tangle when UCLA (won NCAA titles in 1984, 1990 and 1991) plays host to Long Beach State (won NCAA titles in 1989, 1993 and 1998) on Friday at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA (23-8, 13-5 Pac-10) is 54-19 all-time against Long Beach State, including a 3-1 record against the 49ers in the NCAA tournament, but LBSU swept the Bruins earlier this season before winning the Big West Conference with a 12-4 record (22-8 overall). The Bruins are 14-0 in first- and second-round matches at Pauley Pavilion since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1998.
5. Which unseeded team could pull off the biggest upset?
Dayton will be looking to complete the trifecta against Illinois and advance to the second round of the tournament if both teams can win their first-round matches Thursday.
In 2007, the Flyers survived a pair of match points to stun the Illini in five sets in Dayton. Last year, Dayton defeated Illinois in five sets at Tennessee. If the Flyers can do it again during the NCAA tournament at Huff Hall, Dayton will earn even more credibility at the national level.
The Flyers enter Thursday's match with a 29-3 record. Two of Dayton's three defeats were in five sets, while the other was a 28-26, 26-24, 28-26 loss at Michigan. The Illini beat the Wolverines twice this season.
Dayton won the A-10 tournament on its home court with a five-set victory over Saint Louis, the second time the Flyers went the distance to earn a victory over the Billikens this season.
Illinois (24-5, 16-4 Big Ten) plays host to IPFW in its first match. The Illini own an 18-3 home record in the NCAA tournament.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. For the complete 2009 NCAA volleyball tournament schedule and results, click here.