Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NCAA Semifinals Preview + Prediction


 by Deb Kniffin

NOTABLE NEWS: The unseeded BYU Cougars pulled off a pair of upsets and punched their ticket to the 2015 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships being held December 18 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Good jumping gee willikers.

REGIONAL RECAP: I batted .500 in my regional predictions. Upsets and heading into the final weekend of play, my record is 66-38 (scroll down to bottom of article for recaps).


Texas vs. BYU
Thursday, December 18 @ 7:00 PM ET

TV: ESPN2
Stream: http://byucougars.com/w-volleyball/event/2014/no-2-texas

Texas and BYU have met just 15 times in program history. The all-time series record slants in BYU’s favor (9-6), but Texas has won the two latest matchups (2001 and 2008). Going into this NCAA Semifinals matchup, they’re the better team this season, both on paper and in practice. But the underrated Cougars proved they don’t just hang with top-tier programs; they beat them in big moments. I’ve got no idea what to expect from this one. I know what my gut tells me. But my gut also told me BYU would get smashed way before reaching the Final Four.

Texas
Record: 27-2 overall, 15-1 in conference
Conference: Big 12

This weekend, the Longhorns will compete in their third-consecutive NCAA Semifinals. As a program, they boast 10 Final Four berths, including six in the last seven years. Can you say dominant? The Longhorns’ all-star cast is led by Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH) and Khat Bell (Sr., MH/OH). They’re physical hitters that contact the ball well above the tape and know how to swing for points. In addition to their power-packed offense, Texas has another point-scoring tool in their arsenal. Their defense doesn’t just provide opportunity for additional swings. Their defense scores points directly. Against North Carolina, Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) and Molly McCage (Jr., MH) combined for 13 blocks. 



BYU
Record: 29-4 overall, 16-2 in conference
Conference: West Coast

The Cougars advance to their second-ever NCAA Semifinals (the last trip was in 1993). BYU competes in an okay-but-not-great conference and subsequently flew largely under-the-radar all season. Yes, they were ranked. But no one (including me) really had them in the conversation of potential semifinals squads. I’ve described them as sneaky good in the past. As they prepare to compete on college volleyball’s biggest stage, I’d say they’ve officially graduated out of the sneaky phase.  Jennifer Hamson (Sr., OPP) lends her cannon of an arm and 6-7 frame to the cause—she’s killing it on offense and tearing it up behind he service line. Her counterpart, Alexa Gray (Jr., OH), contributes a solid chunk of offense as well. Like Texas, BYU can score points with their block—Amy Boswell (So., MH), Hamson and Whitney Young (So., MH) have amassed 1.67, 1.35 and 1.92 blocks per set this season. The Cougars actually lead the nation with a collective 3.87 blocks per set.

Matchup
Like I said, these are two very proficient blocking teams. While Texas is traditionally considered one of the most physical teams in the nation, BYU has the size to keep up with and potentially neutralize the high-flying Longhorns. Texas has very few chinks in the armor, but they do exist (note: Oklahoma and Florida)—mainly in the form of chemistry and composure. BYU will need their unabashed confidence, why-not-us attitude and nothing-to-lose mentality soundly in place if they hope to expose these chinks. It’s tough to say whether that’ll be present when they run into the semifinal-savvy Longhorns. If it is, BYU could play with reckless abandon, start strong, rattle Texas and extend the match to extra sets (I see no scenario where they sweep). If BYU does all that and throws in some career-best performances, it will put them in position to pose the upset, but it doesn’t guarantee an outcome. Texas is that good. And if BYU doesn’t come out with all guns blazing, the match could quickly get away from them. 

My Pick: Texas in five

Stanford vs. Penn State
Thursday, December 18 @ 9:30 PM ET

TV: ESPN2
Listen: http://www.gopsusports.com/collegesportslive/?media=478782

These top-10 programs faced off during pre-conference play, and Stanford claimed the five-set victory. But Penn State had a slow start to the season. They’ve gotten progressively better over the course of the season and are playing really high-level volleyball right now. Stanford has not gotten worse this season, but they didn’t significantly improve over the course of the season either. In fact, they started showing signs of mortality toward the end of Pac-12 play. I expect this match to be even tighter than the pre-conference bout. That’s saying something.

Stanford
Record: 33-1 overall, 19-1 in conference
Conference:
Pac-12

This year marks Stanford’s 19th trip to the NCAA Semifinals, most recently advancing in 2008. The Cardinal claimed the title in 2004 and will look to repeat history ten years later. Stanford spent most of the 2014 season ranked No. 1 in the nation. Stanford—led by lights-out hitters Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) and Jordan Burgess (Jr., OH)—is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country (ranked No. 3 behind Penn State and Florida). This is just a savvy team. Yes, they’re big. Yes, they touch high. Yes, they scramble in the back row. But more importantly, they make volleyball plays. 



Penn State
Record: 34-3 overall, 18-2 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The defending national champions know what it takes to win. As they’ve improved and hit their stride throughout conference play, they’ve sharpened their skills and subsequently figured out a ton of ways to score points. They’re deadly serving and efficient offense top the charts nationally. Micha Hancock (Sr., S) is a key player in that success—she set her team to a .348 hitting efficiency and produced 124 service aces this season. A fierce competitor, Hancock shined in last season’s title match. I expect her to really lead her squad this weekend. She’s got the pieces to succeed—Ali Frantti (Fr., OH) and Aiyana Whitney (RS Jr., OH) are more than capable of carrying the offense, while Dominique Gonzales (Sr., DS) holds her own in the back row.

Matchup
This matchup will add fire to the season-long debate over which conference reigns supreme in 2014. Early-on, the Pac-12 seemed to boast the best volleyball. In the NCAA tournament, more Pac-12 teams made the cut (though Purdue should have made the cut over some of them in my opinion). But when the field whittled down to 16 teams, the conferences were equally represented. With just one team left standing from each conference, bragging rights are on the line in addition to a championship berth. I doubt that dynamic is on either team’s mind right now, though. So. Moving on. While they’ve got size and athleticism, neither team really scores points with their block. Expect both teams to bury some balls on offense. I think that this is a great matchup—these teams are ridiculous on offense, volleyball savvy, experienced in big moments, okay at blocking and scrappy on defense. I think if Penn State gets Stanford into longer rallies and knocks them out of rhythm with their serving, they’re in good shape to win. 

My Pick: Penn State in five (and probably extra points). 


Last week recap:

My Pick: Stanford def. Oregon State in four
Reality: Stanford def. Oregon State in four
Recap: This one went exactly as expected. Stanford continues to look like a championship program as they head into the final stretch.

My Pick: Illinois def. Florida in five
Reality: Florida def. Illinois in five
Recap: The No. 8 Gators and No. 9 Illini were as evenly matched as expected--Illinois didn’t fall till 16-14 in the fifth set. What a match.

*****Elite 8: Stanford def. Florida in three


My Pick: Washington def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Nebraska def. Washington in four
Recap: Injury played a role in this upset. I feel for Krista Vansant & Co. They had the talent to win it all, but unfortunately talent isn’t the only factor at play when it comes to winning the final match of the season.

My Pick: Florida State def. BYU in four
Reality: BYU def. Florida State in four
Recap: BYU’s “why not us” approach to postseason play apparently paid off. They played fearless volleyball. Florida State crumpled under the pressure.

*****Elite 8: BYU def. Nebraska in three


My Pick: Penn State def. UCLA in four
Reality: Penn State def. UCLA in three
Recap: This Penn State team is playing like they’ve got a title to defend. They barely missed a beat against a very strong UCLA squad.

My Pick: Wisconsin def. Ohio State in three
Reality: Wisconsin def. Ohio State in five
Recap: Wisconsin chalked up two authoritative wins over Ohio State during conference play but lost their composure last weekend and barely escaped with the win.

*****Elite 8: Penn State def. Wisconsin in four


My Pick: Oregon def. North Carolina in five
Reality: North Carolina def. Oregon in four
Recap: Seniors Chaniel Nelson (OPP), Ece Taner (L) and Lauren McAdoo (OH) weren’t ready for the Tar Heel’s history season to end. And they played like it.

My Pick: Texas def. Colorado State in three
Reality: Texas def. Colorado State in three
Recap: The Longhorns blazed through their first three playoff matches without dropping a set.

*****Elite 8: Texas def. North Carolina in four

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deb Predicts Every Round of 16 Match



by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: The Sweet Sixteen conference breakdown looks like this…
Pac-12: 5 teams 
Big Ten: 5 teams 
ACC: 2 teams 
SEC: 1 team 
West Coast: 1 team 
Big 12: 1 team 
Mountain West: 1 team


All Round of 16 matches will be broadcast LIVE on ESPN3 except Washington vs. Nebraska, which will be on ESPNU. All NCAA Quarterfinals matches will be on ESPNU.

My Picks: I went 24-8 in my first-round picks. I feel like in bracket selections, you have to throw in that one wild upset that no one else will pick. I went with Santa Clara over Oregon...and was dead wrong. Some lucky gun out there went with UALR over Kansas and was spot on. Ah well. Maybe next time. Anyway. That first-round record bumps my season record to 62-34. On to the Round of 16.

Stanford vs. Oregon State
Friday, December 12 @ 6 PM ET

*Stanford defeated CSU Bakersfield (3-0) and Michigan State (3-1)
*Oregon State defeated Creighton (3-1) and UALR (3-2)

During conference play, Stanford defeated Oregon State twice (3-0 and 3-1). The difference maker wasn’t Stanford’s sizable block--it was their back row defense. Oregon State did a nice job avoiding the block, they just couldn’t put a ball down. Stanford, on the other hand, had no problem siding out or putting the ball down in transition.

Scobel Wiggins/Oregon State Athletics

My Pick: Stanford in four


Illinois vs. Florida
Friday, December 12 @ 8 PM ET

*Illinois defeated Murray State (3-0) and Iowa State (3-0)
* Florida defeated Alabama State (3-0) and Miami-FL (3-1)

In this first meeting of the season, we’ll see which physical squad reigns supreme. Florida’s athleticism is displayed in their offense--all their hitters are high above the net and putting the ball down with pace. Illinois’ athleticism is displayed in their defense--they’ve got a lot going for them in the back row, and they score points with their block. I am flat out dreading predicting this match. Considered leaving it blank and allowing for an editor's pick, but that feels like a cop-out.

My Pick: Illinois in five


Washington vs. Nebraska
Friday, December 12 @ 9:30 PM ET

*Washington defeated New Hampshire (3-0) and Hawai'i (3-1)
*Nebraska defeated Hofstra (3-0) and Utah (3-2)

Nebraska is young, talented and volatile. Washington is old, talented and poised. As long as Washington’s veteran all-stars aren’t worn down, the old thing will be an advantage, thinking specifically about Katy Beals (Jr., S).  I think that defensively, Washington is in a great space right now. The Huskies blocked Hawai'i off the court last week.

My Pick: Washington in five


BYU vs. Florida State
Friday, December 12 @ 7 PM ET

*BYU defeated Seton Hall (3-0) and Arizona (3-1)
*Florida State defeated Jacksonville (3-0) and Alabama (3-0)

These teams meet for the first time this season. BYU can best be described as sneaky good. They tend to be forgotten because their conference is average, but they took Washington to five sets earlier this season. They’re legit--and they’ve got a bomb of an arm at opposite in Jennifer Hamson. Florida State is not-so-sneaky good. They’ve also got a bomb of the arm in Nicole Walch (Jr., OH). And they’ve got great defense to match. I think that’s their edge.

My Pick: Florida State in four



Penn State vs. UCLA
Friday, December 12 @ 7 PM ET

*Penn State defeated Siena (3-0) and Dayton (3-0)
*UCLA defeated LIU Brooklyn (3-0) and Long Beach State (3-0)

UCLA started out the season hot, but they’ve lost steam in recent weeks. Karsta Lowe (Sr., OH) is still crazy good, but as a team they aren’t playing better volleyball than they were three months ago. Penn State started out the season cold, but have done nothing but improve throughout the season. They’re looking unstoppable.

My Pick: Penn State in four


Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Friday, December 12 @ 5 PM ET

*Ohio State defeated Lipscomb (3-0) and Kentucky (3-1)
*Wisconsin defeated Western Kentucky (3-0) and Illinois State (3-0)

Speaking of teams that are looking unstoppable--Wisconsin isn’t slowing down either. They know they’ve got the team to finish what they couldn’t last year and claim the title. Ohio State barely hung with Wisconsin during conference play. I think that’ll be the same story this weekend.

My Pick: Wisconsin in three


North Carolina vs. Oregon
Friday, December 12 @ 7 PM ET

*North Carolina defeated Hampton (3-0) and USC (3-1)
*Oregon defeated Santa Clara (3-0) and LSU (3-1)

North Carolina looks really strong right now--they managed to significantly out-block a physical USC squad. They looked shaky on offense and struggled to get their middles clipping at their usual pace. For Oregon, Liz Brenner (Sr., OH) never got hot against LSU---she was key to their success when they made the finals two years ago. The potential is there, and once it shows this team could be nasty to play. I feel like I owe Oregon the pick in this one. I did wrongly predict a first-round upset. Oops.

My Pick: Oregon in five

Eric Evans/Oregon Athletics

Colorado State vs. Texas
Friday, December 12 @ 5 PM ET

*Colorado State defeated Denver (3-0) and Colorado (3-2)
*Texas defeated Northwestern State (3-0) and Arizona State (3-0)

Colorado State just barely snuck past Colorado--the final frame closed at 16-14. I predicted that Colorado would come out victorious. They had their chances, but didn’t close. Anyway, I’m still not overly impressed with Colorado State--especially when compared to the elite teams remaining. I think Texas handles them in a heart beat. They Longhorns are flat out pummeling everyone that gets in their way right now.

My Pick: Texas in three

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Deb Previews + Predicts Every NCAA First Round Match



Notable News: The NCAA tournament kicks off this weekend. In a shocking turn of events, a top-25 ranked team did not make the field of 64. Purdue was ranked No. 19 as they headed into their final two matches of conference play against Michigan State and Wisconsin. They fell to both, ended the regular season with a 22-10 overall/12-8 conference record, weren’t selected to the NCAA Tournament and still clocked in at No. 24 in this week’s poll. Ouch.

Top-5 Recap: It was a ridiculously exciting final week of conference play. Stanford suffered their first loss. Florida toppled Texas. And I went 38-26 on the season. Which is better than my record last season and once again qualifies me for post-season picks. After a quick run-down of last week’s matches, we’ll dive into post-season analysis. I’ll be touching briefly on every single first-round contest. That’s 32 matches. Get excited.

My Pick: Illinois def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Illinois def. Nebraska in five

My Pick: Stanford def. Washington in four
Reality: Washington def. Stanford in four

My Pick: North Carolina def. Duke in four
Reality: North Carolina def. Duke in five

My Pick: Arizona def. Arizona State in five
Reality: Arizona def. Arizona State in three

My Pick: Texas def. Florida in four
Reality: Florida def. Texas in five

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 38-26


AMES REGIONAL


Bakersfield @ No. 1-seeded Stanford (Stanford, CA)
Friday, December 5, 7 PM PT
Considering Stanford navigated the majority of the regular season without a single loss, this one is a bit of a no-brainer. Stanford should blow through their California compatriots without much effort.
My Pick: Stanford in three

Inky Ajanaku/Pac-12.com

Loyola Marymount vs. Michigan State (Stanford, CA)
Friday, December 5, 4:30 PM PT
Loyola Marymount spent some time in the top-25 rankings this season and have done some really nice things. Michigan State tailed off after their stellar 2013 campaign, but spent all season competing in the ultra-competitive Big Ten conference. That trumps.
My Pick: Michigan State in five

Oregon State vs. Creighton (Topeka, KS)
Friday, December 5th, 2 PM PT
This is one of those matches that could be dictated by distance traveled. Oregon State has a significantly longer hike. Even still, I think they are the better team. They’ve got some nice athletes and are more consistent than Creighton.
My Pick: Oregon State in four

UALR @ No. 16-seeded Kansas (Topeka, KS)
Friday, December 5, 4:30 PM PT
The unranked Jayhawks got hot late in the season, and I don’t anticipate them slowing down in this match. They’ve got home-court advantage, a couple nice arms and a lot to prove since they’ll be dancing while top-25 ranked Purdue watches from home.
My Pick: Kansas in three

Murray State @ No. 9-seeded Illinois (Champaign, IL)
Friday, December 5, 5 PM PT
The Illini are a physical, talented team. They’ve got some heavy arms and serious size in the front line. Murray State will struggle to handle the heat. Plus, Huff Hall gets rowdy--it’s one of the toughest places to travel to in the Big Ten due to their dedicated student following, the Spike Squad.
My Pick: Illinois in three

Iowa State vs. Western Kentucky (Champaign, IL)
Friday, December 5, 2:30 PM PT
The Cyclones had a rough start, but really started clicking as the season progressed. A couple power hitters and renown defensive play makes this team scary in the postseason. I think they’ll be challenged by Western Kentucky, another team with a few big arms and oodles of potential--but they’ll be motivated to advance since they host a regional this season.
My Pick: Iowa State in five

Iowa State's pretty excited about Deb's pick.

Miami Florida vs. UCF (Gainesville, FL)
Friday, December 5, 1:30 PM PT
UCF has a few diamonds in the rough that really propel them to success. They’ve competed with top teams, but haven’t found a way to win those big matches yet. What better time than the NCAA tournament? I think this match against Miami will serve as a nice warm-up--it’ll be challenging, but not impossible.
My Pick: UCF in four

Alabama State @ No. 8-seeded Florida (Gainesville, FL)
Friday, December 5, 4 PM PT
Florida is in a tough regional. They could have/should have gotten a higher seed in my opinion. I mean. The Gators did just hand it to Texas, after all. A dominant offensive team with defensive play to match, I think Alabama State has little to no shot in this one.
My Pick: Florida in three

LOUISVILLE REGIONAL


Siena @ No. 5- seeded Penn State (University Park, PA)
Friday, December 5, 4:30 PM PT
Penn State took their time getting started this season, but they are looking really, really strong heading into post-season play. I would go as far as to say they are playing scary volleyball right now. The defending national champions are no strangers to big moments. And given their talent level, this match against Siena doesn’t qualify as a big moment just yet. Expect a blowout.
My Pick: Penn State in three

American vs. Dayton (University Park, PA)
Friday, December 5, 2 PM PT
American was the Cinderella team in the 2013 NCAA tournament. They not only chalked up their first-ever tournament victory, but advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Based on their track record this season, I think they’re in position to once again earn a W and advance through the first round. They’re better than Dayton. If they can stay composed, this one is theirs.
My Pick: American in four

Long Beach State vs. San Diego (Los Angeles, CA)
Friday, December 5, 5:30 PM PT
This is the match to watch if you plan on heading to Los Angeles for some volleyball. Both of these squads navigated very average conferences with success, lost to some great teams and competed with some good teams. I think Long Beach State is a little bit more physical and poised, but San Diego will definitely push them.
My Pick: Long Beach State in five




LIU Brooklyn @ No. 12-seeded UCLA (Los Angeles, CA)
Friday, December 5, 8 PM PT
LIU Brooklyn had a really nice season. The Northeastern conference powerhouse won their third-straight conference championship this season, landed Libero of the Year, Setter of the Year, Coach of the Year and Player of the Year honors in their conference. But they are no match for a Pac-12-tested, Karsta Lowe-led UCLA squad. The Bruins just hit harder and play quicker.
My Pick: UCLA in four

Oakland @ No. 13-seeded Kentucky (Lexington, KY)
Friday, December 5, 4:30 PM PT
This Kentucky squad knows how to play volleyball. And they know how to get it done in the NCAA tournament--this year marks their tenth-consecutive berth. They’ve got talent in every position along with a lot of depth. Oakland might have blazed their way through the Horizon League, but they’ll be slowed down when they face this SEC frontrunner.
My Pick: Kentucky in three

Ohio State vs. Lipscomb (Lexington, KY)
Friday, December 5, 2 PM PT
Take note of this Ohio State squad. They’re still working on consistency, but they’ve been toppling Big ten powerhouses all season long. I’m talking about the likes of Nebraska and Illinois. Lipscomb won’t go softly, though. Like Ohio State, they’ve spent the season keeping up with top-tier programs, even managing to take down Kansas. I think Ohio State is a little more battle-tested thanks to their Big ten slate, a little stronger position-by-position and a little more volleyball savvy.
My Pick: Ohio State in four

Marquette vs. Illinois State (Madison, WI)
Thursday, December 4, 3 PM PT
Make sure you watch this match. Neither team is quite at rock-star status yet, but both have won big-time matches during pre-conference play. Illinois State was a little bit steadier throughout the regular season, going undefeated in the Missouri Valley conference. I think they are the better team talent-wise. But Marquette shines in big matches (note their wins over Florida, UCF and American).  And the tournament is all about big moments.
My Pick: Marquette in five

Western Michigan @ No. 4-seeded Wisconsin (Madison, WI)
Thursday, December 4, 5:30 PM PT
The Badgers are officially back on track. Since (finally) returning to the NCAA tournament and blazing to the title match last season, the Badgers have dropped just two matches in their 2014 campaign. They’ve haven’t lost a match since September 24, stole the Big Ten conference title and earned the program’s highest-ever seed in the NCAA tournament. Good luck, Western Michigan.
My Pick: Wisconsin in three

Lauren Carlini/Stephen Brashear

SEATTLE REGIONAL


New Hampshire @ No. 3-seeded Washington (Seattle, WA)
Friday, December 5, 7 PM PT
Washington is really, really good. They went through most of the season with a perfect record, suffered two “oops” losses to Utah and Colorado, but got aggressively back on track with a four-set victory over Stanford that marked the Cardinal’s first loss of the season. Vansant continues to lead the way, and will likely blaze them straight to the title match if the rest of her team can stay healthy. New Hampshire won’t slow them down much regardless.
My Pick: Washington in three

Hawai'i vs. Duke (Seattle, WA)
Friday, December 5, 5 PM PT
Hawai'i is not the team they have been the past few seasons. I’m honestly a little shocked they made the field of 64. Duke is athletic, driven and straight up good this season. They’ve got a few athletes that can take over, and that’s exactly what I expect to happen. Hawai'i might surprise me and challenge them a bit, but I don’t think it’s likely. They’re just too volatile this season.
My Pick: Duke in four

Kansas State vs. Utah (Lincoln, NE)
Friday, December 5, 2:30 PM PT
The Wildcats have one or two players that can really play the game, including freshman Kylee Zumach. Unfortunately, the team was stronger earlier this season, and petered off in the second half of conference play. Utah, on the other hand, got hot in the second half of their PAC 12 slate. They pretty much beat everyone except for Stanford and Arizona the second time around. I see no reason they slow down now.
My Pick: Utah in four



Hofstra @ No. 14-seeded Nebraska (Lincoln, NE)
Friday, December 5, 5 PM PT
Hofstra competes in the Colonial Athletic Association conference. Not one of the premier conferences by any stretch of the imagination. But they had a great season, won the conference tournament with a first-year head coach at the helm and get to play Nebraska. They’ll probably lose, but the opportunity to compete in that environment is pretty special.
My Pick: Nebraska in three

Yale @ No. 11-seeded Arizona (Tucson, AZ)
Thursday, December 4, 5:30 PM PT
Arizona has posted a great season. They don’t have a ton going on in terms of all-star players, but they’ve got some great chemistry and just enough talent to compete with the top teams. Wouldn’t be shocked if they end up in the Sweet Sixteen. I don’t anticipate Yale putting up much of a fight.
My Pick: Arizona in three

BYU vs. Seton Hall (Tucson, AZ)
Thursday, December 4, 3 PM PT
The Cougars are dangerous this season. They’ve got some size and “loose cannon” players that can either drive them into the ground or to a big win. Look for BYU to give Seton Hall a quick thrashing and then put some pressure on Arizona in the second round (assuming they both advance).
My Pick: BYU in three

Alabama vs. Samford (Tallahassee, FL)
Thursday, December 4, 1:30 PM PT
Samford is very hot-and-cold. They are really strong some matches, and really poor other matches. Against shared opponent Ole Miss, both Alabama and Samford fell, but Alabama looked a lot stronger. I think this one will be close—talent wise it’s a pretty even match up. Consistency is where Alabama seems to hold the upper edge.
My Pick: Alabama in five

Jacksonville @ No. 6-seeded Florida State (Tallahassee, FL)
Thursday, December 4, 4 PM PT
Florida State is scary in post-season play. If I’m in their regional, I’m a little nervous right now. Several players in their gym have cannons for arms and are capable of flat out taking over matches. Their defense is also rock solid. Jacksonville was dead average all season, then somehow won the Atlantic Sun conference tournament.  That joy ride is about to end.
My Pick: Florida State in three

FSU has experience on the big stage, upsetting Nebraska in the AVCA Showcase

MINNESOTA REGIONAL


Hampton @ No. 7-seeded North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC)
Friday, December 5, 3:30 PM PT
Hampton started out the season by piling on losses, but their challenging schedule (relative to their skill level) seems to have paid dividends. They ended regular-season play with a six-match winning streak and controlled the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. I don’t think that gives them much hope against a talented, driven North Carolina squad, but it could make for a more interesting match.
My Pick: North Carolina in four

Coastal Carolina vs. Southern California (Chapel Hill, NC)
Friday, December 5, 1:30 PM PT
Considering USC was pegged as a potential NCAA Champion this season, they’ve been pretty disappointing to watch. They’ve got the pieces of the puzzle—including a bunch of really physical, really big players—but putting that puzzle together has proved problematic this season. What better time than now to finally start clicking. Coastal Carolina should serve as a warm-up/confidence booster.
My Pick: Southern California in three

Oklahoma vs. LSU (Eugene, OR)
Thursday, December 4, 4:30 PM PT
Both of these teams had okay seasons (obviously—they’re in the tournament). The main difference in caliber is that LSU beat okay teams and sort of hung with top teams, while Oklahoma hung with top teams and sometimes beat them. I think the Sooners have more firepower, better ball control and stronger serving than LSU.
My Pick: Oklahoma in four

Kierra Holst/Ty Russell - OU Athletics Communications

Santa Clara @ No. 10-seeded Oregon (Eugene, OR)
Thursday, December 4, 7 PM PT
I’m calling the upset. Santa Clara worked their way into the top-25 for a brief stint this season. They play really nice system volleyball and have found a way to succeed with the players they’ve got in the gym. Oregon was very lukewarm this season. They have tournament experience and home-court advantage (along with bigger, better players), but I really like how Santa Clara competes. 
My Pick: Santa Clara in five

Denver @ No. 15-seeded Colorado State (Fort Collins, CO)
Friday, December 5, 5:30 PM PT
I get that Colorado State was nearly unstoppable in conference play. I get that they beat BYU and Arizona State. I get that they have a great setter and straight up ballers on their team. But a No. 15 seed and season-long top-25 ranking seems a bit generous for a team competing in a pretty low-level conference. Unluckily for them, the highly underrated Colorado will likely await them in the second round. I’m sensing a first-round sweep followed by second-round upset.   
My Pick: Colorado State in three

Colorado vs. Northern Colorado (Fort Collins, CO)
Friday, December 5, 3:30 PM PT
Colorado didn’t get a seed. But they are an intimidating team to face this season. They have beaten Washington, Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and a slew of other top-tier programs. They’re the underdog heading into this first weekend since Colorado State gets all the love, but they’ve got the firepower and defense to win both matches and they know it. I think they’ll be fired up and blaze through Northern Colorado en route to a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
My Pick: Colorado in three

Texas A&M vs. Arizona State (Austin, TX)
Thursday, December 4, 2:30 PM PT
These are two bubble teams, in my opinion. They’ve got potential—they just haven’t consistently performed yet this season. I think this will be one of the more interesting first-round matches to follow, so be sure to tune in. Arizona State is a little bit more offensive than Texas A&M, but the Aggies have a stronger block, better defense and more aggressive serving traditionally. I think they take this one.
My Pick: Texas A&M in five

Northwestern State @ No. 2-seeded Texas (Austin, TX)
Thursday, December 4, 5 PM PT
This will not be one of those magical upset stories. There is pretty much no chance that Northwestern State wins. Physically, Texas is one of the most impressive teams out there right now. Talent wise, I’d say the same. They not only have players on the court who are hitting hard, serving with heat, running fast and blocking way above the net. They’ve got players on the bench who can do the same.
My Pick: Texas in three