Notable News: Happy Holidays! This is a great time of year for so many reasons. Think turkey and cranberries, color-changing leaves, crisp mornings, the conclusion of conference play and the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Does it get any better? Well. Yes. The NCAA Championship + holidays combination is pretty above average too. So let’s enjoy this and eagerly anticipate that. Anyway. This week, I’m giving thanks for awesome matches to follow in this last week of the regular season play--along with a lot of other things.
My Pick: Gonzaga def. San Diego in five
Reality: San Diego def. Gonzaga in four
My Pick: Long Beach State def. UC Davis in five
Reality: Long Beach State def. UC Davis in three
My Pick: Illinois State def. Missouri State in four
Reality: Illinois State def. Missouri State in five
My Pick: Iowa State def. Kansas in five
Reality: Kansas def. Iowa State in four
My Pick: Virginia def. Pittsburgh in five
Reality: Pittsburgh def. West Virginia in four
Last Week’s Record: 2-3
Overall Record: 35-24
No. 1 Stanford @ No. 5 Washington
Wednesday, November 26 - 8pm ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
This is the battle of undefeated vs. the recently undefeated. Stanford has navigated a grueling pre-conference and PAC-12 schedule without suffering a single loss. That’s even more impressive right now than it was a few weeks ago when two other top-5 teams (Florida State and Washington) also boasted undefeated records. So obviously, Washington is the recently undefeated mentioned above. These top-5 teams meet for the first time in their second-to-last conference meeting of the season.
Record: 28-0 overall, 18-0 in conference
I don’t know what to tell you. Stanford is ridiculously good. They do everything really, really well. Tough serving—paced by Megan McGehee (Jr., MH)—along with ridiculous backcourt defense—led by Kyle Gilbert (Sr., L)—make this team not only really tough to score runs against, but tough to score on period . They, however, have no problem scoring on opponents, no matter how top-tier. The Cardinal have survived PAC-12 play with a .317 hitting efficiency. All five primary hitters have 200+ kills on the season. Two of those five—Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) and Merete Lutz (RS Fr., MH) have posted .446 and .451 hitting efficiencies and notched 1.14 and 1.19 blocks per set, respectively. I think that probably makes them the best middle hitter tandem in the country. Yikes. Yikes. Yikes. Who’s voting they win it all?
Record: 27-2 overall, 16-2 in conference
Team Vansant was close—SO close—to going undefeated heading into this much-anticipated Stanford match. Darn those dead average teams that suck you down to their level. Against both Utah and Colorado, the Huskies faltered in just one area: offensive performance. Normally one of their strengths, the Huskies really struggled with getting the ball to the right hitters in the right situations. Vansant added extra attempts to her already heavy load and subsequently had an off night. Lianna Sybeldon (Jr., MH) and Kaleigh Nelson (Sr., OH) were hitting .323 and Crissy Jones (Fr., OH/MH) was hitting .533, .323 and .250 respectively, but wasn’t getting enough attempts to change the flow of the match in the final two frames. If the set distribution was a result of below-average passing, we don’t have to worry about Washington being back on track heading into the final stretch. After her performances against Arizona and Arizona State, Cassie Strickland earned a PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Week award.
Do. Not. Miss. This. Match. These are final-four caliber teams. This could serve as a nice preview of a later-round NCAA tournament matchup, depending on how the bracket lines up. Stanford and Washington are similar in that they are very physical. They block well and are smooth lateral movers along the net. They pass well and are agile in the back row. They serve well and put pace and movement on the ball. They both have great hitters in every position and can put the ball down at a high level. Their biggest difference is the location of that one game-changer and how much they are relied upon. Vansant is a pin-hitter and carries the team. Ajanaku is a middle and can carry the team, but has a supporting cast that oftentimes steps up to do it for her.
My Pick: Stanford in four
No. 10 Nebraska @ No. 11 Illinois
Wednesday, November 26 - 8pm ET
I was torn between previewing this match or the Nebraska vs. Penn State match. Both are intriguing: Penn State fell to Nebraska earlier this season, and Nebraska fell to Illinois earlier this season. But. I thought it would be more valuable to pay attention to the Nebraska vs. Illinois match as we head into the NCAA tournament. Here’s why: Relative to past seasons, Nebraska has struggled with handled big moments this season. I want to pay close attention to how the Cornhuskers respond to the pressure of being on the road and trying to avoid the sweep at the hands of the Illini. I think it’ll be telling of how deep they advance in postseason play.
Record: 20-7 overall, 14-4 in conference
Conference: Big Ten
It’s hard to be a team with a high ceiling and lots of potential. When expectations aren’t met, people tend to react with a sigh of disappointment. When expectations are met, people tend to react with unimpressed acknowledgement (no matter how lofty the expectation). Nebraska is definitely that team this season. They’ve got tons of potential--cue the Kadie (So., OH) and Amber (So., OH) Rolfzen and Kelsey Fien (Jr., OH)—along with lofty expectations and enough losses under their belt to get a critical eye from almost everyone. Including me. That might not be fair, but it’s part of being a top-tier team. And learning to play under that pressure paves the way to championships. I think senior leadership in a few key position—I’m thinking specifically of Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S)—will help this Nebraska squad keep steady as conference play winds down and they prepare for playoffs.
|Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Media Relations|
Record: 22-7 overall, 14-4 in conference
Conference: Big Ten
After kicking off the season in a 6-2 offensive system, Illinois has locked into a 5-1 for the second half of conference play. It seems to have helped their offensive consistency—Alexis Viliunas (Jr., S) is very comfortable setting heavy-armed pin hitters Jocelyn Birks (RS Jr., OH) and Liz McMahon (Sr., OPP). Their defense has also improved over the course of the season as newbie libero Brandi Donnelly (Fr., L) adjusts to the speed of Big Ten volleyball. Like Nebraska, this Illinois squad has combated the high-ceiling thing (literally—their opposite McMahon is 6-6), but as they continue to learn how to handle the pressure of potential, they’re improving and competing with top teams.
Illinois controlled the side-out game when they downed Nebraska on the Cornhuskers’ home court. They passed well in serve receive, spread out their offense enough to avoid well-formed blocks and were effective at finding holes on the court with their attacks. Besides that slight side-out advantage, the matchup was pretty even across the board. Both teams hit pretty well, blocked well, played okay defense and served pretty averagely. At this late date in the season, I still think these two teams are evenly matched player-for-player. That being said, I think the side-out battle once again decides this contest. I think Illinois’ side-out game will stay strong on their home court, whereas I can see Nebraska struggling to stay composed in a rowdy Huff Hall crowd.
My Pick: Illinois in five
No. 21 Duke @ No. 7 North Carolina
Wednesday, November 26 - 2pm ET
TV: GoHeels TV
The ACC has three flagship teams: Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. All three are top-25 programs, and all three should make the NCAA tournament. With one game of separation between each team in conference standings and the only automatic bid going to the conference victor, this match is a big one.
Record: 21-6 overall, 13-3 in conference
Duke is a very physical team, and a significant amount of that physicality (as if it’s a measurable thing) is wrapped up in the middle. Alyse Whitaker (So., MH) and Jordan Tucker (So., MH) are strong blockers and really force opponents to mix up their shots. And while Emily Sklar (Jr., OH) has led the team all season offensively, it was Whitaker and Tucker who stepped up big against North Carolina earlier this season and kept the team in the match. They notched 15 and 14 kills respectively and shared a .393 hitting efficiency.
Record: 24-2 overall, 15-1 in conference
North Carolina has some athletes in the front row that move really well laterally despite being tall--check out Paige Neuenfeldt (Jr., MH) and Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH) in specific. They’re absolutely shutting down opposing hitters and combining for an average of 2.95 blocks per set. The athleticism of this squad doesn’t stop at the block: pin hitters Chaniel Nelson (RS Sr., OPP) and Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) and Leigh Andrew (Jr., OH) are all really physical as well, but more importantly, they’re volleyball players. They know when to swing hard and when to take off some heat. I really like the way they play and patiently wait for the right time to rip away.
For a team that traditionally relies on physicality at the net, it was rattling for Duke to be so authoritatively out-blocked. The Tar Heels bested them 11.5 to 3.0 at the net last time around. Not shocking, given the presence of McPherson and Neuenfeldt on the Tar Heels side. I think their dominant performance really rattled Sklar and knocked her off her game. But it didn’t seem to affect Whitaker and Tucker. If the Blue Devils can get all three guns--Sklar, Whitaker and Tucker--firing at once, they’ll be in this match. If they can pick up their blocking and thwart the Tar Heels offensive efforts, they just might win. And this is where homecourt advantage comes into play. I’m not sure North Carolina will be rattle-able (new word) at home. I actually expect them to be more fired up than usual.
My Pick: North Carolina in four
No. 14 Arizona @ No. 22 Arizona State
Friday, November 28 - 9pm ET
TV: PAC-12 Arizona
TV: PAC-12 Arizona
Arizona and Arizona State kicked off conference play against each other, and they’ll end conference play the same way. Yes, I’m covering two PAC 12 matches this week. And yes, I previewed this exact meeting earlier in the season. And yes, I think it’s just as riveting this time around, if not more so. These are top-25, evenly matched, in-state rivals battling over Thanksgiving break on the home court of the squad that was bested last time around. I mean, come on people. This is good stuff right here. Tune in.
Record: 22-8 overall, 11-7 in conference
Conference: PAC 12
Team Kingdon hit some road bumps mid-season. After a blazing-hot start that featured wins over UCLA and Arizona State, the Wild Cats tallied as many losses as wins throughout the bulk of conference play. A late push gave them three wins in a row, which guaranteed them a .500 record (at least) in conference. In case the above reference alluded you, Madi Kingdon (Sr., OH) continues to carry this squad. When she’s able to hit her stride, the team wins. She’s the top scorer, a strong server and digger and a capable blocker. Oh, and she competes. For Kingdon to hit her stride and do her thing, her team needs to play solid defense and produce just enough offense from other positions (middles and opposite) to keep opposing blockers honest.
Record: 18-2 overall, 8-10 in conference
If Arizona is Team Kingdon, Arizona State is Team Gardner. While they thrive at the pins behind the play of Macey Gardner (Jr., OH) they struggle at the net when it comes to blocking. No player has tabbed more than .84 blocks per set. That’s just not going to cut it in PAC-12 volleyball. Halle Harker attempts to compensate for the weak blocking, but that’s a tough uphill battle as a back row player. There’s only so much you can do when the ball’s coming with serious pace and not being funneled to a specific zone on the court. Harker’s strong serve along with the strong serving of setter Bianca Arellano and Gardner are the only things making Harker’s job any easier. When their serving is on, it can knock opponents into more predictable offensive patterns and thus help out the defense.
In their conference opener, Arizona bested Arizona State 21-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 15-13. Honestly, I don’t know what more Arizona State could have thrown at Arizona. The Sun Devil’s star player, Gardner, had 30 kills on 60 swings and hit .350. My shoulder is sore just reading that stat line. I think the one area Arizona State needed to be better was with their blocking--they successfully slowed down Kingdon and held her to a .066 hitting efficiency, but pretty much left the other hitters alone. That strategy works great if the other hitters can’t figure out how to carry the team. In this case, Arizona’s Halli Amaro (Jr., MH) and Ashley Harris (So., OH) stepped up big, and Arizona State couldn’t figure out how to slow them down on-the-fly. I think they’ll do better with those “other gals” next time around. The disheartening part in all this is that “slowing Kingdon down” still meant she chalked up 20 kills. Homecourt advantage might give the Sun Devils a boost, but I just don’t think they’ll be able to stop Arizona without some serious smoke and mirrors.
My Pick: Arizona in five
No. 6 Florida @ No. 3 Texas
Saturday, November 29 - 2:30pm ET
TV: Longhorn Network
This non-conference matchup is well timed for both programs. After blazing through their conference slates, they no doubt needed a refresher course on playing at a high level before diving into the NCAA tournament next week. Texas has strung together straight wins, while the Gators are on an 18-match winning streak.
Record: 23-3 overall, 17-0 in conference
The Gators have two primary and three secondary hitters. Alex Holston (RS So., OH) and Rhamat Alhassan (Fr., MH) make up the primary group and have amassed almost half the team’s total kills this season. They’re both volleyball players: they’ve got great court vision and know how to put the ball down (note their .351 and .462 hitting efficiencies for reference). Simone Antwi (Jr., MH), Carli Snyder (Fr., OH) and Gabby Mallette (Jr., OH) make up the secondary tier of attackers. All are used. All are essential to this very successful offensive system. Get them all firing at once, and this team could be really tough to beat down the stretch. Especially given their strength at the service line and in the back row.
Record: 22-1 overall, 14-1 in conference
Conference: Big 12
A single hiccup mars the Longhorns’ conference record. Oklahoma somehow got the better of this super-tough Texas squad. Other than that, the Big 12 powerhouse is pretty ridiculous this season. They’ve made quick work of most opponents, including the likes of Arizona and Nebraska. Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH) is the best arm in the Longhorn gym. She’s leading all hitters and is absolutely vicious from the service line. Along with Eckerman, Khat Bell (Sr., MH/OH) adds a solid chunk of offense along with Amy Neal (Jr., OH). Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) and Molly McCage (Jr., MH) are kind of the sneaky secret weapons of this high-flying squad. They aren’t very loud on offense, but they put the ball down at a high level when they are set and are incredible blockers. I think they surprise some teams because they aren’t perceived as go-tos.
Texas got the best of Florida in their pre-conference meeting. And they get to host this NCAA tournament-preparation match in their home gym--which I happen to know can get a little rowdy and intimidating for opponents this time of year. I think that collectively, Texas is the more physical squad. Eckerman’s arm is really, really good, but Florida has some great arms in their gym, too. Both sides will score points on awesome swings, essentially neutralizing the impact of any big hitter. The trick will be to handle the junk (read: don’t let fluff balls score and make them earn their points) and win the serve/pass game (read: side out quickly and run points from the endline). I think Texas is more poised to perform in those categories.
My Pick: Texas in four