VB Season Ends With Sweep By Kentucky
And so this chapter ends, much like many of the ones that came before: a dominant win in the first round, a loss in the second to a team that was simply better than the Boilers, aided by playing on the opponent’s home court. While it’s fair to point out that with the collapse of the lower half of the seeded teams, Purdue may have been a better seed, being a seeded team would have only helped Purdue reach the Sweet 16. They were crushed at Minnesota and beaten easily at Illinois - it seems reasonable to assume that similar outcomes would have happened in the regional semis against one of those two or BYU or Stanford.
Season recap will arrive after the tournament is complete and awards are handed out.
#15 Purdue 3, #59 East Tennessee State 0 (25-23, 25-7, 25-18)
The NCAA opener went pretty much as expected: ETSU was stronger than I thought in set one and weaker in set two, but the end result was the same. Purdue’s attack was led by Sherridan Atkinson yet again, with 12 kills at .321, while Leah Clayton was the only Buccaneer in double figures, getting 11 kills but hitting just .097. Marissa Hornung had a match-high 16 digs for the Boilers, while Hailey Aguilar led ETSU with 8.
#15 Purdue 0, #9 Kentucky 3 (20-25, 21-25, 14-25)
Kentucky played about like you’d expect a seeded team to play at home, holding off Purdue rallies in the first two sets and running away with the third. UK’s Leah Edmond led all players with 13 kills at .175, while it was Blake Mohler and not Atkinson leading Purdue; the redshirt junior had 10 kills at .625, as the Wildcats held Atkinson to just 9 kills at .200 in her last match as a Boiler. Gabby Curry had a match-high 18 digs for Kentucky, and Hornung led Purdue with 15.
The top eight seeds all advanced, meaning regionals will be played at Stanford, Minnesota, Illinois, and BYU, but half the bottom eight seeds did not. 13-seed Central Florida, perhaps the most questionable selection, was bounced in the first round by Florida Gulf Coast for the only tournament win by an Atlantic Sun team; 9-seed Creighton was swept by Washington, 11-seed USC was swept by San Diego, and 12-seed Pitt lost in five sets to Michigan.
The first two of those second-round upsets directly benefited Big Tenteen teams, as Wisconsin will now play San Diego and Penn State faces Washington. Purdue was the only conference team to lose; in fact, all seven tournament teams swept their opening matches, and three (Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State) did not drop a set over the weekend.
Matches from here on out are on ESPN networks; some schools have their own stat trackers but you can follow all matches at ncaa.com.
#3 Illinois vs #21 Marquette, noon Friday on ESPNU
The Golden Eagles are another example of a team that probably shouldn’t have been seeded: the second-best team in the Big East beat everyone except Creighton - the Bluejays lost just two sets in their three wins over Marquette. Marquette also picked up home losses to Wisconsin and BYU, lost at Baylor, but beat USC at home - that USC win seems to be the main thing that drove their seeding? IME the Big East was too soft to deserve two seeds, especially given Creighton’s failure to hold court (the Bluejays did deserve their seed, they just drew a tough Washington team). Illinois will correct this mistake promptly: Illini in 3. (Verdict: correct. Marquette played the Illini tough for a couple of sets, but couldn’t finish either one, and Illinois took care of business in the third.)
#5 Nebraska vs #8 Kentucky at Minnesota, 2:00 Friday on ESPNU
Kentucky made short work of the Boilers Saturday, but they’ll be facing a Nebraska team that is on fire, winners of 10 straight in a streak that started with a five-set win over Penn State and included four-set road wins at Purdue and Michigan. In fact, that 3-1 win in West Lafayette was the last time that the Huskers dropped so much as a set. The SEC is growing into a power conference - they placed five teams in the tournament this year, with Florida and UK in the Sweet 16 and Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee losing to seeded teams in the second round - but they don’t yet pose the kind of gauntlet that Nebraska ran during their conference season. The defending national champs are dangerous when they’re on a roll, and they’ll be very, very difficult for Kentucky to beat. Nebraska in 4. (Verdict: Almost. Kentucky led most of the way in set three, but the Huskers stormed back for a 25-23 win and a sweep.)
#7 Wisconsin vs #31 San Diego at Illinois, 2:30 Friday on ESPN3
The Toreros recorded non-conference wins over Baylor and Tennessee, but had a bad loss to Oregon State and struggled a bit with the non-BYU teams in conference play, which likely led to their non-seeding. Beating a good Cal Poly team in four sets and then sweeping a good USC team at home is a sign that San Diego is firing on all cylinders for tournament play. As Boiler fans know all too well, Wisconsin doesn’t always start out well at home (three of their five conference losses came at home, including a four-set loss to Michigan). A slow start against San Diego could be a real problem for the Badgers; I think Wisconsin will have their hands full but will manage to advance. Badgers in 5. (Verdict: Not even close. Wisconsin held San Diego to 16 points or fewer in every set, cruising in 3.)
#12 Michigan vs #6 Texas at BYU, 4 PM Friday on ESPNU
Texas likely expected to face Pitt, but the Wolverines aren’t much of a downgrade, and their five-set win over the Panthers serves as a warning to the Longhorns, not that they’ll need it. While the Big 12 is top-heavy, with Texas one of only two conference teams in Massey’s top 25 (Baylor is #25), UT played a grueling non-conference schedule and did well: 3-1 over Oregon, 3-2 over Florida, 3-1 over Kentucky, with just a pair of losses in a home-and-home with Stanford and a 1-3 loss to Wisconsin. Still, it’s been a while since Texas has played a solid team, while Michigan just beat one. If this were in Austin, I would pick the Longhorns in five; since it’s on a neutral floor, I’ll turn that around: Michigan in 5. (Verdict: Very wrong. Texas scored the first 10 points to cruise in set 1, 25-10; Michigan took the second and had set points in the third, but dropped that one en route to a 4-set loss.)
#2 Minnesota vs #11 Oregon, 4:30 PM Friday on ESPN3
Oregon had a brutal schedule, losing to Texas and Nebraska at Nebraska to start the season, then beating Minnesota and losing to Penn State at USC. For as well as they played against top-40 competition, they struggled a bit against the top 20, with five-set wins over Washington and Washington State along with two losses to Stanford. They took five sets to hold off Baylor at home, so there’s little reason to think they’ll repeat their neutral-site win over the Gophers: Minnesota in 4. (Verdict: Stunningly wrong. Oregon dropped the opener, then won a marathon 41-39 second set, blew out Minnesota in the third and edged them 26-24 in the fourth to drop the Gophers on their home court.)
#9 Penn State vs #20 Washington at Stanford, 8 PM Friday on ESPNU
Washington dropped two non-conference matches: a four-set loss at home to Illinois and a sweep at Pitt. Virtually all of their conference losses were understandable, with the possible exception being a sweep at Arizona State. UW beat Arizona, USC and UCLA on the road, but none of those were as big as their sweep at Creighton Saturday. It earned them a shot at a Penn State team that has been very beatable at times; if anything, playing in Palo Alto should be a slight advantage for the Huskies, but Penn State has just enough quality to see off their first Pac-12 opponent of the weekend. Penn State in 5. (Verdict: The sets were close, but Penn State took each one in the conference’s fourth sweep of the day.)
Regional final predictions
Nebraska gets a second shot at Minnesota, having dropped a four-set match during conference play in Lincoln. The Gophers will earn another home match by repeating the feat: Minnesota 3, Nebraska 1. (Verdict: Completely wrong. Minnesota didn’t make it, and Nebraska cruised past Oregon in their fourth consecutive tournament sweep.)
Illinois and Wisconsin played twice this season, each winning 3-1 on the other’s home court. The Illini’s 15-match winning streak started with that 3-1 win in Madison; it’ll continue with another win over their neighbors: Illinois 3, Wisconsin 2. (Verdict: Very close; Illinois 3-1. At least I got the winner and loser right!)
While everyone else has been jockeying for position, Stanford has been steamrolling their opponents. The Cardinal’s lone blemish was a five-set loss to BYU in Provo in August. A week later, they swept Penn State in Palo Alto. The Nittany Lions will have no more luck this time around: Stanford 3, Penn State 1. (Verdict: Exactly right. Penn State took the opening set and pushed the Cardinal in the second, but Stanford held on, took the third, and cruised in the fourth for a 3-1 win. Hey, even an old squirrel picks the right tree sometimes, right?)
Michigan’s in the regional best set up for an upset, but they’re still going to face the home team, as Florida just hasn’t done well enough against quality competition to pull off the upset in the semis. BYU isn’t unlike Pitt, even though the West Coast is a little better than the ACC at the top - the Cougars simply weren’t tested much the last couple of months, and they were found wanting at Loyola. The Wolverines have done this before, in 2012, when they knocked off 10-seed Louisville and then upset 2-seed Stanford to reach their first Final Four. The team they lost to? 3-seed Texas, who went on to win the 2012 title. Michigan will have earned their revenge in the semis, and they’ll make it three Big Tenteen teams in the Final Four: Michigan 3, BYU 2. (Verdict: Completely wrong. Not only did I get Michigan wrong, but BYU swept Texas 3-0; the Cougars dropped just one set in four home NCAA tournament matches.)
Feature photo once again courtesy of Purdue Sports