The Division I NCAA volleyball bracket came out Sunday, and I kept looking at it, thinking I had to be missing something.
“This can’t be as ridiculous as it seems,” I thought. “It can’t be. This is a joke.”
I rather quickly wrote a story for ESPN.com about the bracket, suggesting Penn State got what looked like an absurdly easy road to the Final Four, and that the Seattle region looked like it was really difficult.
But … I wasn’t anywhere near as forceful as I would be with women’s basketball. (Actually, if I saw a women’s hoops bracket this bad, my head might have exploded like that grotesque scene in “Scanners.”) And I’ll be really frank about why: I know the history of the NCAA women’s hoops brackets inside and out, so my reaction time is a lot quicker (like, instantaneous) in regard to flipping out over anything I think is screwy.
I don’t say this to brag; it’s simply a reality of my job/career. I’ve covered women’s basketball more in depth by far than any other sport. I’ve been to every Final Four since ’93. I could pull out any NCAA Division I women’s hoops bracket since 1982 and say, “Oh, yeah, remember this, this and this,” and then opine on who got hosed, who got a cake walk, and offer a theory as to why for both. It’s just that firmly burned into my brain.
I covered volleyball more for my former newspaper, The Kansas City Star, than I had previously for ESPN.com … up until this fall, that is. I covered the volleyball Final Four in 2006 and 2008 in Omaha, Neb., the former time for The Star and the latter for ESPN.com. I’ve watched the volleyball Final Four on television for many years.
But this fall, in my new role with increased college coverage for ESPN.com, I have much more of a chance to write about volleyball, which I’ve long believed deserves to be more popular and better-covered than it is. I’ve had moments of volleyball evangelism in the past, but have more fuel in my tank for it now that I get to write about the sport more.
However, as I said, my reaction time on volleyball bracket griping is still slower because I second-guess myself more, thinking things like, “Maybe I’m out to lunch on this one,” or “Perhaps there is a good reason for this,” or “Maybe those people who can explain the intricacies of advantages/disadvantages of the 6-2 vs. 5-1 systems really do understand this bracket.”
But the more I thought about this bracket, the worse it seemed and the more baffled I was. I knew it didn’t take a volleyball expert to see this, either. It just doesn’t add up. This bracket ended up about as unbalanced as Norman Bates, and the committee, chaired by Wisconsin’s Terry Gawlik, absolutely needs to take a reflective and honest look at why. Because they have not done a good job with this, and that’s not fair to the student-athletes.
We’ll start with the Penn State regional. The three-time defending champs are in a region where the other three seeds – volleyball has a 64-team bracket, but seeds just the top 16 overall – were from the Missouri Valley, the ACC and the SEC.
Now, no offense to those teams: Northern Iowa, Duke and LSU. But you don’t have to know much about women’s college volleyball to shake your head in disbelief at that. Volleyball’s powerhouses among major conferences are the Pac-10, Big Ten and Big 12. (Various other West Coast-based schools/leagues comprise the rest of the consistent powers in the sport.)
The SEC has had one big power: Florida, which is the overall No. 1 seed this season and has been to the Final Four seven times. LSU has made it that far twice, but that was eons ago: 1990 and ’91. Tennessee is the other SEC squad to make the Final Four, in 2005.
No SEC team has ever won the NCAA title. In other words, SEC volleyball should not be confused with SEC women’s basketball in terms of postseason performance.
Neither should the ACC. The league has never had a volleyball Final Four participant. Neither has the Missouri Valley, although Northern Iowa has long been one of the better mid-major programs in volleyball (a feat especially noteworthy since it’s far from the West Coast.)
So you’ve got Penn State, which will enter the NCAA tournament tied with Nebraska for the longest home-court winning streak at 90, playing both its early round and regional matches at home. And as if that wasn’t enough of an advantage, the Lions, as mentioned, are in a region that appears so weak that if it were a cartoon character, it would be Olive Oyl.
Meanwhile, there is the Popeye-after-eating-his-spinach region, Seattle. Holy moly. This one is ludicrous. It has No. 2 Nebraska (three NCAA titles, seven other Final Fours), No. 7 seed Cal (2007 Final Four), No. 10 Minnesota (three Final Four appearances) and No. 15 Hawaii (three NCAA titles, six other Final Four appearances, including last season.)
Not sure I even need to go any further to display the inequity, but … this region also includes the unseeded host, Washington (one NCAA title, two other FFs), Iowa State (which made the regional semifinals last season), Utah State (which upset Hawaii for the WAC tournament title) and Michigan (the fourth-place team in the formidable Big Ten).
Meanwhile in the Austin Regional, top seed Florida potentially may have to play on the home court of the No. 9 seed, Texas (one NCAA title, five other FFs) in the regional final. Nice way to treat your overall No. 1 seed, huh? And the other seeds in that region are both from the Big Ten: No. 8 Illinois (two Final Fours in the 1980s) and No. 16 Purdue.
And then there’s the Dayton Regional, where No. 3 Stanford is the top seed. The Cardinal in volleyball is like Tennessee in women’s hoops in terms of consistent trips to the Final Four. Stanford has six NCAA titles and 12 other Final Four appearances.
The Cardinal might face No. 14 seed Dayton on the Flyers’ home court in the regional semis. Then in the lower part of the Dayton bracket, there is No. 11 seed Tennessee, unseeded San Diego, unseeded Long Beach State (two NCAA titles, six other FFs) and No. 6 overall seed Southern Cal (three NCAA titles, five other FFs).
Now, some might say, “Well, that’s all history, and the tournament is seeded based on what happened this season, and conference affiliation isn’t part of the criteria” and blah-blah-blah. Come on. Does anyone think the volleyball landscape just totally re-invented itself this season? It didn’t. The Pac-10 was brutal, as always. Washington was the fifth-place team in that league, but could be one of the top 10 teams in the country. The strength of the various conferences simply has to come into play when evaluating teams for the NCAA tournament.
The RPI can be used to explain some things in this bracket, such as Northern Iowa’s seed, but that should just be one tool. RPI has to be put into context. And by the same token, the RPI does NOT explain other things at all. How did these four teams in the top 11 in the RPI – Nebraska, Minnesota, Cal and Hawaii – end up in the same region?
Now, admittedly, the volleyball committee will flat-out say that one of their guidelines, at least for the early rounds, is to limit air travel when possible. I understand that from an economic sense … but it’s kind of silly. For every example of supposedly doing that, you can find other examples of teams that have long flights. Volleyball has the opposite problem of women’s hoops in this regard: there are more powerful programs in the Western part of the country than in the East.
In the hoops tournament, there are almost always some Eastern time zone teams that end up playing in the Pacific time zone because there are so many good East teams. In volleyball it works the other way.
So really nothing explains this bracket. Is it possible the committee thought that it was somehow so disadvantageous for foes to have to play at Penn State that it kept all the top teams from power conferences away from there? I seriously doubt that was the motivation.
I want to stress that none of this is directed in a negative way at Penn State, which has won the last three titles and is an incredible program. I spoke with coach Russ Rose on the “She’s Got Game” radio show on Monday, and he pointed out some years the Lions have gotten a better seed but a worse draw. I give him credit, though: He didn’t say, “Oh, no, this is a really tough road we’ve got this year.”
Now, who knows … maybe the teams in that regional will get fired up, thinking they are being dismissed, and pull a major upset. But the odds are certainly against that. I said on the radio show, “We’ll see Penn State in Kansas City in December,” because it would be going far out on a limb to predict anything else.
I haven’t had a chance to peruse all the tournament theories on Volley Talk, which as best I can tell is the primary message board for the women’s college game, but I did scan it, just to get an idea how this bracket was going over with those folks who are very plugged into the sport.
And a lot of them are up in arms, too. They go into even greater detail than I do about all that’s wrong with the bracket, plus put more historical context to it.
I think the committee needs to really look at these complaints. Learn something from them. One of the threads on Volley Talk links to the bios of committee members. Among the issues I’ve always had with NCAA committees in women’s sports is whether there is enough true knowledge of the sport among committee members. In other words, what are your real bona fides for evaluating teams?
For a period in the 2000s _ which included an infamous post-bracket conference call with the chair in which it seemed pretty clear she had either disregarded or overlooked one high-profile result _ I was on the warpath with the NCAA women’s hoops committee. For me as a writer, it was like getting out a sledgehammer and pounding it as hard as I could.
In various post-selection show rants, I referred to the bracket as “a still-smoldering train wreck,” parodied an X-Files episode in which agents “Mildew” and “Skullduggery” were investigating the bracket mess, fictionalized a made-up radio “personality” sneaking into a station to broadcast her bracket conspiracy theories, and even once jokingly suggested electroshock therapy for the committee (OK, that was rather over-the-top).
I tried to make these rants kind of funny because you can actually pound harder that way. I’ll admit it: I was going for the jugular every time. But not because I like being mean in writing. I really don’t. And I knew these committee members were real people, and that a lot of them probably felt they were doing the best they could.
But the plain truth is, the women’s hoops committee WASN’T doing the job well enough. And the only way that was going to change is if they understood that griping wasn’t just coming from disgruntled coaches or fans who wanted a better tournament path. It was coming from people who truly did not have a rooting interest in the tournament except that the bracket be as fair and balanced as possible. Who wanted that for the good of all the student-athletes.
Ultimately, that’s the thing that would make me the most angry, and really what fueled what I was writing. I felt the kids were being short-changed by ineptitude (in regard to evaluating teams), cronyism, politics and petty bureacracy.
What I was really saying, over and over, to the committee was,”It’s not YOUR tournament. It’s the players’ tournament. You’re administrating it, and you owe them a better system and result.”
This came to a head with a rather heated exchange I had several years ago with a women’s hoops committee member who was quite defensive about any criticism of the group, as if nobody had the right to complain because they didn’t know how hard it was to do. And I said, “Then why don’t you open up the process more and let everyone better understand it?”
Of course, people had been saying the same thing on the men’s hoops side, too, and as you know, the NCAA has since done that. They now bring in coaches and media members for bracketology sessions, where they get to experience what it’s really like to try to put a bracket together. I did that in 2008; it is difficult. Opening up the process has helped everyone understand that in a more complete way.
The women’s hoops bracket has been better in recent years. I know the NCAA has worked hard to make it better: more fair and more balanced.
I also know the NCAA is probably not going to do bracketology for volleyball. And there are always things that happen inside that are not always evident to the outside. But … this volleyball bracket is embarrassing to the NCAA. They need to face that and see how to remedy it for the future.