As the dust from a Selection Sunday frenzy settles, we have a chance to peer at some trends in the bracket before the DI women's volleyball tournament begins on Thursday. Here are some tidbits to note as the first round looms near:
1. How Florida snuck into the top 16
Starting the season 8-0 and landing as high as No. 3 in the AVCA poll, the Gators finished the season 18-9, clocking in at No. 20 in the latest AVCA rankings. The loss of star setter Alexis Stucky to a knee injury in early September began Florida's downward spiral, followed by Anna Dixon's season-ending elbow and wrist injuries in early October. Short these two starters, the Gators have scrapped through the bottom half of their schedule with almost an even record of 10 wins and nine losses. However, a majority of their losses were to ranked challengers, and Florida still has four ranked wins on its resume — two top-5 wins at that.
Equipped with one of the best young hitters in the nation in All-SEC team honoree Kennedy Martin, who ranks 7th in the nation in K/S, and Elli McKissock taking care of the backcourt, UF has enough weapons to still make a name for itself in this year's tournament. As the last team in the top 16, it hosts first and second-round matchups in Gainesville.
2. 2022's reigning champion and runner-up are 2-seeds
That would be Texas and Louisville, both checking in at No. 2 slots for the 2023 tournament. These teams entered the 2022 tournament as 1-seeds and went on to compete in last year's national championship — Texas swept Louisville for the title.
This year, however, the Longhorns lost their preseason No. 1 status within the first week of competition, and have been jawing to find a place in the top 5 ever since. Texas recently won the Big 12 championship outright and finished the regular season at 22-4, sliding in at No. 5 in the latest AVCA poll. Franchise player Asjia O'Neal is putting up her best numbers yet with 129.0 total blocks — her 566 career blocks set a school record — and ranking third on her team with 144 kills. The first-round matchup between O'Neal and Texas A&M's Ifenna Cos-Okpalla will be an all-out block showcase, and Texas will need to prove, again, that it's worthy of a top designation in the sport.
As for Louisville, the Cards commanded the ACC until the end of the season, registering late losses to Pitt and Georgia Tech to lose sight of the conference. Last season, Louisville showed grit as it battled through two five-setters in the regional finals and semifinals to make it to the national championship. With the taste of the national title still fresh in their mouths, the Cardinals must battle through a tough regional and will likely need to rematch 1-seed Pitt to catch a glimpse of Tampa.
3. The four first-time tournament teams
We've got a quad of first-timers in the mix! Enter Coppin State, Grand Canyon, Omaha and Wofford. Coppin State has the tallest task of the bunch, taking on (1) Pitt in the first round, but its 27-4 record and first-time MEAC championship over Howard — who has won six of the past seven conference titles — will back its claim against the regional host. First-time WAC tournament-winner Grand Canyon will take on (4) Washington State in the Louisville region. Wofford recorded a record 20 blocks against Samford in the SoCon championship to punch its ticket to this year's tournament, going head-to-head with (2) Kentucky in the Nebraska regional.
Volleyball Day in Nebraska must've been a good luck charm for Omaha. Along with breaking the world attendance record for a women's sporting event, the Mavericks had a stellar end to their season as they reverse-swept top-ranked Kansas City for their first-ever Summit League title. Omaha has appeared in the NCAA DII tournament 19 times, and this will be its first time competing in the DI tournament since transitioning divisions in 2011. The Mavericks first take on (4) Kansas.
4. The potential of a third Nebraska-Wisconsin rematch
Well, they're on opposite sides of the bracket, so the only way these two teams could meet is in the national championship. Is it destiny, then, to have another rematch to determine this year's champion once and for all?
The Big Ten rivals pulled a combined 16,427 fans to their two matchups this season. And looking back to their first meeting — a top-2, unbeaten battle — ticket prices lofted at $1,300. Nebraska nearly defeated the Badgers in five sets in October, but got bulldozed in a 3-0 sweep in November. With the scales evened now, it all depends on who will make it through their respective region unscathed.
The Huskers' biggest threat in the region is (2) Kentucky, which Nebraska beat 3-1 earlier this season. Then, a likely meeting with one of the ACC top-dogs in the semifinals will determine if the Huskers advance to the title match. For Wisconsin, it'll be haunted by its own skeletons with (3) Purdue, (5) Penn State and (2) Oregon all presenting a case to take down the 1-seed in the regional. Oh, then Stanford in the semis... Or whoever has the guts to take down the veteran Cardinal squad.
It's safe to say that this national championship is a possibility — the two were the unquestioned top teams in the nation for weeks before they faced each other. But with these targets on their backs, the Badgers and Huskers both need to have near-perfect outings to get to the finals.
And what a final that would be.