Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
In a few short hours the undefeated Missouri volleyball team will learn its fate in the 2013 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. Tiger fans can join the team at a watch party at the Clinton Club inside the Mizzou Arena starting at 7:30.
While in theory anything can happen the Tigers, ranked No. 5 in the latest RPI, are almost certain to host the early round games in Columbia December 5-7. Missouri Associate Athletic Director Sarah Reesman told me that Missouri applied to host a regional some weeks ago, and that preparations have been complete for some time for Columbia to host a regional.
Some have questioned the Tigers RPI ranking of 5. While the top three teams, Texas, Penn State and Washington, make sense the No. 4 ranking of Florida may seem a head-scratcher. After all, Missouri not only has a better record than the Gators’ 26-3 but have beaten Florida twice, including a sweep in Gainesville. But, the RPI is a mathematical formula that rewards teams for a tough schedule. It’s based on the team’s record (25 percent) the team’s strength of schedule (50 percent) and the strength of schedule of the team’s competition (25 percent).
So, while the Tigers in the non-conference slate were playing teams like Idaho State (Big Sky conference, 22-11 overall) and Towson (Colonial Athletic Association, 10-24 overall), the Gators and the other higher ranked teams played much tougher non-conference teams. Here are some of the teams the top four ranked clubs played outside their league.
1. Texas (Big 12 Conference) – The Longhorns played Penn State (Ranked No. 2 in RPI), Stanford (7), Nebraska (8), Hawaii (11) and LSU (34). They lost only to Hawaii in their opener and a surprising upset, being swept by Arizona State.
2. Penn State (Big Ten) – The Nittany Lions played Texas (1), Florida (4), Marquette (10) and Louisville (36) losing only to Texas and in conference to Michigan State (27)
3. Washington (Pacific 12) — The Huskies non-conference schedule wasn’t as tough as the others but they still took on fairly strong teams in Illinois (17) and Cal State- Northridge (38). They won both, with their two losses coming in league play at Colorado and Stanford.
4. Florida (Southeastern) — The Gators played Penn State (2), Stanford (7), Marquette (10), Duke (18) and Florida State (19). They lost only in a sweep by Penn State and, as we all know, twice to Missouri in SEC play.
By comparison, the Tigers’ top-ranked opponent in non-conference play was Yale, with an RPI of 43.
Now, while being ranked in the RPI behind a team they’ve beaten twice may seem annoying to Tigers fans, it shouldn’t affect their seeding in the tournament much. Again, Missouri’s very likely to host a regional, and from there, it’s going to be about beating good teams no matter what happens. It is a honor to be a No. 1 seed, and gains more media attention for a team throughout the tournament, and in spite of the Tigers’ RPI of 5, the team being undefeated and their coach’s poll rating of No. 4 gives the Tigers a very solid chance of being a 1 seed.
The decision by Wayne Kreklow and Missouri to schedule a less than brutal non-conference itinerary was probably a smart one. Playing Houston Baptist and Arkansas State instead of Stanford and Minnesota gave this young team a chance to develop. With two starting freshmen—Carly Kan and Emily Thater—and getting substantial contributions from newbies Loxley Keala and Julia Towler, the Tigers were given the chance to develop slowly against teams they could beat, bring their system along at a pace that worked for the whole team. By the time Mizzou was taking on the toughest competition it was experienced and had put together a great team chemistry and strategy. With great coaching and leadership from superstar seniors Lisa Henning and Molly Kreklow, both of whom should garner All-American honors, the team is now ready to take on as tough a team as this tournament can throw their way.
The tournament includes 64 teams, and is very similar to the NCAA basketball tourney, so a top-ranked team like Missouri will host good but not great teams in the tournament. Thirty-one teams will get in with automatic bids for winning their conferences, and the bracket will be filled out by choosing 33 other teams.
Should the Tigers win their two matches in the first and second round, they move on to regional play at one of four pre-determined sites: Champaign, Ill.; Lincoln, Neb.; Los Angeles or Lexington, Ky. Two wins there would put the Tigers into the championship round, to be played Dec. 19-21 in Seattle.
If I had to guess, here’s my prediction for the top seeds and which regionals they’ll go to:
1. Texas: Lincoln, Neb. Deserves the top seed, holds highest RPI, AVCA coach’s poll, ESPN Power Rankings, and any other measure. While none of the regionals are especially close, this is the closest and a potential matchup in round 3 or 4 between the ‘Horns and Big 12 rival Nebraska is tasty, two perennial powers with everything on the line. Texas is the better team, but the Huskers with home court advantage? That would be a must-watch.
2. Penn State: Champaign, Ill. Like Texas, an easy pick. The Nittany Lions are ranked second in every poll that matters, and in the coach’s poll are not far behind the Longhorns. Also sets up an interesting potential matchup with Illinois.
3. Missouri: Lexington, Ky. Here’s where the committee will probably break from RPI rankings. In spite of the strength of schedule, it’s just impossible to ignore both the undefeated record and the Tigers’ two wins over Florida. Mizzou sweeping the Gators in Gainesville makes picking them ahead an easy choice. Now, this also sets up a potential matchup with a conference foe, so if the committee doesn’t like the idea of matchups we’ve already seen, they might switch the Tigers and Penn State, sending Missouri to Champaign and the Lions to Lexington.
4. Stanford: Los Angeles. This is, by far, the most difficult choice. The four seed could go to Florida or Washington, both of whom have higher RPI than the Cardinal. But the Pac-12 is highly respected (I think it’s been surpassed as the top conference by the Big Ten) and with Stanford’s late season win over the Huskies, Stanford gets the pick ahead of Washington. Maybe.
Another thing that will be interesting to watch for is how many other Southeastern Conference teams make the tourney. While Missouri, Florida Kentucky are shoo-ins, one wonders how many of the league’s bubble teams will be selected. Texas A&M comes in at 32 in RPI, Alabama at 33, LSU is 34, Arkansas 37 and Georgia is 40. The teams will get the benefit of being in the SEC, recognized as one of the nation’s better conferences, and it’s a reasonable assumption that the league will at least match, if not top last year’s accomplishment, putting five teams into the tournament (Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas.)
The SEC has never had a national champion; Florida’s one appearance in the championship final is as far as a team out of the Southeastern Conference has ever gone in the tourney.
2013 will mark the 11th appearance in the NCAA tournament for the Tigers. Their most recent appearance came in 2011, when the Tigers lost, ironically, to Florida. They made an impressive run in 2010, as the Tigers went to the regional after pulling off what many consider the biggest upset in tournament history, beating No. 5 Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Their deepest run in the championship tournament came in 2005, when wins over Missouri State, Arkansas, and Hawaii put the Tigers into the Elite Eight, where they lost in four sets to Tennessee. That 2005 team was led by All-American Lindsey Hunter, now an assistant coach at Mizzou.
All of the Tigers NCAA appearances have come since Wayne and Susan Kreklow took over the program in 2000. Prior to taking leadership of the Tigers program, the Kreklows coached at crosstown NAIA powerhouse Columbia College, where they took the Cougars to six NAIA tournaments, winning the national championship 1998 and 1999 with a combined record of 85-0 in the two seasons.
The watch party for the announcement of the 2013 NCAA tournament Sunday evening starting at 7:30 at the Mizzou Arena Clinton Club will be open to the public. The Clinton Club is located on the south side of Mizzou Arena.