Moved from December to April because of the pandemic, the NCAA women’s volleyball championships begin Wednesday in Omaha with a reduced field, a new format and a dash of controversy.
The site: CHI Health Center, Omaha
The field: 48 teams, including 30 conference champions and 18 at-large selections. The top 16 seeds will receive first-round byes. The tournament normally includes 64 teams in a bracket with no byes, but the NCAA decided to trim the field by 25% because of COVID-19.
The schedule: Wednesday’s first round includes 16 matches, with the winners advancing to second-round matches Thursday against seeded opponents. The regional semifinals and finals are Sunday and Monday. The national semifinals are April 22, and the national championship match is April 24.
TV: Streaming on ESPN3 (first and second rounds), ESPN3/ESPNU (regional semifinals and finals), ESPN2 (Final Four)
Gophers update: The third-ranked Gophers (15-2), the tournament’s No. 3 seed, begin with a second-round match at 6 p.m. Thursday. They will play the winner of Wednesday’s first-round match between Georgia Tech and Lipscomb. Other seeded teams in the Gophers’ portion of the bracket are 10th-ranked Utah (the 14th seed), 13th-ranked Louisville (11) and seventh-ranked Washington (6). Four Gophers earned all-region awards Tuesday from the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Senior opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy was named North Region player of the year, while outside hitter Taylor Landfair was named region freshman of the year. Samedy and Landfair were joined on the all-region team by redshirt senior middle blocker Regan Pittman, junior libero CC McGraw, junior outside hitter Adanna Rollins and freshman setter Melani Shaffmaster.
Courting controversy: The NCAA took heavy criticism last week when it was revealed there would be no announcers for the first- and second-round broadcasts. Some coaches also expressed concern about the setup in Omaha’s convention center, which will host the first three rounds before the tournament moves to the adjacent arena. Teams will not have locker rooms in the convention center, and there are questions about whether the flooring on the temporary courts is adequate.
ESPN has since added announcers for all matches. The NCAA said it will provide a “secure changing area” for each team and defended the practice-court construction.
Though Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon had not seen the setup, he said Tuesday he was confident the NCAA and the host committee were doing their best.
“We’re in some pretty unique times,” he said. “Do I feel the NCAA is devaluing our sport, or trying to do something against volleyball? No, I don’t. But are there opportunities for improvement? It certainly seems there were. … These are complicated issues.”
The favorites: The NCAA runner-up in 2019, No. 1 seed Wisconsin (15-0) has been the nation’s top-ranked team throughout the spring season. The Badgers excel in all phases of the game, but their multifaceted attack — led by setter Sydney Hilley of Champlin Park and 6-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke — has been unstoppable.
No. 2 seed Kentucky (19-1) won the SEC title with a strong senior class, led by setter Madison Lilley, the SEC and Southeast Region player of the year. Texas (23-1), the No. 4 seed and Big 12 champ, features a pair of big hitters in Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields. The Longhorns are in the same section of the bracket as fifth-seeded Nebraska (14-2), which has made the NCAA semifinals in four of the past five years.
The last time: Despite what the calendar says, this is the 2020 NCAA tournament. After the pandemic led several conferences and teams to delay the fall season, the NCAA decided to reschedule for the spring.
In the most recent NCAA tournament — all the way back in December 2019 — the Gophers advanced to the Final Four in Pittsburgh, falling 3-0 to Stanford in the semifinals. The Cardinal, which swept Wisconsin in the championship match for its third NCAA title in four years, was 2-8 this season and did not make the tournament field.