Which would you rather do today? Read a fifth article about Bo Ryan retiring, or read all about the Big Ten's New Hope for a volleyball national championship? Chosen well you have, my young Padawan. Onward.
With back-to-back National Champions Penn State out of the picture, the way to the title is clear for the four remaining teams in a way seen very rarely in the last decade or so. Two of the challengers (Texas and Nebraska) have been here before, and are looking to add another NC trophy to their cases; the other two (Minnesota and Kansas) are looking to put the final flourish on years of program-building with their first-ever championship.
In Omaha tonight and Saturday, you will see some spectacular volleyball. Both of tonight's matches are on ESPN2, so settle in and enjoy!
Texas vs. Minnesota 7:00 pm ET, ESPN 2
Nebraska vs. Kansas 9:30 pm ET, ESPN 2
Here's a rundown of the teams and matches:
Texas Longhorns (29-2)
If there's an evil empire resting confidently in its Death Star in this Final Four, it's Texas. The only team of the remaining four with semifinal experience, Texas is also the last team not named Penn State to win it all (in 2012).* They've made it to seven of the last eight Final Fours, and they don't have to pretend like they've been here before, because everyone knows very well that they have. By all appearances, they appear poised to blow up a peace-loving little planet named Minnesota.
However, while they try to frighten us with their Longhorn ways, a wily little womp rat may be just the thing to identify and exploit any thermal exhaust port in Texas' armor. Texas, for all of its semifinal experience in the past decade, has made it out of the round only twice. Minnesota is a dangerous team playing as well as anyone right now, and this could be a match destined for the galaxy's history books.
*Texas' other National Championship came in 1988, ancient history, even by Husker standards. ;)
Minnesota Golden Gophers (30-4)
Minnesota's record reflects more losses than Texas', but don't read too much into that--the Big Ten is a far tougher volleyball conference than the Big 12, and Minnesota has played three more games this season than the Longhorns. An all-galaxy coalition featuring two Puerto Ricans, a set of twins, and a Kiwi head coach, the gutsy Gophers are riding high into their first Final Four since 2009 (fourth overall). Minnesota has never won it all in volleyball, but they have to believe that they can. For if they don't believe it, that is why they'll fail.
Kansas Jayhawks (30-2)
Every season has its Cinderella story, and this year, the Jayhawks are it. KU's presence in the Final Four is as surprising as a thing can be, unless that thing is finding out that a guy you made out with a little is your twin brother and your father is masked evil personified. Still, pretty surprising. Four years ago, KU was a thoroughly mediocre 15-14; this year, they lost only two matches, both to Texas. Perhaps most surprisingly, this transformation had no obvious impetus--the Jayhawks' head coach is in his eighteenth year in Lawrence (clearly, the AD is more kindly inclined toward volleyball coaches than toward his football coaches). An improbable run got serious last week when Kansas knocked off top-seeded USC in five sets--what's more, KU trailed in the fifth set 13-9 before firing off a 6-0 run to win the match. If you've ever watched volleyball, you know that is an insane way to win, and it should serve as a warning to Nebraska that no lead is safe against the Jayhawks.
Kansas has a lot of history with tonight's opponent, Nebraska, thanks to their time together in the Big 8/12. From a Jayhawk perspective, owing to the aforementioned long-term mediocrity, the history is not good: they are 0-86-1 all-time against the Huskers. But that was then, and this is now. Tonight, Kansas attempts to prove they're not a passive Cinderella looking for her Prince Charming, but a kick-ass Princess Leia with a blaster pistol poised to take them all the way to the top. Never tell them the odds.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (30-4)
All year, this has been the goal. This is Nebraska's twelfth trip to the Final Four (nine of which they've won), but first since 2008, when they were bested (ominously, also in Omaha) in five sets by PSU. However, Omaha also has positive associations for the Huskers, as it was the site of their third overall and most recent National Championship in 2006. Whatever ghosts and glories Omaha has held for the Huskers, the chance to finish the season in triumph at home has been the object of this team all season. All year, the players have ended every huddle with the word "Omaha."
Now they are there, ready to play in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,000 fans, most of whom will be wearing red and praying for another chance to watch the Huskers on Saturday. "Didn't every school get 200 tickets?" joked Kansas coach, Ray Bechard. "Obviously, we're going to be a little outnumbered." Still, a good fan turnout is no substitute for on-court execution, and the Huskers will have to maintain focus to avoid getting tripped up, Ewok-style. The Huskers absolutely must shoot first, and get the heck out of there and into the finals.