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NCAA Volleyball: The Semifinal Rounds

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Plus, looking back at the quarterfinal results

A Covid-sized crowd cheering its hardest for the Huskers.
@Huskers Twitter

And then, there was one.

Well, actually four, because that’s how semi-finals work. But only one from the Big Ten.

Three Big Ten teams entered the quarterfinals, but in the end, only one (Wisconsin) emerged to play the final “weekend” in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. (Or is this the 2021 NCAA Tournament? How are we counting this?)

Let’s see what happened.

The Quarterfinals

(#4) Texas def. #5 Nebraska, 3-1 (25-22, 19-25, 25-15, 25-21)

You’re goddamn right, Michelle. It IS sad. Losing is bad enough, but to Texas? Barf city. Alas, the Huskers just didn’t have it in them to make it into the final “weekend” this year, an especial bummer because historically, Nebraska has done VERY well when the tournament is in Omaha. But they just couldn’t get a handle on what Texas brought to the table - namely, an excellent attack.

The first two sets were as competitive as one would hope and expect given the teams involved, but whatever happened during the set break was not beneficial for Nebraska, and they looked bad in the third set. They regained some confidence and competence in the fourth, but it just wasn’t to be.

This offers a potentially interesting commentary on this year’s season. Texas (and the Big XII) played a fall AND spring season, whereas the Big Ten played a conference-only spring season. Offhand, this seems like it would benefit Texas, and perhaps it did—but I also heard an interview with a player (I can’t remember which, I am sorry) who mentioned the exhaustion that comes with playing what amounted to nearly a year-round season. I think the shorter season did not work in Nebraska’s favor - one of Cook’s great gifts as a coach is a superb sense of timing and building - his teams often look shaky (well, relatively) early on, but typically wind up reaching a pretty high peak during the tournament - which of course is what you want. But the shortened season, as well as the numerous cancellations during it, knocked this trajectory out of whack. It’s obviously not something that was unique to the Huskers this year, but I do think it contributed to them looking not quite as strong this season as in years past.

Side Note: The Final Four doesn’t demonstrate one way or another which approach was “better” for preparation during Covid— two teams had fall/spring seasons, and two teams had only spring seasons. Furthermore, four different conferences are represented - I’d have to check, but that might be unusually diverse for Final Fours in recent years.

(#2) Kentucky def. #7 Purdue, 3-0 (25-23, 25-20, 25-16)

Purdue’s dazzling season came to an abrupt end when they got shredded by the Kentucky Wildcats (“shredded” is probably over-stating it, but let me have the pun.) The Boilermakers hung tough in the first set, but couldn’t gain the same sort of traction in the next two sets.

I confess, I was kind of sad and volleyballed out at this point, and I didn’t watch this one. I’m sorry Purdue—I never gave the Boilermakers the coverage they deserved in this tournament due to timing, and I apologize for that. But congrats are in order for a great season that certainly defied expectations.

(#1) Wisconsin def. #8 Florida, 3-2 (30-28, 18-25, 25-22, 18-25, 15-12)

As it turned out, this was the match of the night, and possibly the tournament. Wisconsin is undoubtedly a great team, but during the Big Ten’s shortened season, they also managed to dodge most of the other top teams in the Big Ten. Their lack of exposure to tough teams seemed to show a little bit in this quarterfinal throw-down.

The first set previewed what was to come, with the two teams battling well past 25. Wisconsin, though still playing well, certainly had a vibe of a team that perhaps had not expected this much of a challenge from anyone, or at least not from Florida. And hey, I under-estimated Florida too, in spite of my respect for their legendary coach, Mary Wise. In fact, Florida has historically been a bugaboo for the Badgers—Wisconsin had never beaten the Gators in five previous matchups, most recently ousting them in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

Alarm grew from the Badger faithful as Florida controlled the second set, but the Badgers bounced back to take the third. But Florida, not content to let Wisconsin’s #1-seed entitle them to anything, grabbed the reins again in the fourth to force Wisconsin’s first five-set match of the season. Florida took control early in the fifth, and I really thought they were going to do it, but the Badgers had just enough in the tank, largely courtesy of—who else?—Dana Rettke and sent the Gators home heartbroken.

This was damn fun volleyball to watch - unless you were a fan of one of these teams, and then I imagine it was quite stressful. Nevertheless, Wisconsin finally faced—and aced—a test this season to put themselves in the Final Four as the lone Big Ten representative.

Final Four

(#2) Kentucky vs. #6 Washington, 6pm CDT - ESPN

I don’t have much to note on this one except that hooray! the tourney is finally on Big ESPN. Washington is now the lowest-remaining seed in the tournament, and as such, I’ll be pulling for them. Besides, the next closest thing to the Huskers is the Huskies, right? That said, I think Kentucky might prove to be too much for Washington.

(#1) Wisconsin vs. #4 Texas, 8:30pm CDT - ESPN

Having come through the tough test of Florida, I have to imagine the Badgers are feeling pretty confident about their chances. Still, Texas is no pushover (like, at all) and this is going to be a tall order for the Badgers. Luckily, they have a tall human in Dana Rettke and they may well be up for the challenge.

If you’re a fan of new champions, you’ll want to be pulling for Kentucky and Wisconsin tonight, as that will guarantee new blood hoisting the trophy. Here’s the CV for the remaining teams:

  • Texas has won the whole thing twice (2012 and 1988) and been runner-up four times (talk about your professional bridesmaid) including in 2015 and 2016.
  • Washington has one National Championship (2005... le sigh), and surprisingly has never been runner-up, even though it feels like they’re in the Final Four an awful lot.
  • Wisconsin has yet to win the big one, but has gotten increasingly close... including last year’s runner-up title (they were also runner-up in 2013 and 2000).
  • Kentucky is really breaking new ground here - this is the first semi-final appearance for the program in history!

Enjoy tonight’s matches!

Poll

How do you feel about the Big Ten’s performance in this year’s tournament?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Fine— this is what I expected
    (4 votes)
  • 29%
    I’m slightly disappointed - I thought we’d have at least two teams in the Final Four
    (13 votes)
  • 61%
    Hey, at least they weren’t as embarrassing as men’s basketball
    (27 votes)
44 votes total Vote Now