Two years ago there was a joyous celebration in its team room when the University of Wisconsin volleyball team room was announced as the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, earning the right to host in the regional round.
Last year the room was deathly silent when the Badgers were left unseeded for the first time in coach Kelly Sheffield’s time at UW, as they were sent to Iowa State for their opening-round matches.
When this year’s tournament selections are announced Sunday night, chances are the Badgers will fall somewhere between those two outcomes.
The Badgers (20-6, 13-5) are ranked No. 8 in the coaches’ poll and, perhaps more importantly No. 6 in the RPI, going into the final regular-season matches Friday at Rutgers (6-25, 0-18) and No. 7 Penn State (22-6, 13-5) on Saturday.
Their record assures them of hosting the first- and second-round matches next week at the UW Field House, but they most likely will not be among the top four seeds that will be in position to also host the following weekend.
By most accounts, five programs figure to be in contention for those four spots — Stanford, Minnesota, BYU, Illinois and Texas — with UW, Penn State, Nebraska, Kentucky, USC and Pitt falling somewhere in the next group.
The tournament committee released its preliminary top 10 early this month, ranking BYU, Stanford, Minnesota and Illinois in the top four, with UW at No. 5, followed by Texas.
But the committee demonstrated last year that the initial ranking is subject to change, as just two of its top four — Penn State and Stanford — maintained that status in the final bracket.
This year’s prognostications took a surprise twist when BYU suffered its first loss Tuesday to Loyola Marymount, which is No. 76 in the current RPI.
Even before that loss, Lee Feinswog, co-publisher and editor of VolleyballMag.com, had come to question BYU’s status as a top-four seed. He based that on the Cougars slipping to No. 5 in the RPI and the loss of junior outside hitter McKenna Miller, their second-leading attacker (3.25 kills per set).
His expectation is the committee will follow its current RPI, in which the top four are Stanford, Minnesota, Texas and Illinois.
“Stanford and Minnesota are head and shoulders above everyone else right now,” Feinswog said. “I had BYU with those two but you lose your second leading attacker and it has an impact.
“Until McKenna Miller got hurt there were three teams that had six solid rotations. Stanford at every rotation is so strong all the way around. BYU was before Miller got hurt. And Minnesota is just a strong big-girl volleyball team.
“Every other team in the country has got at least one spot that is vulnerable, one place where they have trouble siding out, one place where they’re maybe just flawed.”
Feinswog puts UW in a second tier of teams behind Stanford and Minnesota — a group that includes Texas, Illinois and BYU.
He’s watched the Badgers several times on TV and saw them in person when they beat Illinois in Champaign and came away impressed.
“Wisconsin is a real interesting team this year,” Feinswog said. “At first glance, I wasn’t expecting them to be as good as they are. There are so many players on the team who do so many things well and they pick each other up.
“The return of Molly Haggerty is no small thing for them. At various times Grace Loberg has carried them. Madison Duello is probably the most underrated player in the country. And everybody knows how awesome Dana Rettke is. She is a legitimate player of the year candidate, although everyone knows that’s going to be (Stanford’s) Kathryn Plummer. But Dana is fantastic. And Sydney Hilley is much better as a setter than I thought she was going to be. Tiffany Clark is better than I thought, too. She’s fabulous.”
Feinswog gives the Badgers a decent shot of reaching the final four in Minneapolis, but much of that is dependent on how the bracket shakes out. They key is to avoid the regions hosted by Stanford and Minnesota.
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “But when Loberg and Duello and (Tionna) Williams are playing as well as they can and Rettke is having her usual night, Wisconsin could beat anybody.”
Feinswog sees Kentucky as a possible dark horse contender and wouldn’t be surprised if teams such as Tennessee, Michigan, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Creighton, Cal Poly or Florida State pulled off an upset along the way.
But given his choice of Stanford or the field, he said he’d take Stanford.
“You know why?” he said. “Stanford’s got Plummer. She plays the game at a level, figuratively and literally, that nobody else can. She’s a legitimate 6-foot-6, super athlete with no weaknesses in her game.
“I saw Stanford early in the year and any time anybody took a set off Stanford this year they should high-five themselves.”