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NCAA volleyball tournament: Breaking down the bracket, predictions and more

The 2021 NCAA volleyball tournament is here.

Undefeated Louisville is the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, winning all 28 matches it has played this season. Texas, at 24-1, is the No. 2 overall seed, while Pitt is seeded third. Defending national champion Kentucky is seeded seventh.

The tournament begins Dec. 2 with the final four beginning in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 16. A champion will be crowned on Saturday, Dec. 18.

Our team of reporters and analysts break down the bracket and make predictions for how this year’s tourney will go.

Which of the top four seeds has the toughest path to the final four?

Mechelle Voepel: No. 3 Pittsburgh probably isn’t surprised, from a geographic standpoint, to possibly have to face seven-time NCAA champion Penn State in the second round. But that could be a scary match for the Panthers. Overall, though, I’d say the toughest region for a top seed is No. 4 Wisconsin’s. The Badgers might have to beat both No. 12 UCLA and No. 5 Baylor to make it to Columbus. No. 12 Minnesota and Stanford — still a threat even if the nine-time champion Cardinal are 18-10 — are also in this region.

Holly McPeak: Pitt has a rough bracket with Penn State, Oregon, Creighton, BYU, and Utah in its region.

Katie George: Texas has the toughest road to Columbus, with teams like Nebraska, Kentucky and Washington in its region.

Eric Frede: Pittsburgh. Potentially needing to get through Penn State in Round 2? Then potentially Oregon, BYU, Utah, Purdue? Ouch.

Jenny Hazelwood: Texas. I would be really surprised if the top seeds hold.

Karch Kiraly: Big 12 champion gets the Pac-12 champ (Washington), the SEC champ (Kentucky) and the Big Ten runner-up (Nebraska) in its region. That’s three of the four semifinalists from the spring. Texas must be wondering where the benefit is in earning the No. 2 overall seed.

Paul Sunderland: Texas. Three of the four semifinalists from last year are all in one region, with almost everyone back — not to mention a perennial power in the Cornhuskers.

Which team’s seeding is the most surprising?

Voepel: BYU, which is ranked fourth in the latest AVCA poll, seems underseeded to me at No. 11. The 28-1 Cougars’ only loss was 3-1 at Pitt in September. BYU has been to the final four three times, most recently in 2018.

McPeak: I was a little surprised that Washington clinched the Pac-12 and UCLA was awarded a higher seed. Granted, UCLA has a higher RPI, but the Bruins are also without one of their stars in Charitie Luper for medical reasons, and that makes a huge difference.

George: BYU was ranked No. 11 overall, which was a bit surprising. With one loss, I would have thought this team would have been ranked a few spots higher. Clearly, BYU’s strength of schedule was an issue. However, a top-16 seed should be celebrated.

Frede: Miami not being seeded despite being 11th in RPI. Also, Arkansas, despite going 19-10 and being ranked 44th in RPI, was snubbed.

Hazelwood: Florida being seeded 16th. It should have been Miami. It might be a small difference, since they could face each other in the second round.

Kiraly: Florida lost 3-0, 3-0 to Kentucky over the weekend and still earned a top-16 seed. Yes, Kentucky is very good, but the Gators lost by an average of more than four points per set. It’s definitely easier to justify giving the seed to Miami, but they’ll have a chance to duel it out on the court in Gainesville. Utah might also have something to say. They won at two seeded teams — Nebraska and Washington — and won twice against Oregon. Without the seed, Utah has to go back to Provo, where it lost to BYU in September.

Sunderland: Baylor should not have been as high as fifth given its body of work. Yes, Baylor beat Texas, but Kentucky is hot and Purdue beat Wisconsin twice.

Who is the tournament’s must-watch player?

Voepel: There are so many, but it’s hard to take your eyes off Texas outside hitter Logan Eggleston when the Longhorns are on the court. Texas’ lone loss was in the second of back-to-back matches at Baylor on Nov. 5-6, but no other team has topped the 24-1 Longhorns this season.

McPeak: Kendall Kipp for Stanford is pretty darn impressive, but Dana Rettke, Mac May, Dani Drews and Logan Eggleston are some of the more fun ones to watch.

George: Logan Eggleston is must watch. As Texas tries to get back to a national title match, it’ll need consistent play from this Player of the Year candidate. She’s a scoring machine and dynamic leader this team leans on.

Frede: Anna Stevenson from Louisville. If the Cards run the table, she’ll be a big reason why. She is no longer flying under the radar and seems ready to be the postseason star.

Hazelwood: Minnesota’s Stephanie Samedy and UCLA’s Mac May are the two best players in the game right now.

Sunderland: Stephanie Samedy can win a match single handedly. She is my player of the year. And Wisconsin’s Lauren Barnes is a star on defense as a libero. Just when you think you’ve won a key point, there she is.

Which double-digit or unseeded team can shock the bracket and reach the final four?

Voepel: The double-digit seeds are all really good, of course, but No. 13 UCLA, 23-5, might go on a run to Columbus. The Bruins’ 3-2 regular-season finale loss to crosstown rival USC might be sticking in their craw a bit as motivation.

McPeak: Washington has a good shot at surprising some people. The Huskies have lots of super seniors who know it’s their last opportunity after losing in last season’s national semifinals back in April.

George: Travis Hudson and Western Kentucky often find a way to upset higher ranked teams in the NCAA tournament. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hilltoppers do it again. I could also see Utah making some waves.

Frede: I gotta go with Nebraska. I know, I’m not going out on a weak limb on that one.

Kiraly: No. 11 BYU hasn’t played anyone better than 25th in RPI (Pepperdine, based on last week’s numbers) since the weekend it beat Utah. It’s hard to tell how good the Cougars are, but they’ve dominated the competition. They have 21 straight wins and haven’t played a five-setter. They’re a dangerous team.

Sunderland: BYU has a tremendous pair of middle blockers back together, have a very good draw and are well coached.

What four teams make it to Columbus?

Voepel: I’ll go with Louisville, Purdue, Texas and Wisconsin. Of that group, only Texas has won the national championship (1988, 2012).

McPeak: Louisville, Wisconsin, BYU and Texas.

George: Louisville, Baylor, Texas and Pittsburgh.

Frede: Wisconsin, Louisville, Texas and Purdue.

Hazelwood: Louisville, Wisconsin, Texas, Purdue.

Kiraly: My guesses for the semis are Louisville, Wisconsin, Texas and maybe Pitt. I’m struggling with that last choice; Pitt has been resting star OH Kayla Lund. If she’s healthy, as she appeared to be when Pitt barely lost at Louisville earlier in the season, then I would favor the top four seeds at home.

Sunderland: My picks to make it to Columbus are Texas, Louisville (which has the easiest draw), Wisconsin and BYU in a surprise.

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