Stanford, Penn State and Nebraska have 20 NCAA volleyball titles between them, including the past six in a row and 12 of the past 15. But this trio of powerhouses will need to work hard to add another championship in 2019.
Meanwhile, a team that has advanced past the second round just once -- Baylor -- is the No. 1 overall seed and hopes to keep adding to what has been a dream season.
Could the Bears join their school's women's basketball team as NCAA champions in the same calendar year? Only Stanford -- in 1992 -- has done that.
Following Baylor are No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Stanford and No. 4 Wisconsin. Being in the top four means they'll get to host regionals if they advance that far. The rest of the seeded teams -- the NCAA only seeds to 16 in volleyball, and they all get to host the early-round games -- are No. 5 Nebraska, No. 6 Pittsburgh, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 8 Washington, No. 9 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida, No. 11 Penn State, No. 12 Hawaii, No. 13 Texas A&M, No. 14 BYU, No. 15 Western Kentucky and No. 16 Purdue.
Early-round pairings are determined by geographic proximity, although teams from the same conference aren't paired up in the first and second rounds. The Big Ten leads the way with seven teams in the field, followed by six each from the Pac-12 and SEC.
Last year, Stanford entered the tournament a pretty heavy favorite and lived up to that with the program's eighth title. But this year has a more open feel to it.
With first- and second-round matches taking place this Thursday through Saturday, here is a look at the four regions on the road to Pittsburgh.
Will Baylor live up to its seed?
In his fifth season as Bears coach, Ryan McGuyre has worked wonders in Waco. Before he arrived in 2015, Baylor had played in just seven NCAA tournament matches, winning three of them.
This year, the Bears are 25-1 overall and co-Big 12 champions with Texas, which handed Baylor its only loss on Oct. 23. Then on Nov. 20, Baylor played the most important match (thus far) in program history, avenging the defeat and beating Texas 3-2. It was just the third Baylor victory in the 87-match series with the Longhorns. That essentially sealed No. 1 for Baylor, which also won at Wisconsin in September and finished No. 1 in the RPI.
While the other three top seeds are all very accustomed to being in that spot, this is all new for Baylor. How will the Bears react? Have they really been tested enough in Big 12 play, other than by Texas?
"We've got six seniors this year who have been really incredible," McGuyre said. "It's like having a lot of coaches out there on the court with this group."
McGuyre also knows he has one of the best players in the country in junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, who is averaging 5.9 points per set and is extremely tough to block. What also might help Baylor is that, as the top seed, the Bears get what might be the easiest road to the final four.
There are two former NCAA champions in Baylor's quarter of the draw. One is Southern California, which is out of the powerful Pac-12 and could play Baylor in the second round. But the Trojans are 17-13 this year. The other is Washington, and the Huskies, 24-6, could pose a big threat if they meet in the regional final. Led by Kara Bajema, one of the Pac-12's top hitters, Washington lost its regular-season finale in a rivalry match with Washington State, but the Huskies won eight of their past nine and were one of two Pac-12 teams to beat Stanford.
There are two other teams to watch too: Purdue, which finished fifth in the Big Ten and could meet Baylor in the regional semifinals; and Kentucky, which has dynamic hitter Leah Edmond, the SEC player of the year, shared the SEC title with Florida (although the Wildcats beat the Gators twice) and could await Baylor in the regional final. Neither has yet to reach a final four, but both have knocked on the door.
Could two titans meet again?
Penn State coach Russ Rose tends to not look very happy even when he actually is. And he won't be happy with this draw. The Nittany Lions, 24-5, finished in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten and beat one of the top-four seeds, Wisconsin, just a couple of days ago. Penn State's losses were to Stanford, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota -- who are all among the top 16 seeds and finished in the top 10 of the last AVCA poll.
The eye test would indicate Penn State is better than the No. 11 seed. But the NCAA selection committee in volleyball tends to seed very closely to the RPI, and that's what it did here. Penn State was 3-5 against teams ranked 1-25 in the RPI -- but again, those losses were to five of the best teams in the country.
Alas, for the second year in a row, the two programs with the most titles in volleyball are in the same region. Stanford likely isn't too thrilled about that, either. However, the Pac-12 champs could be challenged even before a potential regional final meeting with Penn State.
The Cardinal could face either BYU or Utah in the regional semifinals. The Cougars won at Stanford 3-1 on Sept. 21. And Utah pushed the Cardinal in both meetings, losing 3-2 and 3-1.
The Cardinal's seniors -- Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Audriana Fitzmorris and Morgan Hentz -- have formed one of the best classes in program history, with two titles and one other trip to the final four. But Plummer, who has been national player of the year the past two seasons, missed 10 matches due to injury this year. She has returned, though, and has looked pretty much like her usual self. Stanford doesn't come in quite as dominant as last year, when it lost just once, but with all the Cardinal's experience, they're still likely the overall favorite.
"I think we figured out that we could win without Kathryn, which we don't want to have to do," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "But we figured out how to be a little more balanced, and we continued to grow."
There's another big story in this quarter, which is Pitt. Like Baylor, the Panthers, 29-1, are having their best season in program history, and they are currently riding an 18-match winning streak. In the regional semifinals, they could face in-state rival Penn State for the third time this season. The teams split in the first two contests, with each winning on the other's home court.
Another Big Ten showdown?
Nebraska has won NCAA titles in years when it was the clear favorite and at other times when it wasn't. The Huskers lost star hitter Mikaela Foecke, who helped lead them to two titles and four consecutive final fours. So this was kind of a rebuilding year for the Huskers -- or as much of one as they ever have. They still finished in the three-way tie for third in the league, and Nebraska is just perennially a team no one wants to play in the NCAA tournament.
"If you're going into the tournament hoping for things -- an easy draw or that you're going to be somewhere -- I just think that's the wrong mindset." Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield
But the one team the Huskers had no luck against this season was Wisconsin, which swept both of their meetings. Does anything stand between a third meeting of the two Big Ten teams?
Well, there are the other two seeded teams in the region: Hawaii and Texas A&M. But watch out as well for unseeded Washington State. The Cougars lost three of their past four, but the win was against Washington in the regular-season finale, which could propel them with some confidence into the NCAA tournament. Another Pac-12 team, UCLA, is also in this quarter, and the Bruins are the other league team -- along with Washington -- that beat Stanford this season
The bottom line in this regional is whether Wisconsin can play up to its potential. The Badgers at times have looked incredible, led by 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke and outside hitter Molly Haggerty. Will their loss Friday to Penn State, when they were up 2-0, affect them at all? And if they play Nebraska again, can they beat the Huskers for a third time?
The Badgers won't worry about that until the time comes.
"If you're going into the tournament hoping for things -- an easy draw or that you're going to be somewhere," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said, "I just think that's the wrong mindset. It's going to be difficult no matter where you are in the bracket. It's the ultimate test."
Will the Longhorns prevail?
Texas has been to the NCAA final four 12 times and won two titles, most recently in 2012. This season, the Longhorns, 21-3, lost to Stanford, then somewhat surprisingly to Rice and Baylor, two fellow Lone Star State teams that Texas usually dominates.
But Texas is a team loaded with talent year after year. And if the Longhorns looked exceedingly businesslike and not very excited during the selection show, it's just because their goal is always to play for a national championship. Led by senior hitter Micaya White, they have a chance to do that.
"We've got some great chemistry going on right now," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "We're threats from every position offensively, and I think our team has really developed on the defensive side of the ball."
The Longhorns also have to feel pretty good about their draw too. Yes, they could face a team with a current 27-match winning streak, Western Kentucky, in the regional semifinals, but Texas' vast experience would be key then.
On the top half of this bracket are two more teams that are used to competing for final fours: Minnesota and Florida. The Golden Gophers really had their hearts broken last year, when they were upset at home by Oregon in the regional semifinals and missed a chance to play in the final four in their hometown of Minneapolis. Minnesota has shown plenty of resilience this season, and it finished strong with a 3-1 win at Penn State. The Gophers also beat Stanford earlier this season.
If Texas and Minnesota make it to the final, the Longhorns have a 3-0 victory over the Gophers this season to look back on. Then again, that was September. It's now December, the time every team wants to be at its best.