NCAA volleyball 2022 regionals: Expert breakdown and predictions

Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

The first weekend of the 2022 NCAA volleyball tournament brought mostly chalk. Of the top 16 seeds in the tournament, only one did not advance to regional play.

The four No. 1 seeds -- Texas, Wisconsin, Louisville and Stanford -- combined to drop just one set in the first two rounds of the tournament.

As a result, they will host the regionals this weekend. Regional semifinals begin Thursday morning, and the regional finals will be played on Saturday.

With four spots for the national semifinals in Omaha, Nebraska, on the line, we ask our analysts to recap the first two rounds and look ahead to this weekend, breaking down which teams need to be on upset alert and what potential Elite Eight matchup they would look forward to the most.

Chalk mostly held during the first weekend. Are you surprised at the lack of parity?

Sam Gore: I disagree there's a lack of parity, with the exception at the top of the sport. The top four teams are beatable but play at a consistently slightly higher level than the rest of the field. We had upsets produced by Georgia, Northern Iowa, Auburn, LSU and Kansas, along with four five-set matches in the first round and two in the second round. The top seeds may be going strong, but the depth of the tournament is at an all-time high.

Shelby Coppedge: I personally think there is a good amount of parity in the tournament this year. Seeing a team like San Diego, a non-Power 5 team, ranked in the top five in the nation consistently shows just that. Houston has always been great in its conference and had the tools to be great on a broader scale, but this year is showing that to everyone. Marquette, Rice, James Madison, even Towson shows how the "smaller" schools can produce the talent you're seeing at the powerhouses. A lot of that credit is to the transfer portal. A lot of Power 5 athletes -- players who know what it's like to play at the high level, especially come tournament time -- have transferred to smaller Division I schools.

Paul Sunderland: I was not at all surprised that the tournament went according to seed for the most part. I thought USC and BYU would be much more competitive in their second-round matches -- I'm sure they're more disappointed than I am. Fourth-seeded Creighton is out after losing Kendall Wait to injury. Still, the Bluejays are a solid team and program.

M.A. Voepel: Overall, the selection committee did a good job this year, which contributes to chalk holding. It's interesting that in last season's NCAA women's hoops tournament, Creighton was the biggest Cinderella, making it to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed. But in this volleyball tournament, the Bluejays were the biggest upset victims. Although, as Paul said, injury contributed to that.

Early round upsets are fun in any tournament, but they often come at the cost of the best possible regional matchups. In this case, we're going to get some blockbuster Sweet 16 matches that will feel like final four showdowns. There are eight conferences represented in the Sweet 16, with the Big Ten, as expected, leading the way with five teams. The main power brokers in the sport are, for the most part, still in place, but we've seen big improvements in the last 10 years or so from the ACC and SEC, each of which has two teams in the regional semifinals.

Which team impressed you the most in the first two rounds?

Gore: I'd have to go with Texas. They hit .535 in round one and .366 against UGA but never let up. They look like the number one seed.

Coppedge: Auburn. Coach Brent Crouch said when making this year's schedule, he didn't expect his team to reach the tournament in a building year. Not only did Auburn, a team with five starting freshmen, make it to the tournament, but the Tigers upset fourth-seeded Creighton.

Sunderland: In no particular order: Texas, Minnesota, Marquette, Wisconsin and Louisville, but two other teams stood out. Kentucky played really smooth, and while Ohio State limped into the tournament, the Buckeyes aren't limping anymore.

Voepel: Their run is probably up, as they face nine-time NCAA champion and No. 1 seed Stanford next. But shout out to the Houston Cougars, who won two five-set matches in Omaha, Nebraska, to make the Sweet 16, and also got on SportsCenter's Top 10. Kate Georgiades dove onto and over a table for a save in Houston's first-round victory over South Dakota. As impressive as that was, she also quickly got up and had another hit on the way to the Cougars winning the point. It made for a great viral video showing how intense NCAA tournament play is and how fearless liberos are.

Houston went to volleyball's Elite Eight back in 1994. But the program had been on a long dry spell prior to this season, not making the NCAA tournament since 2000. The Cougars have made the most of their opportunity this season.

Which No. 1 seed is the most in danger of being upset?

Gore: I think all of them are in danger. That's because the talent level is so high, and there are so many elite coaches. Not one number one seed can take anyone for granted at this stage.

Coppedge: Louisville. Nebraska is coming for a vengeance after losing to Wisconsin in the 2021 championship. That has to be the only thing they the Cornhuskers thought about this entire year. If Louisville and Nebraska win their next match and then face each other, it's going to be personal from Nebraska.

Sunderland: If I really have to pick one, I would say Texas. Marquette is very good, and the winner of Ohio State-Minnesota must be playing at a high level as well. Texas is on a mission for Logan Eggleston and Minny for Hugh McCutcheon.

Voepel: Probably Louisville, because if the Cardinals face Nebraska in the regional final, the Huskers will be all the more motivated to make it to Omaha. This will be the fifth time the women's volleyball final four is in Omaha, and the Huskers have been at three of the previous four. They missed the 2020 tournament, which was held in spring 2021, due to the pandemic. Two of their five NCAA titles have come in Omaha: in 2006 and 2015.

As for Texas, as Paul said, their regional road is tough. It's the 10th anniversary of the Longhorns' last NCAA championship, and they have had plenty of chances to win another title, making five additional final four appearances since winning it all in 2012. Every one of those teams was good enough to be a champion, but it just didn't happen. This year's team wants to bring a third NCAA trophy back to Austin (Texas first won in 1988).

What would be the most compelling regional final?

Gore: Texas vs. Minnesota. Two incredibly talented teams and two legendary coaches, one who has won the NCAA title and the other has coached a gold medal Olympic team. An emotional component exists for Minnesota as well, as given this is Hugh McCutcheon's final season, the Gophers may have even more sense of purpose and passion. The atmosphere at Texas is incredible, and the matchup would be must-see TV.

Coppedge: I agree with Sam. Texas didn't get past the top eight last season and this is its last year with Logan Eggleston and other senior powerhouses. The Longhorns are another team that's taking this extremely personally, just like the Gophers. Minnesota wants to win more than anything for their coach in his last season as well.

Sunderland: I think each of the four regional finals could be outstanding, but don't overlook the Stanford Regional. The winner of Kentucky-San Diego will likely get the Cardinal, and that will be a close one either way.

Voepel: Texas vs. Minnesota would be epic, but Louisville vs. Nebraska would have a lot of drama, too. Former Huskers player and assistant Dani Busboom Kelly is head coach at Louisville and led the program to its first final four last season, where the Cardinals lost to eventual champion Wisconsin 3-2 in the semifinals. Busboom Kelly was a starter for the 2006 Huskers team that won the NCAA title the first time the final four was in Omaha, in 2006, and she's a Nebraska native. The NCAA tournament began in 1981, and there still hasn't been a female head coach of a championship team. Busboom Kelly could become the first, but odds are she will have to beat her alma mater to have the chance this year. That's if Nebraska gets past Oregon and Louisville beats Baylor in the regional semifinals.

Which four teams make it to the final four?

Gore: Your guess is as good as mine. The level of the teams left make that a very iffy prediction. I just can't wait to see how it all develops.

Coppedge: I can't imagine Texas walking out of Gregory Gym without a win. Beyond that, my educated guesses are Wisconsin, Stanford and Nebraska.

Sunderland: My mind has not changed as the tournament has unfolded: Wisconsin, Louisville, Stanford and Minnesota.

Voepel: It sounds boring, but it's hard to pick against these No. 1 seeds with how well they played in the early rounds: Texas, Stanford, Wisconsin and Louisville.