Five questions ahead of the 2022 NCAA Volleyball Tournament


MSU Volleyball huddles up/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith

Clark Joslin, Volleyball Reporter

Last Sunday, amid the chaos of college basketball’s PK85 invitational in Oregon, collegiate volleyball fans flocked to ESPNU moments after the final whistle to watch ESPN’s selection show for the 2022 NCAA Volleyball Tournament. From coaches on their last go-around to returning champions, this year’s bracket has more than enough storylines to keep track of. Here are just five you should be looking at.

1. Will the Badgers Budge?

The University of Wisconsin is (not surprisingly) back to defend its title after a stellar regular season run that saw the Badgers go 25-3, including 19-1 and a conference championship in the Big Ten.

At the helm for the Badgers is tenured head coach Kelly Sheffield. He is fresh off winning Big Ten Coach of the Year for the third time in his career at Madison. Sheffield and the Badgers will look to make their 10th Sweet Sixteen in a row. Lots of questions loomed over this team before the season, after losing much of their 2021 NCAA Championship team to graduation, some thought it might be time for someone else to take the Badgers’ spot at the top.

 Instead, Wisconsin reloaded, utilizing 2021 Final Four MVP and sophomore Anna Smrek, senior Danielle Hart, junior Devyn Robinson and sophomore Julia Orzol in a variety of ways over the course of the season. They also picked up 2021 First-Team All-Big Ten selection Sarah Franklin in the transfer portal from Michigan State and earned a one-seed. The Badgers face MAAC champions Quinnipiac in the first round on December 2.

2. Can McCutcheon Get Over the Hump?

On October 17, 2022, Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon announced to StarTribune that his 11th season as head coach of the Golden Gophers would be his last. This comes after a whirlwind 2021 offseason that saw the departure of iconic coaches such as Russ Rose and Cathy George step down after leading their squads for 42 and 17 years, respectively. 

Many thought 2021 would be the year for McCutcheon. He had five-time AVCA All-American Stephanie Samedy, Minnesota volleyball legend CC McGraw, slightly seasoned players like Jenna Wenaas and Melanie Schaffmaster and newcomer Taylor Landfair. But unfortunately, they couldn’t last in the war of attrition. After upsetting No. 5 seed Baylor, the Gophers lost to No. 4 seed and eventual National Champions, Wisconsin. 

However, this year is different. With a mix of youth and veteran leadership, the Golden Gophers locked up a No. 2 seed going 20-8 overall and finishing third in the conference behind Nebraska and Wisconsin. With 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year Landfair, grad-student McGraw and juniors Wenaas and Schaffmaster leading the squad, it’ll be up to the supporting cast of characters (including freshman middle blocker, Carter Booth, grad transfer middle blocker Naya Gros and some sort of combination of the Wucherer sisters) to get McCutcheon and Gophers over the hump. They’ll start their quest for a ring against Southeastern Louisiana University on December 2.

3. Uh, was San Diego robbed?

Per usual, as it happens in every sport, at every level: Somebody got robbed. This year, that somebody was the San Diego Toreros. 

The Toreros, who were crowned WCC champions over at-large bid earners BYU, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, were given a No. 2 seed by the committee. Could it have been a reflection of their non-conference scheduling and overall schedule? 

The Toreros faced only six ranked opponents all year long, winning 5 of those matchups (their one loss was to #1 seed Louisville in four sets). However, if you compare San Diego’s non-conference schedule to – oh, I don’t know – Texas’s schedule, they played the same amount of ranked teams in non-conference play and similarly played one ranked team in conference play. 

The difference between the two is that Texas lost at unranked Iowa State and only one other team from the Big 12 with a top-five seed, Baylor, made the tournament. Shouldn’t this mean that San Diego should’ve been given the No. 1 seed over Texas? Or does Texas get extra points for big names and social media following? Just asking questions, here. Regardless, San Diego will match up with Big Sky champs Northern Colorado on December 1.

4. Can Stanford emerge from its brutal quarter?

Another No. 1 seed that could’ve potentially switched places with San Diego is Stanford. The Cardinal only suffered one conference loss, way back in September to Oregon. However, Stanford’s reward for outlasting the other five Pac-12 teams that made the tournament is… the toughest quarter in this year’s tournament. 

Not only do they have presumably-pissed-off San Diego as their No. 2 seed, but they also have SEC champion Kentucky, Big West champion Hawaii and AAC champion Houston in their quarter. Now, Stanford will only be forced to play either Kentucky OR San Diego should both teams make it that far, but that’s only if they make it past the first two rounds. 

The Cardinal get a balanced Pepperdine team on December 2 that boasts WCC Freshman of the Year outside hitter Emily Hellmuth and 2021 WCC Freshman of the Year outside hitter Grace Chillingworth. 

With Hellmuth and Chillingworth (along with all-conference selections Meg Brown and Riley Patterson), the Waves will look to knock off the Cardinal in the first round. If they get past that, they’ll face a Hawaii team with two-time Big West offensive player of the week Amber Igiede. No easy pickings. This Cardinal team, however, has the strength to make it to the Final Four, it’ll just take a little elbow grease.

5. Need a sleeper team? Georgia Tech.

Hidden among the absolute slugfest between Louisville and Pitt for rights to the ACC Championship (which ended in a tie, by the way), is a lesser-known team that hung around the 10-15 mark all year, the Georgia Tech Hornets. Led by 6-foot-5 outside hitter, Julia Bergmann, the Hornets quietly surprised teams all year. 

Taking care of business, the Hornets’ only conference loss against teams not named Louisville and Pitt, came to Miami on the road. While its stats don’t jump off the page (Tech ranks anywhere from 25-50 in Kills Per Set, Opponent Hitting % and Assists Per Set), this Georgia Tech team faces Wright St. in the first round on December 1 and the winner of Marquette and Ball State in the round of 32. 

If the Hornets can continue to take care of business as they have done all year, that sets them up for an Elite Eight matchup with Texas, where anything can happen.