The University of Wisconsin volleyball team’s road to the NCAA Final Four will go through the UW Field House.
The Badgers earned the opportunity to play their first four NCAA tournament matches at home as they received the No. 4 seed when the field was announced Sunday night.
The Badgers (22-6) will face Illinois State (22-11) in their first-round match at 7 p.m. Friday at the Field House. The first match that day will pit UCLA (18-11) against Notre Dame (19-9) at 4:30 p.m. The winners will meet Saturday at 6 p.m.
UW coach Kelly Sheffield said he expected his team to be seeded either fourth or fifth. And while he was excited to get the No. 4 seed, he knows it comes with no guarantees.
“When you’re going into the tournament, if you’re going in hoping for things, hoping for an easy draw or an easy bracket, or hoping that you’re going to be somewhere, then I think that’s the wrong mindset,” Sheffield said. “It’s going to be difficult no matter where you are in the bracket. It’s the ultimate test so we’re looking forward to that.
“The second weekend at home doesn’t mean anything right now. We get one match at home. That’s what we’ve earned — we’ve earned one match at home and we’ve gotta win that to get a second match at home. There’s no way in the world that we’re going to be presumptuous and think just because we have a 4 seed we have an easy march all the way into the Final Four. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”
The Badgers went into last weekend ranked No. 2 in the RPI, one of the critical factors in seeding the tournament, but a five-set loss at Penn State on Friday night seemingly damaged their hopes for a top-four seed.
But selection committee chair Michelle Durban said the Badgers’ overall resume gave them the edge over No. 5 seed Nebraska and No. 6 Pittsburgh. Among the criteria the committee uses are won-loss record, head-to-head matches, strength of schedule, non-conference strength of schedule, common opponents, RPI and performance over the last 10 matches.
“When we looked at those three schools we felt that Wisconsin checked the most boxes and that is how they ended up as the fourth seed,” Durban said on the NCAA selection telecast.
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The Badgers played 11 matches against teams in the RPI top 25, more than any other team in the nation, and their six wins matched Baylor and Stanford for the most of any team. UW’s schedule was ranked second toughest, while Nebraska was 34th and Pitt 44th.
Junior setter Sydney Hilley still wasn’t so sure the committee would reward the Badgers.
“We were talking in the sauna and I was like, ‘OK, guys, don’t get our hopes up,’” she said. “I thought that loss against Penn State wouldn’t put us in the top four. We’re pretty excited to be in the top four. I think hosting is a pretty big deal so we’re really excited about it.”
UW has been a top-four seed just two other times — a No. 3 seed in 2016 and No. 4 seed in 2014.
The Badgers are 18-6 in the tournament in six years under Sheffield, advancing to at least the Sweet 16 round in each season. Last year they were eliminated in the Elite Eight by Illinois.
UW is 46-22 (.676) all-time in the program’s 22 NCAA tournament appearances.
The Badgers’ goal all year has been to be playing their best volleyball at the end of the season and Sheffield thinks they are getting close to achieving that.
“I think we have been dancing around playing some amazing volleyball at times,” Sheffield said. “I know our team is really confident. Let’s get healthy and stretch out the good. I think we’ve played some really good volleyball at times and I think our best is still in front of us.”
First and second round all-session tickets go on sale today beginning at 8:30 a.m., online at UWBadgers.com, by phone at (608) 262-1440 or in-person at the McGinnis Family Wisconsin Athletic Ticket Office from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through Friday.
Single-session tickets for the first and second rounds go on sale beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Friday.