As he prepared to address his University of Wisconsin volleyball team for the first time this week, Kelly Sheffield posted a tournament bracket on the wall in the team’s film room at the UW Field House.
It was not, however, the full 64-team bracket for the NCAA tournament, but rather a mini-bracket with the names of just four schools.
“Really all we’re in this weekend is a little tournament of four,” Sheffield told his players. “Four teams are going to go after it and there’s going to be a champion of this little tournament.”
That little tournament will start Friday at the Field House when UCLA (18-11) faces Notre Dame (19-9) at 4:30 p.m., and the fourth-seeded Badgers (22-6) play Illinois State (22-11) at 7 p.m.
The winners will meet Saturday at 6 p.m. to earn a spot in next weekend’s regionals. If the Badgers advance they will host that four-team tournament as well, with a berth in the NCAA Final Four at stake.
But Sheffield is not about to get caught looking ahead, not even to Saturday, much less next week. The Badgers’ focus is entirely on an Illinois State team that earned its way into the tournament by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, sweeping regular-season champion Northern Iowa in the finals.
The No. 3 seed in the MVC, they swept No. 6 seed Evansville and beat No. 2 Loyola-Chicago in the semifinals before knocking off UNI.
“Illinois State is legit,” Sheffield said. “They didn’t just get in the tournament and win. They hammered some really good teams there.”
The Badgers have a pretty good frame of reference on the Redbirds, as the teams met last season with UW winning in four sets after losing the opening set. Five Illinois State players from that match return, including All-MVC first-team selections Kaylee Martin, a 5-foot-9 junior outside hitter, and Stef Jankiewicz, a 5-10 junior setter.
In the non-conference season this year, the Redbirds beat Illinois in four sets and took Marquette to five sets, losing 21-19 in the fifth, one week after the Golden Eagles beat the Badgers in five sets.
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In short, Illinois State is not the type of team one might expect the No. 4 overall seed to face in the opening round. But the NCAA volleyball tournament is not like the basketball tournament, in which top seeds almost always face overmatched opponents in the opening round.
In volleyball only 16 teams are seeded and their only real advantage is that they get to play at home. While they generally start out against lower-ranked foes, there is a wide disparity in the quality of those teams.
The RPI of the teams facing the 16 seeded teams ranges from 41 (Wright State) to 311 (Alabama State). Purdue, the 16 seed, faces Wright State, while No. 10 Florida draws Alabama State.
Illinois State, at 78, ranks ninth in RPI among those 16 seeded opponents. Pittsburgh, which many thought was in line for the No. 4 seed but ended up at No. 6, opens against Howard, which at 194 has the second-worst RPI in the field.
“There’s kind of an unevenness to the bracket,” Sheffield said.
The Redbirds’ status was dragged down by a mid-season slump that was fueled by a series of injuries. But with everyone healthy, they enter tournament play on an eight-match winning streak.
Illinois State coach Leah Johnson told the Bloomington Pantagraph that those October struggles have helped toughen her team for the late-season run.
“I think the belief we kept the whole time during the adversity is now being rewarded,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you forget what you’re working for in those hard times. I think it was how we stayed resilient and never let ourselves lose the faith in those hard times that gave us the courage at the end.”
The first match figures to be a good one, at least according to the RPI, with UCLA at No. 27 and Notre Dame at 32.
The Bruins, who split two matches against reigning champion Stanford, feature one of the nation’s top players in Mac May, a 6-3 outside hitter who was the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The Fighting Irish are led by All-ACC first-team selections Charley Niego, a 6-0 outside hitter, and Zoe Nunez, a 5-10 sophomore setter.