If Russ Rose was a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, how would he view his team?
It’s a tricky question for the Penn State women’s volleyball coach, whose team closed its season Saturday night and awaits its tournament fate. The bracket will be announced at 9 p.m. Sunday.
While the Nittany Lions may not be quite to the standard of the last decade — winning six national titles over that span — they certainly are not in danger of missing the tournament. They should remain, with Stanford, as the only programs to make every NCAA field since its beginning.
But the trickier question is whether Penn State deserves to be one of the 16 seeded teams, and to host the opening two rounds.
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Rose confirmed Friday night Penn State has put in a bid to host, essentially telling the NCAA they are willing to hold matches at Rec Hall. Not everyone can host, especially with shared arenas.
But what should we think of this Nittany Lion team? And which one will we see next week? Will it be the team that won 15 straight matches? The team that beat Minnesota, then the No. 1 team in the country? Or will it be the team that had separate losing streaks of three and four, and was swept handily by Nebraska last week?
This much we do know: the last time they had nine losses in a season, as they had heading into Saturday night’s match against Illinois, was 1987.
As Rose pointed out, however, Penn State is fourth in the Big Ten, the nation’s strongest conference. The three teams ahead of them are 1-2-3 in the AVCA coaches’ poll. How could the fourth-best team not be seeded?
“I’d like to think that has value,” Rose said Friday night after his team beat Northwestern, “but the reality is we’ve lost nine matches and six of them in conference and four of them to the top three teams in the country.”
Against top teams, it is a different story for a program that usually rose to the occasion against the best. Penn State has a 5-7 record against ranked teams, and is 1-6 against those in the current top 12.
The offense is good, but not incredibly efficient. They block well, but are not dominating, and the back line is solid, but sporadic. They are at their best when their service game is on.
“If we don’t serve well, we’re in trouble against the good teams,” Rose said. “We’re not a great blocking team and we’re not a great defensive team. If you serve tough, it limits what the other team can do and it kind of hides your own weaknesses at certain skills.”
With the ups and downs of this season, it would be understandable that the Nittany Lions would like a bit of a fresh start, no matter who or where they end up in the bracket.
“I think our whole team’s pretty fired up,” junior outside hitter Ali Frantti, who was part of the 2014 title team, said after Friday’s win. “… Everyone’s 0-0. We have to have that mindset going in. But every game that we’re playing we have to think about the tournament and what’s leading up to good, positive momentum. It’s always in the back of our mind and we’ve got to keep pushing through.”
So which team will be on the court for the tournament, and how much does the NCAA selection committee believe in the Nittany Lions?
The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) has them ranked 23rd, a stronger indicator typically than the No. 15 AVCA ranking. None of the top 16 in the RPI have nine losses.
And if Penn State does not get the chance to host matches — as has been predicted by a few sites online — this would be the first time since 1989 that would happen.
But Rose pointed out one other major factor the Nittany Lions have in their favor that only one other school possesses.
“You have to be able to win on the road to win the national championship,” Rose said. “Do I think we’re a real threat to win the national championship? I wouldn’t say our body of work has demonstrated that. But there are two programs that have won the national championship playing college volleyball right now — it’s Penn State and Nebraska.
“I’d like to think there’s some experience that’ll carry over, but I can’t answer that question.”