2023 NCAA volleyball tournament bracket breakdown, preview

There’s no denying the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, especially, are like a who’s who of volleyball in this year’s NCAA tournament bracket. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have some upsets along the Road to Tampa.

Among the top eight seeds, five are former national champions, led by No. 1s Stanford (nine NCAA titles) and Nebraska (five titles). All eight have been to the final four, though.

Last season, San Diego became a first-time participant in the national semifinals. Could we see a similar breakthrough for a team this season?

The 28-1 Cornhuskers enter the tournament as the perceived favorite, their lone loss coming last Friday at Big Ten archrival Wisconsin, which is also a No. 1 seed. And the two programs who have greatly elevated the ACC in volleyball — Pitt and Louisville — are Nos. 1-2 in the same region.

The SEC led all conferences with eight teams in the field, led by No. 2 seed Kentucky. And in the last season of the Pac-12 as we know it, the conference has five teams in the field, led by Stanford.

The national championship match, which has long been played on Saturday night, has moved to Sunday afternoon this year to be televised for the first time on ABC. The move to network television earlier this year brought the biggest audience ever for the NCAA women’s basketball final, so we’ll see what impact it has on volleyball.

Matches get under way starting Thursday, and ESPN’s experts take a look at what we can expect to see.

Which team’s seed surprised you the most?

Holly McPeak: I think there was so much parity across the board that after the top eight, it was a big jumbled mess and hard to differentiate between seeds. Florida at 16 was a bit of a surprise after suffering three key injuries during the season. But I like their grit and fight; outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick has had some strong matches, as has opposite Kennedy Martin, one of the most impressive freshmen in the country. Elli McKissock is also an elite libero and helps make new setter Kennedy Muff’s job easier.

MInnesota not getting a higher seed is understandable, but the Gophers finished strong and have plenty of strong players. They could prove to be dangerous for the teams in their bracket.

Courtney Lyle: I’m really excited for Missouri to get the 8 seed in Nebraska’s quarter of the bracket. This is a group who hasn’t been to the Tournament since 2020. Under new coach Dawn Sullivan, the Tigers won eight more matches than last year. In fact, Missouri’s 17 wins this season are more than it had in the previous 2 seasons combined.

Michael Voepel: Overall, the committee did a pretty decent job with seeding, although a No. 4 seed and accompanying ability to host the early rounds seemed a bit much for a Florida team that finished 18-9 overall and 10-8 in the SEC. And Stephen F. Austin getting an at-large bid is a surprise. I also do wonder about the omissions of Kansas State (16-11) and UCLA (18-12). Both, admittedly, had some regrettable losses. And RPI-wise, the Bruins were 55th and Wildcats 59th. Still, UCLA’s 10-10 mark in the always formidable Pac-12, and K-State’s 10-8 record in the Big 12 carry some weight. I thought at least one of the two would make the field.

Sam Gore: I’ve got a different take on Florida, as I was surprised at how well they did after suffering what looked like catastrophic losses to their lineup. To lose the players they did, and still continue to fight their way through the SEC was inspiring. Mary Wise and her staff did an amazing job keeping the Gators relevant after what started as a national championship contending season. I was pleasantly surprised to see the committee’s recognition that Florida is still a top team.

Paul Sunderland: I thought the committee was very generous to an injury-plagued Florida, giving the Gators a No. 4 seed and the opportunity to host the first two rounds. I thought Dayton had earned that spot or even Western Kentucky, among others.

Which of the top four seeds has the toughest road to Tampa?

McPeak: I would say the Louisville/Pitt regional is the toughest. Washington State has proven it can be elite and has plenty of experienced players who want to make a breakthrough. USC has proven it can push top seeds like Stanford, and Dayton is the best-serving team in the country with only two losses. Creighton and Minnesota round out some teams who can do some damage in that bracket. Of course Louisville and Pitt could get their rubber match faceoff to get to the national semifinal.

Lyle: Pittsburgh’s path should be super interesting, especially with archrival Louisville as the No. 2 seed in that quarter of the bracket.

Voepel: We all agree Pitt’s road is tough. The Panthers split their regular-season matches with ACC rival Louisville, and may have to face the Cardinals for a trip to the final four. Of course, those teams met last year in the national semifinals, won by Louisville. But even before a potential showdown against the Cardinals, the Panthers may have to get past USC and Washington State. Pitt has proven its a program in the big-time to stay. But of the No. 1 seeds, the Panthers may face the rockiest path this year.

Gore: Though on paper, it does look like Pitt could have the most challenging journey back to the national semis, let me also present another tough scenario. Though Wisconsin was not at 100%, two of the three teams that beat them this season, Penn State and Purdue, are in their regional. The Badgers will have their work cut out for them. Penn State would have to escape Kansas to get another shot at the Badgers, and Purdue will be playing its first two rounds in front of sellout crowds. Oh, and there’s a red-hot Oregon team the Badgers might have to get through as well.

Sunderland: The Pitt Panthers have, by far, the toughest road. Skylar Fields (gotta be healthy) and USC in the second round followed by the scary Cougars of Washington State in the regional semis. I’m not sleeping on Dayton or Pepperdine, but WSU should advance … and then Louisville, again, for a chance to play for the national title.

Which underdog has the best chance to make a deep run in the tournament?

McPeak: Not sure who you consider an underdog, but I think Arizona State and Purdue have good chances to pull an upset in their bracket and possibly catch fire.

Lyle: I really like the Oregon Ducks. They enter the tournament winning nine of their last 10 matches, with the lone loss being in five sets to Stanford, a No. 1 seed. Hannah Pukis is a veteran at setter and Matt Ulmer added extra pieces around her in outside hitter Gabby Gonzalez and middle blocker Kara McGhee. Don’t forget, they had match point against Louisville last year to advance to the semifinals and lost. Talk about motivation.

Voepel: Not sure a No. 3 seed can really be called a true underdog. But I think we all believe one of these years, Purdue is going to break through for its first final four. The Boilermakers have made the regional final five times in program history, including two of the last three seasons. Purdue, which enters the tournament on a seven-match winning streak, is the No. 3 seed in Wisconsin’s region. If the Boilermakers did make it to a regional final matchup with the Badgers, Purdue obviously knows Wisconsin as well as anyone. The Boilermakers split their two regular-season matches with the Badgers.

Gore: So I will classify “underdog” as anyone not seeded higher than a No. 4. Taking all the top three seeds out of the equation, I feel like Florida State has been unappreciated and not given enough credit for its season. This is another team that had a rocky start to the season due to injuries, and now healthy, ended up sharing the ACC title with Pitt, the No. 4 overall seed in the tournament. Keep your eyes on the Seminoles to make a run.

Sunderland: I don’t know that a No. 2 seed is an underdog but I expect Kentucky, winners of 16 in a row, to really make a run. Size, ball control, setting, defense. The Wildcats have it all. I have also been very impressed by freshman outside hitter Brooklyn DeLeye. Also, I’m pulling for middle blocker Azhani Tealer to end her career on a high note.

Who is the tournament’s must-watch player?

McPeak: There are so many, I want to list them by position.

• Setters: Hannah Pukis (Oregon), Kami Miner (Stanford), Mia Tuaniga (USC), Bergen Reilly (Nebraska) and Rachel Fairbanks (Pitt).

• Opposites: Kennedy Martin (Florida), Merritt Beason (Nebraska), Oliva Babcock (Pitt), Kendall Kipp (Stanford), Marta Livinska (Arizona State) and Anna Smrek (Wisconsin).

• Middle blockers: Kara McGhee (Oregon), Andi Jackson (Nebraska), Asjia O’Neal (Texas), Cara Cresse (Louisville), Amber Igiede (Hawai’i) and Raven Colvin (Purdue).

• Liberos: Elena Scott (Louisville), Elena Oglivie (Stanford), Lexi Rodriguez (Nebraska) and Elli McKissock (Florida).

• Outside hitters: Sarah Franklin (Wisconsin), Harper Murray (Nebraska), Madisen Skinner (Texas), Torrey Stafford (Pitt) and Jill Gillen (Arkansas).

Lyle: How do I pick just one? Louisville outside hitter Anna DeBeer has been to the last two national semifinals and played in the championship last year. She will have a chip on her shoulder to get the Cards to Tampa. Sarah Franklin is so fun to watch at Wisconsin, averaging over four kills per set this season.

Voepel: You can’t go wrong watching big hitters from Stanford, and Kendall Kipp is just that. The 6-foot-5 senior opposite was the Pac-12 player of the year for the second season in a row, and averaged 5.08 points per set. She had 417 kills and hit .325 for the season. The Cardinal have a long history of truly great offensive players, and Kipp has joined that list.

Gore: In addition to what my colleagues have said, add the serve of Georgia Tech outside hitter Bianca Bertolino. Wow … it’s a laser.

Sunderland: Jill Gillen is a must-watch. I hope she and her No. 3 seed Razorbacks are around for a while. At just 5-7 (if that) Jill the Kill averages 4.15 kills per set. We’re all going to miss her. Others to keep an eye on: liberos Lexi Rodriguez at Nebraska and Elena Scott at Louisville.

Who makes it to the final four?

McPeak: Nebraska, Stanford, Wisconsin, and ? Others have picked Louisville and I really like all their weapons. Pitt’s numbers on offense and defense have been impressive but they are still young in a few positions. Will mix it up and pick Pitt!

Voepel: Nebraska, Louisville, Wisconsin, Stanford.

Sunderland: Teams are No. 1 seeds for a reason. That said, here are my four for Tampa: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Stanford and … drum roll, please … Louisville!

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