Dark horse teams that could crash 2017 NCAA Tournament

Sure, all the conference preseason favorites have rightfully gotten the hype entering the year.

Just don’t count out those teams that at the end of the year could bust the conference tournament brackets and get into the NCAA Tournament.

Check out the dark horse teams that could surprise everyone with a 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance.


St. Francis
Yes, George Mason won the EIVA last season, but don’t forget about the team that knocked off the defending conference champions Penn State in postseason. St. Francis one-year removed from reaching the EIVA Tournament finals returns a majority of staters, including three All-EIVA selections. The Red Flash also have one of the top pin-hitter combinations in the EIVA. Outside attacker Stephen Braswell and opposite Jeff Hogan both finished last season in the top 10 of the EIVA averaging more than 3.00 kills per game. In addition, Hogan had a match-high 22 kills on a .306 attack percentage as St. Francis upset Penn State in the EIVA Tournament semifinals. The Red Flash have won the last two matches against their in-state rival and were the first EIVA team to beat the Nittany Lions in the postseason since 1998. Along with its victories against Penn State, St. Francis had a 2016 regular season victory versus George Mason — the favorite in the conference’s preseason poll to win the EIVA this year. St. Francis in that same poll was picked to finish in the EIVA in third place. The Red Flash have never won the EIVA or made the NCAA Tournament. However, it has a roster that has proven it can pull off upsets and win critical late-season matches.

Mount Olive
Mount Olive did not finish atop the Conference Carolinas preseason poll, but it has all the pieces needed to win the conference and make its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. Opposite Robert Poole, who made the preseason watch list for the Bryan Ivie Award, was among the conference leaders last season with both a 3.29 kills per game average and 32 aces. Setter Jeff Yasalonis also returns for his senior season after being in the nation’s top 10 with a 10.48 assists per game average in 2016. Defensively, the Trojans add libero Josh Donahue back into the starting lineup. Donahue had a nation-best 302 digs in 2015 but missed all but one match of the 2016 season. Coach David Heller also continues to expand Mount Olive’s international recruiting base as the team in the off-season added Swedish 6-foot-8 outside attacker Fabian Ramen. In addition, the non-conference schedule could be a factor that helps Mount Olive at the end of season and in the Conference Carolinas Tournament. Five of the Trojans’ seven non-conference matches are against teams that were ranked in the preseason national coaches poll.


Lewis
A team that is ranked No. 6 in the preseason national coaches poll shouldn’t really be considered a dark horse. However, given how many are predicting the defending national champions Ohio State to win the MIVA again, the Flyers feel like a dark horse pick. Lewis finished last season in fourth place in the conference and pushed Ohio State to a decisive fifth game in the MIVA Tournament finals. Among the Flyers’ returning starters include Preseason All-American opposite Mitch Perinar. Perniar was named an Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Freshman All-American and the 2016 MIVA Newcomer of the Year after averaging 3.03 kills per game and having more than a .300 attack percentage. In addition, middle attacker Jacob Schmeigelt was named to the 2017 Preseason All-MIVA Team. As a junior last season, Schmeigelt was in the top five of the MIVA with both a 1.03 blocks per game average and a .427 attack percentage. One of the biggest changes for the Flyers is replacing former All-American setter Scott Fifer. Matt Yoshimoto is among the new setter options after he helped the Flyers go 3-1 last season in matches when he had significant playing time. If Lewis does not win the MIVA, it could reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid depending on how it fares in non-conference play. Lewis has six non-conference matches against preseason nationally ranked teams, including early-season home matches versus No. 3 BYU and No. 5 Pepperdine.

Hawai’i
BYU, UCLA and Long Beach State are the clear front-runners in the MPSF to be back in the NCAA Tournament. The three teams return the overwhelming majority of their starting lineups after making the six-team NCAA Tournament field last season. However, if there is an outside team to make a deep postseason run beware of the Rainbow Warriors. Hawai’i closed out the 2016 regular season winning six of its final eight matches before losing to UCLA in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals. Freshman All-American opposite Stijn van Tilburg had a 3.32 kills per game average and had double-digit kills in 18 matches last season. The Rainbow Warriors also bring back starting outside attacker Kupono Fey and added former USC outside attacker Larry Tuileta. Tuileta did not play last season and transferred from USC after being a 2015 MPSF All-Freshman Team selection. Besides its pin hitters, All-MPSF senior Jennings Franciskovic and sophomore Joe Worsley return after splitting time as the starting setter in 2016. The Rainbow Warriors also enter the upcoming season with one of the best home court advantages in recent years. Hawai’i is a combined 38-11 at home since 2014.