Almost 24 hours away from the start of the men’s volleyball Final Four and the anticipation continues to grow.
The four-team NCAA Tournament will be played at USC with the No. 1 seed UC Irvine playing the No. 4 seed Penn State in the opening semifinals at 6 p.m. (PST) Thursday. In addition, the host school and No. 2 seed USC will play the No. 3 seed Lewis in the second semifinals match at 8 p.m. (PST) Thursday.
The winners of these two matches will play in the national championship on Saturday. Check out the top five storylines to follow during the NCAA Tournament.
1. Lewis’ rise from the NCAA death bed
It took coach Dan Friend and Lewis eight years to overcame massive NCAA sanctions — that had been never seen before in college volleyball and the men’s volleyball equivalent of the NCAA death penalty — and return to the Final Four. The Flyers in the summer of 2004 received a scholarship reduction, a two-year postseason ban and had to vacate their 2003 NCAA championship for using ineligible players. The NCAA rule violations also resulted in the program’s founding coach Dave Deuser leaving the university and Friend being named the new head coach. Friend in his eight years at Lewis has kept the program free of any significant NCAA violations and has continued to grow the program. All that effort culminated Saturday as Lewis rallied from a one-game deficit to defeat the defending NCAA champions Ohio State in five games in the MIVA Tournament championship to clinch a spot in the Final Four. Lewis reaching the Final Four was one of the last demons left from the program to exorcise from the Deuser era, but the final one may be winning the NCAA championship to replace its vacated one in 2003.
2. USC on its home court
For the third consecutive year, a team in the NCAA Tournament will play host to the four-team tournament as USC received the at-large bid. However, the Trojans should beware that a home court advantage has not always resulted in a national championship. A host school playing in the NCAA Tournament has won the championship 11 times, but it has only happened three times in the last years — UCLA in 1993 and 1996 and Stanford in 2010. In addition, Penn State last year when it hosted the NCAA Tournament was upset by Ohio State in the semifinals. This will also be the first time that the Trojans have hosted the Final Four since volleyball became an NCAA sport in 1970. The Trojans, though, have won a national title in Los Angeles before. USC in 1949 won the inaugural U.S. Volleyball Association Collegiate National Championship, which was held in Los Angeles.
3. The good and bad of UC Irvine’s serving
Coach John Speraw said before the MPSF Tournament semifinals that the Anteaters’ would rely on their jump serving and go as far as they can effectively serve. The coach wasn’t joking. UC Irvine in its upset victory against No. 1 USC in the MPSF Tournament semifinals had eight aces but also committed a season-high 26 service errors in the five-game victory. The Anteaters lead the MPSF and are second in the nation with a 1.64 aces per game average. The team also has two players in the nation’s top 15 for aces per game average. Outside attacker Carson Clark is fourth in the nation with a 0.51 aces per game average and is one of three players to have more than 50 aces this season, while outside attacker Jeremy Dejno is 11th in the nation with a 0.38 aces per game average.
4. Penn State’s final chance to prove itself
For a program that prides itself on its willingness to travel anywhere and beat the top teams in the nation, the Nittany Lions’ regular season was somewhat of a letdown. Penn State on the West Coast was 0-4 in road matches agaisnt MPSF teams, including a three-game loss to USC at the Galen Center. In addition, the Nittany Lions in each of these matches had less than a .300 attack percentage. Penn State enters the Final Four leading the EIVA and is fifth in the nation with a .322 attack percentage. The Nittany Lions received the No. 4 seed, but have a history of performing well as the lower seed in the NCAA Tournament. The last time Penn State was the lower seed in the semifinals it upset Cal State Northridge to reach the 2010 NCAA championship match.
5. No semifinal television exposure
Anyone not in Los Angeles who wants to watch the NCAA Tournament semifinals will have to turn to their computer instead of television to view the match. ESPN after providing live broadcast coverage to both the NCAA Tournament semifinals and championship matches announced in December that it would only broadcast the national championship match on ESPNU. As a result, the two semifinal matches Thursday will be webcast live on ncaa.org. This will be the first time in more than 10 years that ESPN has not carried the NCAA Tournament semifinals. The NCAA and ESPN last year signed a new agreement giving the network broadcasting rights to 24 NCAA championships, including men’s volleyball, through the 2023-24 school year.