Dark horse teams that could crash the 2018 NCAA Tournament

There are the preseason favorites, and than there are those teams slightly under the radar but just intriguing enough to discuss about possibly making the NCAA Tournament.

Check out the five dark horse teams that could surprise everyone in their conference tournaments and make the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Preseason national coaches poll ranking:
No. 14
Preseason MIVA coaches poll ranking: No. 3
2017 record: 19-10 (9-7 MIVA)
Breakdown: It’s been 16 long years of waiting for Ball State fans, but this could be the year that the Cardinals finally end the drought and return to the NCAA Tournament. Ball State ended last season almost pulling off the biggest postseason upset of the year as it rallied from a two-game deficit to force a decisive fifth-game against Ohio State in the MIVA Tournament semifinals. In addition, the Cardinals led the fifth game 8-3 before the NCAA champion Buckeyes railed for the victory. Ball State last season was the only team to finish in the nation’s top five for both blocks per game average and digs per game average. The team returns a majority of starters, including Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Preseason All-American middle attacker Matt Walsh. Outside attacker Matt Szews returns for his sophomore season after earning Freshman All-American honors in 2017 and being in the nation’s top 25 averaging 3.37 kills per game. Szews also provides something that the Cardinals have not had in almost a decade — a No. 1 offensive option at the pins who is an All-American caliber talent.


Preseason national coaches poll ranking:
Receiving votes
Preseason EIVA coaches poll rankings: No. 2
2017 record:
Breakdown: The separation between Penn State and Princeton was not that much last season, and the Tigers return all three of their All-EIVA starters. Princeton lost both regular season matches to the defending EIVA champions Penn State in a decisive fifth game, including surrendering a 13-9 lead in an fifth-game overtime loss. In addition, Penn State swept Princeton in the EIVA Tournament semifinals but two of those games were decided by two points. The Tigers have one of the top middle attacker combinations in the nation with Junior Oboh and George Huhmann. Both Oboh and Huhmann were All-EIVA selections last season and made the preseason watch list for the 2018 Ryan Millar Award. Oboh returns for his senior season after having a .432 attack percentage and double-digit kills in four matches last season. Huhmann, the EIVA Newcomer of the Year, led the EIVA in 2017 with a .387 attack percentage and then spent his offseason playing with the United States at the FIVB U21 World Championship. Along with the team’s middle attackers, All-EIVA opposite Parker Dixon ended his freshman season among the EIVA leaders with a 2.86 kills per game average.

Preseason national coaches poll ranking:
No. 11
Preseason Big West coaches poll rankings: No. 3
2017 record: 12-15 (5-13 MPSF)
Breakdown: The clear favorites to win the inaugural Big West championship are the two teams that made the NCAA Tournament semifinals last season — Long Beach State and Hawai’i. However, one team more than capable of pulling off some upsets in the conference tournament is CSUN. Coach Jeff Campbell after years of rebuilding now has an experienced starting lineup that includes Preseason All-American opposite Arvis Greene and outside attacker Dimitar Kalchev, who was a finalist for the 2017 Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. National Server of the Year. Third-year starting setter Sam Porter also returns after guiding the CSUN offense to the nation’s eighth-best attack percentage at .310 last season. Along with these returning starters, the Matadors in the offseason added outside attacker Ksawery Tomsia and libero Emmet Enriques. Tomsia joins CSUN after spending four seasons playing for his high school in Poland. Enriques, who transferred following Cal Baptist disbanding its men’s volleyball program, was among the MPSF leaders with a 1.92 digs per game average last season.

Preseason national coaches poll ranking:
No. 8
Preseason Big West coaches poll rankings: No. 3
2017 record: 13-13 (8-10 MPSF)
Breakdown: Sure, coach John Kosty had one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. More importantly, though, the Cardinal is finally healthy after being ravaged with injuries as it finished last season in seventh place in the MPSF. Outside attacker Jordan Ewert is back on court after being sidelined for the second-half of last season with an injury. Even with that injury, Ewert still led the Cardinal with both a 3.47 kills per game average and 19 aces. Preseason All-American middle Kevin Rakestraw returns for one more season while in graduate school and ended the 2017 season third in the nation hitting .433. Setter Paul Bischoff as a freshman last season also started 19 matches and helped guide Stanford to a .247 attack percentage. Along with these returning starters, Kosty said in a fall preseason interview with Off the Block that several incoming freshmen could get significant playing time this season. Both opposite Jaylen Jasper and middle attacker Kyler Presho spent this offseason playing for the United States at the FIVB U19 World Championship. In addition, outside attacker JP Reilly was high school AVCA First-Team All-American. UCLA and the NCAA Tournament finalists BYU are clear preseason favorites in the MPSF, but by the end of the season Stanford could surprise a lot of people in the conference tournament.

Preseason national coaches poll ranking:
Not ranked
Preseason ConfCarolinas coaches poll rankings: TBA
2017 record: 18-10 (14-4 ConfCarolinas)
Breakdown: Few teams in NCAA Division I-II men’s volleyball have embraced the concept of international recruiting like Mount Olive coach David Heller. Of the 20 players on the Mount Olive roster, 13 are international players from 12 countries. In addition, Heller has a track record of success recruiting internationally. All-ConfCarolinas opposite Robert Poole finished last season leading the conference and being in the nation’s top 15 with a 3.48 kills per game average. He also was third in the nation averaging 0.59 aces per game and in the offseason represented England in the U20 European Beach Volleyball Championships. Besides the international players, three more all-conference starters — libero Josh Donaue, outside attacker Bret Rutledge and setter Jeff Yasalonis — return for their senior seasons. Mount Olive has never won a ConfCarolinas championship since the conference started receiving on automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2014. That streak could come to an end this year, if Mount Olive can find a way to beat King the defending conference champions Barton.