The Nittany Lions make their 18th appearance in the final four tonight, while their opponent, the Oregon Ducks, are into their very first third weekend of the women's volleyball tournament.
In what historically has been a sport and a tournament defined, for much of its existence, by the participation of schools from the state of California, there are zero schools from that state left in the tournament on its third and final weekend--and the Ducks are the only school left from the much-heralded volleyball heavyweight conference PAC 12.
The Nittany Lions, fresh off the heels of the announcement of four of its members earning All-America honors, will take on the Ducks tonight at nine on ESPN 2--for those so inclined, we'll have an open thread up. To make it to the semifinals to face top-seeded Penn State, #6 Oregon upended the #5 Nebraska Cornhuskers IN Omaha, which is no small feat--the Nittany Lions themselves had one of their two losses there earlier this season.
Here to provide a better viewpoint on what to expect from the Ducks tonight, and with much more insight into their volleyball program than I could ever have, is Will Rubin, from SBN's own Addicted to Quack.
BSD: This is Oregon's first final four. Why this year, and why this team?
Will: Oregon has arguably their best senior class in the history of the program this season, with Pac-12 Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma, outside hitter Kat Fischer, and libero Haley Jacob leading the way. They've come close to breaking through the last couple of years – getting screwed out of hosting a regional last season – but the team has really come together after a brutal, five set loss at Washington where they had 14 match points. They simply refuse to lose, as seen after getting blasted in the first set against Nebraska, and then winning the next three.
For a while, there's been a sort of Pac10 (now 12)/California bias to elite NCAA volleyball. There seems to be a shift these past few years farther east (and, in Oregon's case, north), and indeed there's not a single California team left in the tournament. Why do you think that is?
I'm relatively new to volleyball, so I don't have a great background on the collegiate history of the sport. However, the Pac-12 has been a fairly competitive league for a number of years, with Washington and now Oregon building elite programs. When I interviewed Head Coach Jim Moore and asked him about what he sells when recruiting, he was quick to mention the brand new Matthew Knight Arena. I also think that collegiate sports have had more parity in general over the past few years – obviously Penn State's had an amazing run recently – but few teams competing for a national title year in and year out anymore.
Who are some Ducks that Penn State fans should look out for?
As mentioned before, Alaina Bergsma is the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and Oregon's offense runs through her to the point that Moore has said at recent post-mach press conferences that he'd like to see setter Lauren Plum spread the ball around more. Plum is another one to watch, as Oregon's offensive sets run exclusively through her, and if she's off her rhythm, the Oregon offense is in trouble. The Ducks run a fair amount of slide attacks as well, so marking #7 Ariana Williams will be crucial for the Penn State defense.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the 2012 Oregon team, in your opinion?
The strength of Oregon's team is undoubtedly their options on offense. Bergsma, Fischer, Williams, sophomore Liz Brenner, and others are all threats to have a big match. As a team, the Ducks hit .296 on the season and run a variety of looks at their opponent. The team also serves better than most in the country, averaging 1.4 aces per set – they had five against the Cornhuskers. That being said, they've had big problems with service errors recently, and they'll obviously need to get a handle on that before Thursday's match. Additionally, Oregon's not a good blocking team, only averaging 1.8 blocks per set. Similar to the football team, they rely more on their offense than their defense to get the job done.
What are your expectations headed into the final four? What were your expectations going into this tournament, and preseason?
For me personally, making the Final Four was unexpected. I've watched more matches this season than I had in my entire life, and I've seen the team dominate high-powered opponents, and then shoot themselves in the foot against teams they should be able to dominate (See: Cal). I underestimated the resolve of the team though, and at this point I think there's a cautious expectation that they could win it all. It's a similar feeling to the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn in that many fans are just happy to be there. Expectations were high going into the season, as things seemed to be building to a head before a first-round exit from last year's tournament, but I don't know that they were this high.
If you do get by Penn State, who would you prefer to face in the finals--Texas or Michigan? Why or why not?
I'd want Michigan, just because they're the unseeded team and would seem to present a better chance for Oregon to win their first NCAA title. It's a conversation had many times over the last few football seasons – "would you rather play the best team or the team giving Oregon the best chance to win"– and I'd much rather win the tournament than take a loss to a more worthy opponent. Besides, the last time Oregon played Michigan on national television, this happened.
Thanks for the insight, Will! We won't say good luck tonight for obvious reasons, but congrats on a great season, and here's to many more matchups between these teams in the future!
Look for Cari's response to a similar set of questions posed by Will over at AtQ, now up here.
For more info on all things Oregon, head on over to Addicted to Quack or follow Will on twitter @_WillRubin.
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