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No. 18 Pitt volleyball makes NCAA Tournament (Oh, and let’s talk seeds)

After dominating the spring session, the No. 18 ranked Pitt volleyball team received an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers (16-4) will face Long Island University / LIU (8-5) in the first round on Wednesday, April 14. All tournament games will be held in Omaha this year and if you want to see the team in action, you’ll be forced to stay up a bit late with the match slated to start at 10:30 p.m. on WatchESPN/ESPN3. The winner of that match will face overall No. 14 seed Utah on Thursday (also at 10:30 and also on WatchESPN/ESPN3). Here’s the full bracket, if you need it.

Pitt making the tournament should never have really been in doubt given they are one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning all 12 of their matches this spring. ‘Hottest’ may not equate to best because, frankly, I’m not sure this is necessarily a top ten team or anything. But in terms of beating their opponents, they’ve been perfect all spring — and as I wrote recently, the matches haven’t even been close. That should mean we’re talking about a team that was easily getting in. But because the NCAA Tournament field was reduced from 64 teams to 48 this year (with 30 automatic qualifiers) there was a bit more intrigue than normal.

First things first — if you’re new to this whole thing, the women’s volleyball tournament is not seeded like the NCAA basketball tournaments. That’s not just in this crazy Covid year, either. It’s that way every year. Instead of every team drawing a seed, only the top 16 teams are seeded overall. Pitt did not receive a top 16 seed, which would have been helpful this year as the top 16 seeds all received a first-round bye (the first-round bye is special to this year, simply because of fewer teams making the tournament).

In all, four ACC teams made the NCAA Tournament with Notre Dame (14-3) and Georgia Tech (13-4) joining ACC champion Louisville (14-2). That’s a nice showing given how the ACC has been regarded (not well) in recent years. I expected to see, at most, three ACC teams so a fourth was a little surprising.

So after Louisville, who was the best of the rest? While Pitt, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech were not seeded, we can see fairly easily that the Panthers were essentially the highest seed among that group based on who they would face in the second round. Pitt drew the lowest seed (No. 14 Utah) while Notre Dame would face No. 10 Oregon and Georgia Tech would face No. 3 Minnesota. The Yellow Jackets were the ones that seemed to squeak in.

Now, it’s time for Pitt to get to work. What would be an acceptable finish to the season? If you’re judging straight by the seeds, a second round exit would be considered chalk. But the Panthers should be plenty capable of beating a team like Utah.

Look, I’m not writing off LIU. I’ll have a preview of that match up a bit later. If you want, I’ll go into James Franklin mode and just write LIU repeatedly until I’m bored. But there’s no fun in that. And we need to talk Utah because we’re looking at the quadrant Pitt finds itself in and the glaring ‘huh?’ moment for me is the Utes and their seed. LIU — solid team and if Pitt isn’t careful, they’ll find themselves headed home early. But for now, let’s look at Utah because that’s the potential matchup here that intrigues me.

If you didn’t catch it in that last paragraph, I hesitate to do this somewhat and I don’t want to look too far ahead. After all, Pitt has had some disappointing NCAA Tournament exits in the past. Last time out, in fact, was the 2019 tournament where Pitt was the No. 6 overall seed. That drew plenty of criticism from me and then the Panthers bowed out in a second round shocker to an unranked Cincinnati team.

(Sidebar: Now, as I explained then, that doesn’t mean Pitt didn’t deserve a higher seed. Seeds should be based on what you earned during the season — not necessarily expectations of how that team will finish. And, simply put, Pitt had earned a higher seed based on their performance on the court. Nevertheless, Pitt has produced some disappointing NCAA Tournament finishes and that was certainly one of them. So all expectations have to be tempered.)

But, I was surprised about the Utes getting a No. 14 seed. Why’s that?

They have a similar record to Pitt but the Panthers have a few more wins (due to playing more games) and, more importantly, Utah’s resume is not terribly impressive. In fact, in the last RPI, Utah was ranked way down at No. 75 while the Panthers were at No. 20. There’s just no real basis for slotting Utah so high in comparison with Pitt, in my opinion. It seems to be a seed based purely on reputation of the PAC-12.

Utah does have one nice win on their resume, beating now ranked No. 17 UCLA. But they also lost to the Bruins and lost ugly in back-to-back matches to now No. 7 Washington, their only other really strong opponent. They also lost recently to a bad Colorado team and had close calls against sub .500 USC and Arizona State teams.

But let’s go a bit deeper. Utah has only one other quality win on their schedule, really — a 3-0 victory against 11-4 Washington State. All of their other wins came against sub .500 teams. In case you missed it, let me repeat that — Only two of Utah’s 13 wins have come against teams with .500 records or better. In case you were wondering, Pitt has six such victories, including three over currently ranked teams (and a fourth against then ranked Florida State).

Of course, you can only beat who you play. And Utah unfortunately (or, in this case, perhaps, fortunately, since they received a good seed) had matches scrapped against a Top 20 Oregon team. But then again, that’s the same argument used against the Panthers in the past when they’ve been given underwhelming seeds with cries that they haven’t played a tough enough conference schedule. So ...

I don’t know. Frankly, I just don’t see why a team like Utah rated so highly — not only in a head-to-head against Pitt, but against other teams as well. Now, let me make one thing abundantly clear — it doesn’t mean they can’t beat Pitt. Utah is a good team. That isn’t my point and a Utah win, while disappointing, would not be something completely out o the blue. My point is that if you match the two teams up based on reputation of this season, Pitt looks like the favorite there — not the other way around. I’m not so sure that Pitt deserved a Top 16 seed — rather, I just happen to think Utah probably didn’t. It’s not in their resume at all. Not in quality wins. Not in RPI. Not in final ten matches. Not anywhere, really.

The Panthers have had a hard time garnering respect when it’s come to seeding and even rankings. But it’s also time for the team to do their part in the tournament. Should they reach the Round of 32 and face off against Utah, it’s a must win, in my book — at least if the team wants to gain a bit more respect.

Now, LIU, LIU, LIU ...

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