It’s Never Easy to Win the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship

A Note About the Tables in this Post

We have compiled a number of tables that are included in this post.  Ideally, our staff of researchers and statisticians would check them carefully and correct all errors.  Sadly, they are slackers and virtually useless.

Sharp-eyed readers may well find errors. We do not include errors intentionally. If these errors short-change your team, it’s not because we dislike your team.  It’s because humans are imperfect (certainly, we are), and our researchers and statisticians are slackers and reprobates.

If you find errors, we will appreciate when you point them out to us. Then, if we can find any of our slacker staff, heads will roll.  We won’t hold our breath.  They typically maintain a low-to-invisible profile.

Good Teams Almost Always Win the Early Rounds

Every year, when the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament seedings and brackets are announced, there is an outpouring of dissatisfaction with those seedings and brackets. The 2012 Tournament is no exception, with many pundits and fans criticizing Penn State’s bracket as giving the Nittany Lions an “easy” path to the NCAA Title.

With respect to First Round matchups, the argument is silly. We looked at a cohort of six traditionally good teams — Penn State, Stanford, Nebraska, USC, Washington, and Florida (we’re going to update this to include UCLA, but that will come sometime in December — probably after the tournament is over), and from 1998 to 2011 those teams went 80-0 in the First Round, as shown in the table below:

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2011 (All Matches)

TeamFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalsFinalTotal
Penn State14-012-29-36-36-05-152-9
Florida14-013-17-63-41-20-1 38-14

. . . but It’s Nice to Play at Home

With respect to Second Round matchups, the argument has more merit. In that period, Penn State went 12-2 (85.7%) in the second round, and was at home for all of those matches.  The other teams in our cohort did almost exactly as well in their home matches — 46-8 (85.2%) — as shown in the chart below:

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2011 (Home Matches)

TeamFirst Round Second RoundSweet 16Regional FinalSemi-FinalFinalTotal
Penn State14-012-25-15-00-00-036-3

For a more detailed look at how the teams in our cohort did in these matches, see our January 12, 2011 post Home Sweet Home?.

. . . and It’s Harder to Play On the Road

One difference between Penn State’s Second Round matches, and those of the other teams in our cohort, is that those teams played 14 matches away, with a 9-5 record (64.3%) in those matches.  That’s still very good, but definitely not as good as the record of those teams (and Penn State) in home matches.

So we agree that Penn State has had an easier time of it in the Second Round — though we think it’s also fair to point out that good teams defeat their second round opponents most of the time.

The chart below shows the team-by-team breakdown for Second Round matches for our cohort that were played away:

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2011 (Away Matches)

TeamFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalFinalTotal
Penn State0-00-04-21-36-05-116-6

Not All Second Round Opponents are Created Equal

It’s also true that some Second Round opponents are tougher than others. This year, for example, Penn State’s Second Round opponent (assuming Penn State defeats Binghamton) will be either Yale (18-5 overall, 66 RPI) or Bowling Green (21-10 overall, 53 RPI).

Neither of those teams is as tough as Nebraska’s potential Second Round opponent — Kansas State (21-8 overall, 23 RPI), or Stanford’s potential Second Round opponent — Western Kentucky (32-3 overall, 28 RPI), or Texas’ potential Second Round opponent — Texas A&M (24-5, 15 RPI).

The chart below shows all the potential Second Round opponents for Penn State, Stanford, Texas and Nebraska — the top-four seeds in the tournament:

Potential Second Round Opponents - 2012 #1 Seeds

#1 SeedPotential
Second Round
WinsLossesRPIRich KernPablo
AVCA PollConference
Penn State (#1)Bowling Green211053NRNANRMid-American
Penn State (#1)Yale18566NRNANRIvy
Nebraska (#4)Northern Iowa24944NRNANRMissouri Valley
Nebraska (#4)Kansas State21823265925Big 12
Stanford (#2)Western Kentucky32328182617Sun Belt
Stanford (#2)Loyola
181246NRNANRWest Coast
Texas (#3)North Carolina State22943NRNANRAtlantic Coast
Texas (#3)Texas A&M24515221129Southeastern

And Upsets Happen

Of course, if you’re a #1 seed in your bracket, you really are expected to win your Second Round match — tough or not.  But, home or away, upsets happen.

Like in 2011, when Kansas State upset Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln in the Second Round, and Michigan upset Stanford 3-1 at Stanford.  Both these matches were much tougher than Penn State faced in its 2011 Second Round opponent, Delaware (which it defeated 3-0).

Then again, it’s tough to argue that Nebraska and Stanford shouldn’t have beaten those opponents.  They should have, but upsets happen.

Win Both Matches in the Final Four? You’re the Champion

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, even if a team has an arguably “easy” opponent in the matches leading up to the Regional Final, their opponent in the Regional Final typically is a very good team.  That isn’t always the concensus view (think Penn State vs. Duke in 2010), but as a general matter, it’s been true more often than not.

And even if the Regional Final opponent arguably is “easy” (or easier than the opponents in the other brackets), it’s not a given that the favored team will win.   Our six team cohort was 32-16 in Regional Finals from 1998 to 2011 — still an impressive 67% win rate, but not a gimme.

Then there’s the perhaps inconvenient truth that the beneficiary of an “easy” matchup in the Regional Finals must still win two more matches in the Final Four to win the NCAA Championship.

Those who are frustrated with the current system argue that the “easy” path to the Final Four gives the beneficiary of that “easy” path (OK, insert Penn State if you must) a better chance of reaching the Final Four than other teams.  Let’s concede that point.

But for a team that reaches the Final Four to win the NCAA Championship, it has to produce against top level competition.  Every year, four teams will try.  Three teams will fail.

In 2010, to continue with our example, Penn State did produce, sweeping a very good Texas team and followed that Semi-Final win with a sweep of Pac 10 Champion California in the Finals. USC  didn’t, getting swept by Cal in its Semi-final match.

Our bottom line — Penn State has had years in which it  arguably (or unquestionably) had an easier path to the Final Four than other teams.  But it took advantage of its opportunities.  Some other teams fell along the way in matches they probably should have won.

But in the end — the end being the Final Four — the team that wins the final two matches wins the NCAA Tournament.  If you do that, you’re the National Champion.  End of story.

The chart below shows the performance of our cohort in the Regional Finals and the Final Four:

NCAA Regional Finals and Final Four Records - 1998-2011 (All Matches)

TeamRegional FinalsNCAA
NCAA FinalsTotal
Penn State6-36-05-117-4
Florida3-41-20-1 4-7

There’s Something About Coaches

Which leads us to our final point. In the 31 years the NCAA has been holding its Women’s Volleyball Championship Tournament, only twelve coaches, and only ten schools, have won even a single NCAA Division 1 Title.

Easy brackets may have increased the opportunities for some of these coaches in a few instances, but there must have been easy brackets for other schools and other coaches who weren’t able to capitalize and win the title.

There undoubtedly were lots of reasons for why so few coaches have won NCAA Division 1 titles. But for us, it makes no sense to disregard the impact that great coaches have on the performance of their teams.

NCAA Women's Volleyball Champions - 1981 to 2011

School# of ChampionshipsCoaches
Stanford6Don Shaw - 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997; John Dunning - 2001, 2004
Penn State5Russ Rose - 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
UCLA4Andy Banachowski - 1984, 1990, 1991;
Mike Sealy - 2011
Hawai'i3Dave Shoji - 1982, 1983, 1987
Long Beach State3Brian Gimmillaro - 1989, 1993, 1998
Nebraska3Terry Pettit - 1995; John Cook - 2000, 2006
USC3Chuck Erbe - 1981; Mick Haley - 2002, 2003
Pacific2John Dunning - 1985, 1986
Texas1Mick Haley - 1988
Washington1Jim McLaughlin - 2005
10 schools31 years12 different coaches (2 coaches won championhips at 2 schools)

Easy Roads to the NCAA Championship?  Check the Maps

Last year we took an in-depth look at the tournament paths of four teams in four recent tournaments (Easy Roads to the NCAA Championship: Check the Maps), all of whom went on to win the NCAA Championship. It wasn’t a statistically rigorous study — that would be the one with Pablo references, and RPI debunked, and conference power matrices. Which we don’t have.

Ours was the one with the subjective, non-statistically valid, snapshot view of the tournament paths of those four teams, to give us a subjective, confirmationally biased answer as to whether they had an “easier” path to the title than some other teams.

To keep the hounds at bay, we need to point out that we believe the 2010 Penn State had the easiest route. The other three teams are listed in chronological order in the chart below.

(For our complete post from 2011 (which doesn’t include 2011 tournament match results) Click Here.)

Easy Roads to the NCAA Championship? Check the Maps

YearTeam (Final Record)
(Tournament Seed)
First RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalFinal
2010Penn State (32-5
Niagara (25-9) 3-0 (Home)Virginia Tech (20-12) 3-0 (Home)unseeded Oklahoma (23-11) 3-0 (Home)#12 seed Duke (27-7) 3-1 (Home)#9 seed Texas (27-6) 3-0 (Kansas City, MO)#7 seed/ Pac10 Champion Cal (30-4) 3-0 (Kansas City, MO)
(Cal had defeated #6 seed USC, which had defeated #3 seed Stanford)
2005Washington (32-1)
Siena (20-12) 3-0 (Fort Collins, CO)Colorado State (21-9) 3-0 (Fort Collins, CO)#14 seed Purdue (24-9) 3-0 (College Station, TX)#11 seed Wisconsin (26-7) 3-0 (College Station, TX)#15 seed Tennessee (25-9) 3-0 (San Antonio, TX)
(Tennessee had defeated #2 seed Penn State)
#1 seed Nebraska (33-2) 3-0 (San Antonio, TX)
2006Nebraska (33-1)
American (26-6) 3-1 (Home) Northern Iowa (28-8) 3-0 (Home)#16 seed San Diego (26-6) 3-0 (Gainesville, FL)#8 seed Minnesota (26-8) 3-2 (Gainesville, FL)#4 seed UCLA (33-4) 3-1 (Omaha, NE)#2 seed Stanford (30-4) 3-1 (Omaha, NE)
2007Penn State (34-2)
Siena (24-8) 3-0 (Home)Albany 3-0 (24-10) (Home)unseeded Michigan (24-11) 3-0 (Home)unseeded BYU (24-8) 3-0 (Home) (BYU had defeated #6 seed Washington) #10 seed/ #6 ranked Cal (26-8) 3-0 (Away - Sacramento, CA) #1 seed Stanford (32-3) 3-2 (Away - Sacramento, CA)