For the first time since 2013, five unseeded teams have cracked into the Regional Semifinals round of the Women’s Division I NCAA Tournament. This round has been a buzz-saw for those unseeded teams though, as just one team each of the past four tournaments has gone to the Elite Eight and just one team total since 2013 has made the Final Four.
With plenty of teams getting opportunities to make that Elite Eight and Final Four this season, one stands above the rest in terms of best chance or potential to make the National Semifinals. While one popular answer would be a sleeping giant like the Wisconsin Badgers, it’s actually their conference foe – Michigan State – that has the best chance of an unseeded team making a Final Four.
One unseeded match
Part of which unseeded team has the best chance revolves around their schedule and path to that potential Final Four. While Michigan State is in the same region as #1 Penn State, they also are the only unseeded team who plays another unseeded team (besides their opponent) in the Sweet 16. It comes against a tough Illinois team, but its also a squad that Michigan State swept in their other meeting this season. They didn’t earn a victory over what would be the next potential opponent in Penn State, but they played them very tough in two matches.
Compare that to the other three unseeded teams (excluding Illinois for obvious reasons). Colorado takes on #5 Nebraska and then would meet #4 Kentucky/#13 BYU. Missouri plays at #1 Penn State then would see Michigan State/Illinois – so similar, but Colorado isn’t as good. The big one is Wisconsin, who has to play at #3 Stanford in their Sweet 16 match. If you’re able to upend the defending National Champions then you likely get #6 Texas. So while they are a popular dark horse pick, they have maybe the most difficult path of unseeded teams to a Final Four. That’s opposite for Michigan State, who would have the toughest Elite Eight match but also the most fortunate Sweet 16 pairing.
The best unseeded team remaining
Schedules and Regionals aside, Michigan State is actually the best unseeded team remaining. The biggest contest though in this regard comes from the Michigan State vs. Wisconsin discussion, but in the latest VolleyMob Top 25 Power Rankings, Michigan State comes in at #11 while Wisconsin sits at #15 (with Colorado at #16, Illinois at #20 and Missouri at #22). Not to mention that Michigan State finished fourth in the Big Ten at 14-6 while Wisconsin was tied for 7th in the same conference at 11-9. Oh, and Michigan State beat Wisconsin both in East Lansing and in Madison this season.
You put it all together and Michigan State is the top unseeded team left. In fact, the only reason they didn’t earn a seed and host was because the NCAA Tournament committee’s over-dependence on the RPI. For instance, take a look at some of Michigan State’s best wins: at Minnesota (3-0), at Wisconsin (3-2), at Creighton (3-1), vs. Wisconsin (3-1), vs. Missouri State (3-0), vs. Illinois (3-0). They’ve hovered around the top 10 ever since the start of Big Ten play, and now they’re reaffirming that with two ranked wins in the NCAA Tournament and one at a National seed.
The Spartans have a senior-laden team as seven of the 16 players on their team are seniors with three even being fifth-year players. Autumn Bailey and Brooke Kranda are two of those redshirt seniors and lead the team in kills per set while their setter (Rachel Minarick) and top blocker (Alyssa Garvelink) are also in their final season.
In their first three seasons they made the NCAA Tournament each year and won a match, but fell short in the second round all three times. So while they don’t have Regionals experience they do have eight matches in the NCAA Tournament under their belt and have seen plenty of situations throughout their four year careers. Put simply, this team has so much senior leadership and experience that they aren’t fazed by the difficult situations – like playing away from home in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Familiarity with Opponents
Michigan State is in a Big Ten heavy Regional as not only do they take on conference foe Illinois in the Sweet 16, but they could also meet co-Big Ten Champions Penn State in the Elite Eight. Their familiarity with opponents should lessen the hype of the matches and make things feel more normal for a Spartans team that was very good against Big Ten competition this season.
Starting with Illinois, Michigan State earned a sweep of the Fighting Illini earlier this season. They didn’t have winning success against Penn State, but neither did every team besides Nebraska. It’s clear that the top team in the country playing at home would be the favorite in the match, but it’s not as if Michigan State hasn’t made things close in their other meetings with the Nittany Lions. The first go around in University Park went four sets but Michigan State won the second 25-15 and even had set point in the third to go up 2-1 before they lost the game 30-28. In the second meeting, they also lost in four but again were downed in extra points in a set (the first).
Due to some success against Penn State and experience playing in University Park, they won’t be stunned by the aura of the top team hosting them if they reach that opportunity. It’s a lot to ask for any unseeded team to make the Final Four – especially with the top four hosting now instead of neutral courts – but if one team is to do it, Michigan State has the best shot.