Mysteries of the NCAA Final Four

by Glenn on December 15, 2014

The NCAA women’s volleyball has that Agatha Christie-esque quality these days. From 328 Division I volleyball-sposoring schools 64 were selected for the NCAA tournament. Over the December 4–5 weekend, 64 teams became 32 and then 16. This past weekend 16 became eight. And then there were four: Texas (2), BYU, Penn St. (4), and Stanford (1).

The odds, at first glance, of being one of those teams are worth mentioning. Out of 328,
being one of the 64 = 19.5%
one of the 32 = 9.7%
one of 16 = 4.8%
one of 8 = 2.4%
in the Final Four = 1.2%

Which means most teams lose. And by most, I mean all but one. Next Saturday night there will be one team in the .3% percentile which constitutes the NCAA winner. Elite.

That Teddy Roosevelt quote seems appropriate these days:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt’s language could be more inclusive, but I think the sentiment is right for all the teams, players, and coaches in NCAA Division I volleyball. To compete is to embrace the likelihood that you will lose. That’s something.

But since I began with a note of mystery, let’s enter into one. Out of 33 championships, over a third have been won by either Penn St. or Stanford, with six titles each. How is that possible? It’s not like the other 326 aren’t trying. When these two teams meet in their semi-final Thursday night, it will be pretty exciting. Stanford  and Penn St. are tough teams and it will be sad to see one of them go down. Well, let’s be honest, it will be incredibly sad if Stanford loses. I’ll be just fine to see them beat Penn St., which knocked Stanford out of the tournament last year. What goes around comes around. Bias and jeeering aside, isn’t it extraordinary that these programs would, in the face of so much competition, be so successful year in and year out. This is a closed system, after all. For one team, Stanford for example, to do well and go 29-1 on the season, another team (or teams) has to lose as many games as Stanford wins.

(This certainly messes with those odds above, which are much better than that for some schools and much worse for others. Take Oregon St. for example. They had an historic season this year following a disaster last year. In 2013 they went 0-20 in Pac-12 play. This year, 9-11, with an overall record good enough to get them into the NCAA championship for, wait for it, the first time ever. I’m not sure who has the harder job—John Dunning at Stanford who is expected to bring a win home to The Farm every year or Terry Liskevych at Oregon St. who is trying to tell a new story in Corvallis.)

The mystery goes deeper. Out of  33 years of championships, only 15 schools have competed in the final. That’s some exclusivity. Here they are in the order of total number of appearances:

Stanford—14
(L-1984, L-1985, L-1987, W-1992, W-1994, W-1996, W-1997, L-1999, W-2001, L-2002, W-2004, L-2006, L-2007, L-2008)

Penn State—9
(L-1993, L-1997, L-1998, W-1999, W-2007, W-2008, W-2009, W-2010, W-2013)

UCLA—8
(L-1981, L-1983, W-1984, W-1990, W-1991, L-1992, L-1994, W-2011)

Nebraska—6
(L-1986, L-1989, W-1995, W-2000, L-2005, W-2006)

Hawaii—5
(W-1982, W-1983, W-1987, L-1988, L-1996)

Long Beach State—5
(W-1989, L-1991, W-1993, W-1998, L-2001)

USC—4
(W-1981, L-1982, W-2002, W-2003)

Texas—4
(W-1988, L-1995, L-2009, W-2012)

Pacific—3
(W-1985, W-1986, L-1990)

Wisconsin—2
(L-2000, L-2013)

Florida—1
(L-2003)

Minnesota—1
(L-2004)

Washington—1
(W-2005)

California—1
(L-2010)

Illinois—1
(L-2011)

Oregon—1
(L-2012)

With so many teams competing, you’d think there would be many that have been in the finals at least once. But there hasn’t been a lot of room. Stanford, Penn St., UCLA, and Nebraska have been in the finals 37 times, that’s over half of the 66 finalist spots. It’s been a relatively small group of schools that have been in the finals. In 33 years of history, here are the percentages (rounded):
Stanford—21%
Penn State—14%
UCLA—12%
Nebraska—9%
Hawaii—8%
Long Beach State—8%
USC—6%
Texas—6%
Pacific—5%
Wisconsin—3%
Florida—2%
Minnesota—2%
Washington—2%
California—2%
Illinois—2%
Oregon—2%

Now, past performance is not guarantee of future results, but it certainly feels predictive. We know that three of the final four teams this year are on this list. At least one of the teams above that has competed in the finals will be doing it again this year. And if BYU does not upset Texas on Thursday, then both teams in the finals will have previously competed for the finals. I find that extraordinary.

Speaking of BYU, their presence in the Final Four is another mystery. They were unseeded. Though they were 16-2 winners in their West Coast Conference and 27-4 overall, it doesn’t seem like they had the same level of competition that your typical Pac-12 school (for example) had to deal with over the course of the season, but they appear to have prepared well for the finals and peaked at just the right time. After a first round victory over Seton Hall, they beat Arizona (11), Florida St. (6), and Nebraska (14). Now they have the challenge of Texas (2), who took out North Carolina (7) yesterday. I hope BYU does well. I tend to cheer for underdogs. (Unless the underdog is playing Stanford. Then I’m sorry, they’re on their own.)

Final mystery: What happened to Washington? They are the only team to beat Stanford this year, but Nebraska, who has had, for them, a terrible season—10 losses ties for their most in the NCAA era and the No. 14 seed was the worst since John Cook took over as head coach—was able to beat Washington at home.

The cliché in sports is win or go home. In the case of Washington it was win or stay home. With all the traveling to regional contests in Seattle, Ames, Minneapolis, and Louisville, it seemed like Washington had kind of an advantage on the travel front.NCAA Volleyball Regionals Map

But, to invoke another sports cliché, it is what it is. To get so close and fall short must be incredibly sad for Washington. There are two seasons–the first one where some mistakes are allowed. Then the finals season, where none are allowed. It would have been nice to see Stanford play Washington in the final. Stanford would have had a chance to redeem themselves and Washington would have been able to prove they were the better team again.

After considering all of the above, I now feel a little guilty being a Stanford fan. It’s too easy. On the player and coaching side, I can’t imagine the effort that goes into every point, set, match, season. On the fan side, all of their work means you don’t really have to suffer. If they lose you say, “Maybe next year,” and you won’t be far off. Streaks skew these numbers, but over time Stanford is in the finals every two to three years. And they are winning the championship every four to five years. They last won in 2014, so they are due.