Sit down, this is going to take a while.
Last year, Pitt’s volleyball team went a ridiculous 30-1 before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Michigan. Despite that nearly perfect regular season, the Panthers received only a No. 12 seed in the postseason event with cries of a weak schedule.
This year, the Panthers upgraded said schedule. They played a top ten Penn State team twice. They played Top 20 Utah. They played an Oregon team that was then rated No. 10 before, admittedly, falling off the face of the earth. They played a Cal Poly team that was once ranked. Importantly, those matches with Utah and Cal Poly were out west away from the confines of home.
And those were just the out of conference matchups. Pitt also managed to run through Florida State, Notre Dame, and Louisville — all teams that were once ranked or received votes. Louisville, even, is in the Top 25 of the RPI. And, by the way, they did this with a completely new libero, and a freshman setter that was not even old enough to legally vote coming into the season.
The result? Pitt is handed a No. 6 seed and, frankly, told that none of it was good enough for an upgrade from the kids table at Thanksgiving. Pitt will play the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at home but should they make it to the third round, they did not secure home court advantage. And if you haven’t heard yet, they will face Howard on Friday and, hopefully, the winner of Cincinnati/VCU on Saturday.
Now, that No. 6 seed is the highest in program history and not to be disregarded or taken lightly. It is a tremendous achievement. In the words of Count Dooku, one that is worthy of recognition in the archives of the Jedi Order, even.
It just undoubtedly falls short of what the team wanted. Here’s why.
The top four seeds in volleyball are really the top prize here when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding and it’s different from the basketball equivalent. In basketball, a top four seed often will not play in their home city at all and only gets to play somewhere in its region on a neutral court. In volleyball, a top four seed allows you play at home. Earning one allows you to stay at home for the first four rounds before playing in the Final Four. And this year, that Final Four happens to be in Pittsburgh, meaning that if Pitt earned a top four seed, they could have theoretically remained in Pittsburgh for the entire event.
We can play all the usual ‘what if’ games here. Pitt, of course, is no guarantee to make it that far. We know that from last year when the Panthers were upset by Michigan in the second round after losing star player Kayla Lund (this year’s ACC Player of the Year, by the way) to injury in the opener. But that isn’t the discussion here. The discussion is if Pitt is one of the top four teams in the country. More specifically, did their resume earn them a top four seed.
Now, the Panthers are done no favors by being devoid of ACC competition these days. The conference has produced some very good teams before but is currently a bit down. There are some good teams. Florida State and Louisville, for example, were both ranked this year and, along with Notre Dame, made the NCAA Tournament. But in general, you’ve got Pitt, a handful of solid programs, and, well, not much else.
Thus the need to schedule up in the non-conference portion of the schedule. And the Panthers held up their end of the bargain by doing that. That Oregon battled injuries and fell off a proverbial cliff wasn’t their fault. That was expected to be a quality win the team could have counted on. Pitt tried but, in reality, the schedule was not as strong as it was expected to be.
The best benchmark for Pitt being an elite team, of course, was that home and away series with Penn State. The Nittany Lions are a perennial top ten team and nothing has changed this year as they are currently No. 8. Pitt went into Penn State and swept the Nittany Lions on the road. They then turned around and played them to five sets at home, losing in ‘overtime’ in that last set.
In other words, 29-1 Pitt is literally a handful of points away vs. one of the best teams in the country from being a perfect 30-0. And that still wasn’t enough to earn a Top 4 seed to allow them to remain in Pittsburgh throughout the entire tournament.
Now, let’s take a cursory glance at the other teams slotted ahead of them. One is No. 1 Baylor, who is 25-1. No arguments there.
No. 2? Texas. Texas has three losses (Baylor, Stanford, and Rice), none of which are bad as all three teams are ranked. They also hold the only win over Baylor, so, sure.
No. 3? America’s favorite, Stanford! Stanford generally gets every break in the world, which given their history is usually fine. This year, the Cardinal have four losses to Minnesota, BYU, Washington, and UCLA. All of those teams are technically ranked, though UCLA has 11 losses, for crying out loud. Stanford also has several very good wins (certainly more than Pitt) but, at times, has not been all that close to winning. For example, they didn’t win more than a set in any of their four losses. They were even swept by 11-loss UCLA. UCLA is ranked in the Top 25 but just outside of the Top 25 in RPI. Again — Pitt’s lone loss was 3-2 to a top ten Penn State team by a handful of points. If we’re comparing losses, here …
Look, Stanford’s wins are impressive and if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt here, fine. But the real problem is with the next two teams.
No. 4? Wisconsin. Like the others above, the Badgers have some very good wins. But they also have six losses. I won’t run down their entire resume but one of those losses was to an unranked Ohio State team that missed the tournament completely — the same team Pitt swept in straight sets. Woof.
No. 5? Nebraska. The 25-4 Cornhuskers are next. They don’t have the blatantly bad loss that Wisconsin does but the committee’s problem here with ranking them higher is that they lost twice to Wisconsin. I would place Pitt ahead of Nebraska but that would still only get them to No. 5 because of the committee’s love affair with Wisconsin.
And, oh yeah, the other thing that makes this mind numbingly stupid? The RPI, we are led to believe, anyway, is one of the main tools used to determine seedings. How did Pitt fare there? No. 4, ahead of both Wisconsin (No. 5 and No. 8(!) Nebraska). Despite having only one loss — certainly of higher quality than losses endured by others. Despite running through a schedule nearly undefeated. And despite being ranked higher in the RPI, Pitt still was shorted.
Another thing worth mentioning here. Pitt absolutely ran through its competition. The Panthers won 29 times and only twice lost more than one set. 20 of those 29 wins were sweeps. We sort of brush over Pitt’s schedule in comparison to the others but while they didn’t play a lot of great teams, they played some good ones and had little trouble with them. Three other ACC teams, Florida State, Louisville, and Notre Dame are tournament teams. Pitt beat them in five combined matches, 15-3. The Panthers also had little trouble with other tournament teams. They swept Cincinnati and beat Cal Poly, 3-1, two others in the tournament. Few teams were as consistently as good as Pitt and I don’t know that anyone, save Baylor, was as dominant.
Now, I get the committee’s plight. They are left to compare Pitt’s admittedly weaker schedule against ones that are much more difficult. And, whether they will admit to it or not, I have zero doubt that the Panthers’ early loss to Michigan in last year’s tournament played a factor. Still, when you compare what Pitt did against the better teams on its schedule (including two matches against a legitimately elite Penn State team), they clearly did their part.
Look, these are all very good teams. This is not to run down Wisconsin or Nebraska who, again, could both be legitimately better than Pitt. But if we’re comparing resumes and what these teams actually did, Pitt is certainly a top four seed, weak conference schedule or not. When you look at how they fared against Penn State and Utah, they’ve proven they can play with top competition. Add in the RPI and it’s a no-brainer that Pitt should have been given a top four seed.