Breaking down the NCAA round of 16, the matchups and the impact of transfers

NCAA Round of 16 4/16/2021-Gloria Mutiri-Oregon volleyball
Gloria Mutiri has made the most of her move from Kansas State to Oregon/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Now that we’re down to 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with top-seeded Wisconsin playing BYU on Saturday and the other seven matches Sunday, one thing is apparent:

If you’re a coach at this level, you’d better know how to work the NCAA transfer portal.

Key players who started elsewhere are not just important cogs in this round of 16, in some cases they are the difference.

And, since every player this season gets another year of eligibility and can transfer without penalty, and because the transfer portal is chockablock full, well, it’s the tip of the iceberg. But that’s another story for another day.

Four of the remaining teams have won national titles, Penn State, Texas, Washington, and Nebraska. Wisconsin played in the 2019 NCAA title match and Baylor and Minnesota were also in the 2019 national semifinals.

Here are the eight matchups (all times Eastern), including all those transfers. Three of Sunday’s matches are on ESPNU and two are on ESPN2:

No. 1 Wisconsin (16-0) vs. No. 16 BYU (17-1)

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3

How they got here: Wisconsin, the Big Ten champion, swept Weber State, while BYU, the West Coast Conference champion, swept UCLA.

History: They’ve played four times — the last in 2008 — and split.

Breakdown: Wisconsin is the odds-on favorite to win the tournament, but since BYU doesn’t appear on ESPN, and you have to make an effort to watch the Cougars, you may not know how good they are. Because BYU gets a Sunday dispensation, the winner will have an extra day of rest when every other round-of-8 winner will play on back-to-back days.

Wisconsin has been the best team since it lost in the NCAA final to Stanford in 2019. It has the best player in middle Dana Rettke, perhaps the best setter in Sydney Hilley, multiple pin hitters who can terminate with the best of them in Molly Haggerty, Grace Loberg and Devyn Robinson, the best second middle in Danielle Hart, and a veritable army of defensive specialists, led by libero Lauren Barnes.

BYU has an incredible season when you consider that the Cougars lost to graduation one of the best players in program history in fantastic libero Mary Lake, and leading attacker and tremendous all-around player McKenna Miller. Outside Madelyn Robinson, second in kills to Miller, transferred to Utah, and middle Heather Gneiting, the leading blocker, took the season off on a mission trip. Taylen Ballard-Nixon has stepped up in a big way and has become an offensive force, middle Kennedy Eschenberg has dominated on defense, and Whitney Bower has an all-around game that has established herself as one of the best setters in the country. Madi Allen leads a defense that showed against UCLA it can play with anyone.

Wisconsin transfers: Most significant is Barnes, who spent her first two years at Minnesota before becoming a key defensive sub for the Badgers in 2019. This year she’s the libero and leads in digs. Versatile sub Deahna Kraft is a different kind of transfer, because she played four seasons of beach at Pepperdine. Giorgia Civita, who played three seasons at Wichita State before sitting out 2019 injured, is fourth in digs and third in aces.

BYU transfers: None.

No. 3 Minnesota (16-2) vs. Pitt (18-4) 

When: 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN3

How they got here: Minnesota, an at-large from the Big Ten, swept Georgia Tech, while Pitt, an at-large from the ACC, swept LIU and then 14th-seeded Utah. 

History: The teams split their only two matches, the last in 1999.

Breakdown: Pitt, which has won 14 in a row, could easily have been a top-16 seed. The Panthers come at you in many ways, lead offensively by Kayla Lund (also the digs leader), Chinaza Ndee, Chiamaka Nwokolo, Sabrina Starks, and Jordan Lockwood, who combine for 17 kills a set. Lexis Akeo and Kylee Levers run a very effective 6-2, and the floor defense is stout, led by Ashley Browske.

Minnesota may be the scariest offensive team in the field with Stephanie Samedy at times a one-woman wrecking crew. Taylor Landfair and Adanna Rollins can be lethal and Regan Pittman, while an All-American middle, might be the most undervalued player in the game. And the setter, freshman Melani Shaffmaster, at a powerful 6-3, is a threat in so many ways. CC McGraw is one of the oh-so-many fabulous Big Ten liberos.

Pitt transfers: The Panthers have two, Jordan Lockwood, who came from Navarro College, and Marija Popovic, who played three seasons for ETSU. Lockwood averages 1.82 kills and has 40 kills, while Popovic averages 2.48 digs.

Minnesota transfers: Katie Myers was a standout at Maryland for four seasons but has played sparingly this spring. A Minnesota spokesperson said she’s unavailable to play and listed as day to day.

Minnesota also has Hunter Atherton, a senior setter who was at Nebraska for two seasons and then played two seasons at North Carolina. She has played sparingly this spring for the Gophers.

Airi Miyabe is a transfer from College of Southern Idaho who had 89 kills in 2019, but has played sparingly this spring.

Lexi Sun-Nebraska volleyball-Husker volleyball
Lexi Sun, serving against Texas State in the NCAA Tournament, transferred from Texas to Nebraska/Mark Kuhlmann, NCAA Photos

No. 12 Baylor (20-6) vs. No 5 Nebraska (15-2)

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU

How they get here: Baylor, an at-large from the Big 12 beat Pepperdine in five, while Nebraska, an at-large from the Big Ten, swept Texas State.

History: Nebraska leads the all-time series with Baylor 31-0. All 31 matches came between 1995-2010 when both members of the Big 12. This will be the first meeting between the teams in an NCAA Tournament.

Breakdown: Baylor, of course, made it to the 2019 NCAA national semifinals. It’s not the same team but it’s still got the same Yossiana Pressley, who takes over matches. Lauren Harrison has emerged as a force, and Baylor will be in a better place if Marieke van der Mark is back in the lineup. The 6-6 right side missed the Pepperdine match. Kara McGhee is a big-time middle and the setting combo of Hannah Sedwick and Callie Williams works well. Shanel Bramschreiber leads a gritty defense.

Nebraska, when hitting on all cylinders, is tough to beat. The Huskers, whose only losses were to Minnesota and in five to Ohio State, are experienced and deep. Nebraska gets big production from outsides Lexi Sun, who has become a very good blocker, and Madi Kubik. But everything revolves around middle Lauren Stivrins, second in kills and first in blocks. Nicklin Hames has established herself as one of the game’s best setters and Kenzie Knuckles is — you’ve heard this before — one of the Big Ten’s super liberos.

Baylor transfers: There are six Bears who started elsewhere including Preslie Anderson, a graduate transfer from Cal who joined the team in the spring. Baylor, of course, played its Big 12 schedule in the fall. 

Harrison played her first two years at North Carolina where she led the Tar Heels in kills in 2019. Williams started at Tennessee (her dad, Jason, is the Baylor associate head coach). Laché Harper is a grad-transfer middle who played four seasons at UCF. She has played in about half of Baylor’s matches. AJ Koele played her first year at Mississippi State and didnt appear in any matches in 2019 for Baylor but was on the team and has played sparingly this year. 

Andressa Parise, a 6-3 Brazilian who played at St. Petersburg in Florida, had only played in 10 sets this season before Thursday when she got in and had nine blocks and four kills with no errors in seven attacks against Pepperdine. 

Nebraska transfers: Nebraska has one of the more publicized transfers in the country when Lexi Sun left Texas and landed in Lincoln. Sun was second in kills at Texas as a freshman and a first-team All-Big 12 member. But she left for Nebraska, where she was second in kills in 2018 and led in kills per set in 2019 when she was a VolleyballMag.com third-team All-American. This year, Sun leads the Huskers in kills (221, 3.75/set), is second in aces with 19, and is third in blocks (41) and averages 2.17 digs. 

The other transfer is Kayla Caffey, who averages 2.02 kills and is second in blocks. The junior middle played two seasons at Missouri, which was knocked out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament by Nebraska. 

Samantha Drechsel-Washington volleyball
Samantha Dreschsel, serving for Washington against Dayton in the NCAA Tournament, started her career at Maryland/Mark Kuhlmann, NCAA Photos

No. 6 Washington (18-3) vs. No. 11 Louisville (15-2)

When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN3

How they got here: Washington, which won the Pac-12, survived a five-setter against Dayton, while Louisville, the ACC champion, beat San Diego in four.

History: They’ve played only once, when Washington beat Louisville in 1993 and it happened in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Breakdown: Washington was about as close to getting bounced from the NCAA Tournament as you can get before the Huskies prevailed in five against Dayton. If nothing else, Washington has shown it can bounce back. It lost the season opener to Arizona State and then won five in a row. Then it lost to UCLA and won six in a row. Finally, the Huskies lost to Oregon and are now on a seven-match winning streak. 

Washington has more weapons than most in Samantha Drechsel, who leads in kills, Claire Hoffman, Madi Endsley, and Lauren Sanders. Ella May Powell has established herself as a top setter, and Shannon Crenshaw is strong at libero.

At this stage of the 2019 NCAA tourney, we were talking about Louisville’s stunning upset of Texas in Austin. Now the Cardinals are back at it, with the same leaders, Aiko Jones, Anna Stevenson, Claire Chaussee (the four average 14 kills set combined) and Tori Dilfer, and the ACC freshman of the year in Anna DeBeer.

Dilfer is among the settting elite and DeBeer is second in kills and second to Amaya Tillman in blocks. Louisville has won 11 in a row.

Washington transfers: Just Drechsel, who is from nearby Woodinville, Washington. She played as a freshman at Maryland. She leads Washington in kills (286, 3.53/set), leads in aces with 30, is second in digs with 2.52/set, and is third in blocks with 72.

Louisville transfers: Stevenson played her first two seasons at Auburn and in 2019 became Louisville’s starting middle. Dilfer played her first two years at TCU, where she was the starting setter as a sophomore. In 2019 she led the Cardinals to the NCAA round of eight, and this year leads the ACC in assists per set (10.88). Setter Rachel Demarcus, who has played sparingly, transferred from South Alabama.

Louisville also lost a key transfer from the 2019 team when Amber Stivrins went to Georgia.

No. 13 Penn State (10-5) vs. No. 4 Texas (24-1)

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU

How they got here: Penn State, an at-large from the Big Ten, swept North Carolina A&T, while Big 12-champion Texas swept Wright State.

History: Penn State leads 11-8. They’ve met twice before in the NCAA Tournament, the last in the 2009 when Penn State won the national-championship match in five. The last time they played was in 2013 in Austin when Texas won in five.

Breakdown: No team has the firepower of Texas. If you follow the college game at all you know about the attack of Logan Eggleston, Skylar Fields, Asjia O’Neal, Brionne Butler, Molly Phillips, and now the mid-semester addition of Mexican freshman Melanie Parra, and well, the Texas offense is loaded. Setter Jhenna Gabriel is much improved, and the addition of Morgan O’Brien has given Texas options, like moving Sydney Peterson to DS. 

Simpy put, Penn State has to stop Texas, but it has the middles to do it in Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray. Hord is Penn State’s only Big Ten first-team player after a regular season in which the Nittany Lions played just 14 matches, continually getting cancelations because of COVID. Junior Jonni Parker and freshman Annie Cate Fitzpatrick are giving Penn State seven kills a set from the pins, and Gabby Blossom is averaging 10.38 assists. Jenna Hampton is averaging 3.55 digs and she’ll be busy against Texas.

Penn State transfers: The big one has been Anastasiya Kudryashova, who came from Rutgers. The 6-4 product of Russia, who played two years at Rutgers, this season is fourth in kills with 132 and third in blocks with 26.

Penn State also has Keatan Broughton, a DS who came from West Virginia; Sophie Walls, a setter who began her career at Miami, and Hannah Flowers, a graduate-student right side who played three years at Memphis. 

Texas transfers: The Longhorns have one in former Illinois libero Morgan O’Brien, who will be  playing against a Big Ten opponent for the first time since arriving at Texas. O’Brien, a grad transfer who played three seasons at Illinois, is averaging 3.27 digs a set and has given Texas multiple defensive options.

No. 9 Ohio State (16-3) vs. No. 8 Florida (20-3)

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2

How they got here: Ohio State, an at-large from the Big Ten, beat Missouri, while Florida, an at-large from the SEC, beat Morehead State.

History: They’ve played three times and Florida has won twice. The last match was in 1996.

Breakdown: Youth (Ohio State) versus experience (Florida). 

Ohio State, which started the season 12-0 before losing in five to Nebraska, has just two seniors. One of them is middle Lauren Witte, who leads with 83 blocks but tends to get lost among the kids. That would include right side Emily Londot, a strong candidate for national freshman of the year (who leads with 311 kills and is second to Witte with 70 blocks), freshman middle Rylee Rader, sopomore setter Mac Podraza, sophomore libero Kylie Murr, and sophomore outside Gabby Gonzales. Junior Vanja Bukilic is second only to Londot in kills. The Buckeyes have shown all season they’re talented and resilient.

Florida, rather, is senior- and junior-led. The Gators have as good a pin-hitter duo as there is in junior Thayer Hall and redshirt-junior T’ara Ceasar, who combine for more than seven kills a set. Both are lethal from the back row, too. Holly Carlton, a 6-7 right side who actually filled in at setter, is a redshirt senior who is third in kills and second in blocks. Junior Lauren Dooley leads with 110 blocks (1.43/set) and averages 3.32 kills. 

The setter is experienced junior Marlie Monserez, who averages 10.47 assists and has 61 kills and averages 2.59 digs. Ellie McKissock is a freshman libero who has had a strong season, averaging 3.84 digs.

Ohio State transfers: Just seldom-used junior setter Josie Vondran, who is from Columbus and played two seasons at Dayton, another Ohio school. 

Florida transfers: Three of the top four scorers are transfers. 

Ceasar played at Georgia before transferring during the 2018 season and sitting out the 2019 season at Florida.

Carlton played a season at North Carolina and came to Florida in 2018.

Redshirt-junior Lauren Forte, an all-Pac-12 middle from Cal, came between semesters and has 104 kills this spring. 

No. 10 Oregon (15-4) vs. No. 7 Purdue (15-6)

When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU

How they got here: Oregon, an at-large from the Pac-12, beat Notre Dame, while Purdue, an at-large from the Big Ten, beat High Point.

History: Purdue has won both meetings, the last in 2007.

Breakdown: Oregon has perhaps the most versatile player in the college game in junior outside Brooke Nuneviller, who leads her team in kills (255, 3.54/set) and digs (285, 3.96/set). The other outside, Taylor Borup has been outstanding, and Oregon has taken full advantage of the arrival of left-handed Gloria Mutiri, the Kansas State transfer who is second to Nuneviller in kills and third in blocks. Oregon is also getting tremendous production from Abby Hansen, Karson Bacon, and, against Notre Dame, Morgan Lewis, who had 13 kills in 19 errorless swings. Setters Kylie Robinson and Elise Ferreira combine for 10.73 assists and 3.80 digs. Georgia Murphy averaged 3.57 digs.

Purdue boasts a combination of talent and experience right up there with any team. Amost all of its top players are juniors or seniors, although freshman middle Taylor Trammel has made quite a splash.

Senior Caitlyn Newton leads in kills (299. 3.93/set) and aces (36). Junior Grace Cleveland is next (212, 3.26/set). Junior setter Hayley Bush averages 10.73 assists and is second in digs (2.64/set) to perhaps the best libero in the country, Jenna Otec (4.64 digs/set, 20 aces). Not surprisingly all four made the all-Big Ten first team and Trammel (118 kills, .388 hitting percentage, team-high 126 blocks) made the all-freshman team.

Oregon transfers: Mutiri played her first two seasons at Kansas State, but coming to Oregon and dying her hair green has taken her to a different level.

The 6-4 Borup started at North Carolina and left after two seasons. She was injured much of 2018 at Oregon and took a redshirt in 2019. This year, finally healthy, Borup is averaging 2.11 kills, 2.70 digs, and leads the Ducks with 18 aces.

Abby Hansen, who leads Oregon with 92 blocks and has 77 kiils, started at USC but redshirted her freshman year.

Purdue transfers: None

Western Kentucky (23-0) vs. No. 2 Kentucky (20-1)

When: 10 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2

How they got here: Conference USA-champion WKU beat Jackson State and then knocked off No. 15 Washington State in five, while Kentucky, the SEC champion, swept UNLV.

History: Kentucky holds a 14-4 advantage. The last time they played was in 2017 when Kentucky won in five, coming back from being down 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament second round on its home floor.

Breakdown: The two schools, WKU in Bowling Green, and Kentucky in Lexington, are 154 miles and a time zone apart (Lexington is in the Eastern time zone, Bowling Green in the Central). But they both play big-time volleyball. 

WKU has been so close before, but this is its first NCAA round of 16. This group of Hilltoppers is loaded with experience and talent. And consider that they are hitting .354 — .354! — and holding opponents to .126.

It starts with junior middle Lauren Matthews, who leads with 300 kills (4.0/set) and blocks (92). Sophomore Paige Briggs has 281 kills, 21 aces, 33 blocks, and leads in digs. Senior Kayland Jackson has 161 kills and 41 blocks, and Katie Isenbarger had 149 kills and 62 blocks. The setter is senior Nadia Dieudonne, who averages 11.87 assists, has 127 digs, and 33 blocks. The libero, Logan Kael, averages 3.18 digs.

But few teams have more talent than Kentucky, which might have the best setter in the country in senior Madison Lilley, the best libero in Gabby Curry, the best outside in Alli Stumler, one of the best freshman in outside Madi Skinner, and, well, the Wildcats are loaded.

They went 19-1 in the SEC this season, largely because a lot of gaudy numbers and gritty play. Stumler leads with 292 kills (4.23/set) and has 18 aces, and Avery Skinner, Madi’s older sister, has 222 kills (3.83/set). Azhani Tealer has 179 kills (and leads with 89 blocks) and Madi Skinner has 122 kills.

Lilley, the senior setter, is not only second in blocks with 47, she averages 12.10 assists, has a team-high 26 aces, and has 48 kills. Curry averages 3.61 digs, almost an assist per set, and has 17 aces.

This could be the showcase match of the round of 16.

Western Kentucky transfers: Nadia Dieudonne played her first years at Xavier, but the product of Louisville came to WKU in 2018 when she was the Conrerence USA setter of the year. She didn’t win again, but is on the C-USA first team. 

And Logan Kael played two seasons at West Florida before moving to WKU for the 2019 season.

Kentucky transfers: None

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