Like any good coach, BYU’s Heather Olmstead is always trying to schedule regular season matches with good volleyball programs. She regularly exchanges emails and voice messages with other coaches around the country. One of those coaches recently was New Mexico State’s Michael Jordan.
Guess who the Cougars are playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament?
That’s right, the 27-3 Aggies, who went undefeated (16-0) in claiming the Western Athletic Conference title and have won 19 straight matches.
The good news is that BYU is the No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means hosting the first and second rounds in the Smith Fieldhouse this weekend. Since 1994, the Cougars are 21-0 in NCAA Tournament games at home. Since Olmstead became head coach in 2015, BYU is 74-4 (95 percent) in the Fieldhouse.
The Cougars watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show in their team room with family and friends.
“Just the excitement in the room and the smiles on their faces makes everything, the whole season, worth it,” Olmstead said. “To have those jitters and butterflies about where we’re going to land and who we’re going to play, I’m just happy for the girls that their hard work has paid off, that we get to be at home and get to play in the tournament.”
The NCAA selection committee loves intrigue, and the four teams competing in Provo have plenty. The Cougars, of course, were ranked No. 1 last season and advanced to the Final Four. New Mexico State is a team from a smaller conference hungry for an upset. Illinois, one of the last teams to get into the tournament, plays in the rugged Big Ten and will meet Utah in the other first-round match — which sets up a possible BYU-Utah second-round clash.
The Cougars topped the Utes 3-1 in Salt Lake City earlier this year.
There’s more. If BYU gets past the first two rounds the Cougars would go on the road for the Sweet 16 likely against Stanford. These two teams have a history. BYU beat the Cardinal in Provo last season and took over the No. 1 spot in the polls. Stanford got its revenge by sweeping the Cougars in the Final Four. Back in August, BYU went to Palo Alto and shocked the third-ranked Cardinal 3-1.
The first round will be played on Friday in the Smith Fieldhouse, with Illinois and Utah meeting at 4 p.m. MT and BYU taking on New Mexico State at 7.
BYU senior libero Mary Lake has never played a first-round match anywhere but Provo in her four years as a Cougar.
“Every year to just to be able to be in the NCAA tournament is an honor and a privilege,” Lake said. “We never take that for granted and the coaches remind us every year about that. Every year it’s just as exciting. We didn’t know if we were hosting or not hosting but we were prepared to do whatever and to be grateful either way, so we’re glad we get to play in the Smith Fieldhouse again.”
BYU (25-4) had a strong resume. The Cougars were ranked No. 13 in the last AVCA poll and was 20th in RPI. BYU had wins over Stanford (No. 3 at the time) and Utah (17) in the preseason with losses to No. 4 Texas, No. 12 Marquette and No. 20 San Diego (twice). Six teams on the Cougars schedule (Marquette, Stanford, Texas, Utah, VCU and San Diego) made the NCAA Tournament.
This year marks eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance for BYU dating back to 2012 and the 32nd overall in 39 tournaments overall. The Cougars have been one of the 16 seeded teams in six of the last eight tournaments.
The top four seeds in the tournament are Baylor, Texas, Stanford and Wisconsin. The Big Ten had seven teams in the 64-team bracket. The Pac-12 and the SEC had six each. San Diego, which beat BYU twice in five sets to win the West Coast Conference, is headed to Hawaii and opens the tournament against Washington State.
The first and second rounds will be held this weekend, followed by the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds a week later. The Final Four will be played at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Dec. 19 and 21.