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This is Kentucky’s 16th straight appearance in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, but never have the Wildcats had a higher ranking, a higher seed or higher expectations.
Seriously, as the No. 2 seed, the Cats could win the whole thing.
“We haven’t really talked a whole lot about it,” UK Coach Craig Skinner said Wednesday from Omaha, Neb., site of the two-week event. “If the way we practice, the way we train, the way we interact is any indication, it’s pretty similar to the year. I think this group from the beginning of the year, even when we didn’t know we were going to play or not, have had a lot of expectations. So they’ve been dealing with that for a few years now. It just seems like it’s the next chapter.
A terrific chapter, to this point. After a 19-1 regular season and a fourth straight SEC title, the No. 2-ranked Cats are in their best position ever, seeded right behind No. 1 Wisconsin for the 48-team tournament. UK begins play Thursday at 7 p.m. against UNLV, a 3-1 winner over Illinois State in Wednesday’s opening round. Thursday’s round-of-32 match will be streamed on the subscription service ESPN Plus.
UK is one of four state schools in the field, along with No. 11 seed Louisville (14-2), Western Kentucky (22-0) and Morehead State (17-1). WKU and Morehead State joined Louisville and UK in the round of 32 with victories Wednesday.
After a few false positive COVID-19 tests when the team arrived in Nebraska, Skinner said the Cats should have everyone available come Thursday. That includes SEC Player of the Year Madison Lilley, SEC Libero of the Year Gabby Curry and All-SEC members Alli Stumler, Azhani Tealer, Avery Skinner and Madi Skinner. And, oh yeah, Skinner just happened to win SEC Co-Coach of the Year honors, as well, with Arkansas’ Jason Watson.
Still, this isn’t your normal NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. Pushed back from fall 2020 to spring 2021, the event has followed the men’s and women’s basketball tournament example, sequestering to a quasi-bubble in Omaha. And like the women’s basketball tournament, the setting and amenities (or lack thereof) have sparked controversy, prompting Skinner to issue a statement this week saying, in part, “I sincerely appreciate the NCAA’s efforts to hold a national championship tournament in these uncharted times.”
Said Skinner on Wednesday, “I think for every team here, to be honest with you, no one knows what to expect.”
But then the Cats have had to deal with distractions all season, one that was split into a fall and spring schedule. An All-SEC schedule. There were pauses, postponements and the uncertainty of waking up in the morning and not knowing if that night’s match was going to be played. With no SEC Tournament, Kentucky hasn’t played since March 25.
Yet the Cats have kept their eyes on the prize. They won 15 of their 20 matches by 3-0. Their lone loss came at No. 6 Florida, 3-2. The next night the Cats avenged the defeat in Gainesville.
“I think we have a great upperclass group,” Skinner said. “Both the juniors and seniors are very experienced, very skilled volleyball players. . . . I’m going to lean on our seniors and upperclassmen to pull us through it.”
Since arriving in Lexington in 2004, Skinner has taken each of his teams to the NCAA Tournament. Five times the Cats have reached the Sweet 16. As the No. 4 seed, they broke through to the Elite Eight in 2017 only to lose to No. 5 seed and eventual champion Nebraska, 3-1.
Skinner’s old school — he was previously a Nebraska assistant — is one of five schools that have dominated the tournament over the last 14 years. Penn State has won six titles (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014) over that time frame. Stanford (2016, 2018, 2019) and Nebraska (2006, 2015, 2017) have each won three while UCLA (2011) and Texas (2012) have one title each.
Can Kentucky join the club? Michella Chester of NCAA.com has No. 1-ranked Wisconsin beating Minnesota in the finals, but does have the Wildcats beating Purdue to reach the Final Four.
“Absolutely,” Skinner said. “I think that’s a privilege that our players have wanted.”
Kentucky vs. UNLV
What: NCAA Tournament round-of-32 match
Where: Omaha, Neb.
When: 7 p.m. EDT
Live stream: ESPN Plus
Records: Kentucky 19-1, UNLV 13-0