Call it collegiate volleyball's "seeds of discontent" or perhaps playoff pairings a la Rand McNally.
Call it what you want, but try and figure out why the two top-ranked teams are paired in the same West Regional this weekend, with both standing between the BYU women's volleyball team and its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Final Four."I kinda feel like we're already going to the Final Four," said BYU Head Coach Elaine Michaelis of the weekend competition.
After downing 16th-ranked Arizona in first-round action last week, the 10th-ranked Cougars moved into the four-team West Regional with No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Stanford and No. 9 Washington. "We're sitting right where we want to be," said Michaelis.
Say what? "Well, within the parameters we have to work with," she added. "I would like to see a true seed in the championship."
And that's Michaelis' annual contention come playoff time - the NCAA's four-region playoff format that she sees as hindering teams from the West and West Coast. Top teams tend to stay at home in their own regions, no matter how high they're ranked nor how loaded the pairings become. That's a far cry from the NCAA basketball playoff format, where the top-seeded teams in a certain regional can be coming from several time zones away.
Consider the 1988 NCAA final volleyball poll, which has 13 of the top 20 teams hailing from the West Coast or the West. That means most of the teams will stay at home in the West or Northwest regions with the other two regions - Mideast and South - comprising lesser-talented fields.
Take a look at the regional seedings (see accompanying box). Seven of the eight teams in the West Region are ranked, with six of the Northwest's eight also listed among the NCAA's Top 20. Meanwhile, there are four ranked teams competing in the Mideast and only three in the South.
It could be - and has been - worse. In the West and Northwest regionals last year, the poll's top- and second-ranked teams found their way to one regional, while Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 were lumped into another.
No wonder, then, that the NCAA champion traditionally comes from either the West or Northwest, including UCLA, Pacific and defending champion Hawaii. And that also explains why the likes of Illinois and Texas are in the Final Four year after year - despite having relatively lower national rankings.
The NCAA currently is conducting a survey among coaches about playoff possibilities. But while the balance of talent tips toward the West, the majority of teams are found in the opposite direction.
"As long as it is a popular vote, those of us in the West carry so little weight because there's so few of us," said Michaelis, firm in her belief that the volleyball format should be a true seed championship, piting teams ranked first through fourth.
That's the way it was four years ago, with teams from the West and West Coast dominating play. The coaches association helped to create the current playoff format, reasoning that regional play would give more exposure to collegiate volleyball to all teams throughout the nation as well as help strengthen non-Western teams.
"Meanwhile, the rest of us have all suffered," Michaelis said. "I don't think it's fair for the kids - they all have a right to be there (in the Final Four)."
The Cougar coach of 26 years kiddingly suggested to more than one person that perhaps BYU would be better by losing its final few regular-season games.
BYU did lose two of its final three, finishing tied for second with Colorado State in the High Country Athletic Conference standings behind titlist New Mexico. Even with a 25-10 record - subpar by recent standards - the Cougars had a strong enough schedule that they stayed in the West Region as the No. 4 seed, while both New Mexico and CSU ended up being shipped off to - you guessed it - the South Region.
As for the current task at hand, such loaded competition in the West Region is nothing new for BYU, which defeated UCLA last year before losing to Stanford in the regional championships.
However, 32-0 UCLA has already defeated the Cougars twice this season in regular-season tournaments. "It's awfully hard to beat a good team three times," said Michaelis.
Should BYU duplicate its '87 feat and defeat the host Bruins, the Cougars would face the Washington-Stanford winner - likely the latter. And while it's awfully hard ot beat a good team three times, Stanford has done just that by beating BYU the past three years in the West Regional finals.