On Oct. 9, the thought of Missouri volleyball hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament seemed practically impossible.
The team was struggling. The Tigers had just lost to Ole Miss for the first time since 2014 by committing 36 total errors, a new season-high. A perfect 8-0 start saw the Tigers jump to No. 17 in the AVCA poll. But four losses in the Tigers’ next seven games saw their record dip to 11-4 and only a week later, Missouri was outside of the Top 25.
So, how have the Tigers been able to make hosting NCAA Tournament matches a legitimate possibility once again? By winning, of course.
The Tigers have won eight of their last 10 games. More importantly, they have three RPI Top 50 wins in that span over Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia. Even Missouri’s losses were justifiable. The Tigers dropped a five-set match to RPI No. 9 Florida and then immediately had to travel to RPI No. 15 Texas A&M, which resulted in a four set loss.
Since then, the Tigers have rattled off fourstraight wins and have jumped to No. 18 in RPI. The emphasis on the RPI in college volleyball is important because conferences like the SEC and Big 12 do not have conference tournaments at the end of the regular season.
This leads to the main question. How can Missouri leap ahead of four or five teams to feel comfortable about its chances to earn a top-16 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament? Well, the answer depends on what happens in the Tigers’ match Wednesday night.
Missouri travels to RPI No. 8 Kentucky, the highest ranked SEC team in RPI. The two teams have already met this season, but it was in the midst of a Missouri three-game losing streak. This time, the Tigers come in winners of fourstraight and fully aware of the stakes.
“Every game is really valuable for where we can be seeded,” Missouri outside hitter Kylie Deberg said. “If we end up winning all of them we do have a chance to host so that is in the back of our minds.”
It would be tough to formulate a scenario where Missouri loses one of its final four games and still earns a top-16 seed, but a win over Kentucky could change that. The Wildcats defeated RPI No. 9 Florida on Sunday in five-sets to earn a seat at the helm of the SEC standings.
Strange as it may seem, the Tigers might even have the advantage by playing on the road. Kentucky is just 8-4 at home compared to 9-1 on the road. The Wildcats have lost three matches at home to teams unranked in the AVCA poll. A little surprisingly, that is where Missouri will find itself after just missing out on a spot in the poll’s release Monday.
A win over Kentucky would place the Tigers in third place in the SEC, just one game out of second. That’s not a small feat in a conference that features six teams in the RPI top 50.
After Missouri’s match in Lexington, it will find have three relatively easy matches remaining. The Tigers will have to travel to RPI No. 66 Tennessee and No. 65 Ole Miss before concluding the season at home against No. 73 LSU.
Any loss in the final three matches would ruin Missouri’s chances to host.
If Missouri does not earn a top-16 bid, it will most likely be placed into a geographically close regional bracket that includes Nebraska or Minnesota, two daunting teams that would test the Tigers’ ability right away in the second round. The Tigers aren’t looking too far ahead, though.
“It’s important we take it one game at a time,” Deberg said.
Missouri’s impressive winning stretch in its past 10 games has opened the door to a possible host bid in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, almost all realistic hopes for a bid will be vanquished if the Tigers can’t win Wednesday. With only four matches remaining, the time to win is now.