The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament to where 16 of the 48 participating teams will receive a first-round bye.
The University of Utah will be enjoying that advantage when the event opens April 14.
After a 13-4 season and a third-place finish in the Pac-12, the Utes were awarded the No. 14 overall seed during the NCAA Tournament selection show. They will open tournament play on April 15 (8:30 p.m., ESPN3.com) against the winner of an April 14 first-round contest between Long Island University and the University of Pittsburgh.
The way Utah head coach Beth Launiere saw it in the immediate haze of the draw being announced, a first-round bye being a benefit is up for discussion. For starters, either LIU or Pitt will have already played a match. Furthermore, by the time Utah takes the court on April 15, it will have played one match since March 21.
“I think we need to talk about it, we need to manage it, and you see that happen a lot where a team gets their first match out of the way, then they play that second one a lot looser,” Launiere told The Salt Lake Tribune Wednesday afternoon. “I think we have to be aware of whoever we play is going to have something under their belt.”
In any case, Utah is through to the NCAA Tournament for the 17th time under Launiere, including the seventh time as a member of the Pac-12, but this tournament run isn’t going to look like others from the past. This tournament run will have the impacts of COVID-19 stamped all over it.
Instead of the normal 64 teams and no byes, there will be the aforementioned 48 teams with 16 first-round byes. Instead of having the first four rounds at various sites before the Final Four is played at a neutral location, the entire event will be contested over eight days at the CHI Health Center Omaha.
The city of Omaha, which has hosted the Final Four three previous times since 2006 and will host again in 2022, was already slated to host the Final Four in 2020 before the pandemic shifted the entire women’s volleyball season to the spring.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Launiere said. “There has been every emotion, every situation, everything you would never expect happened, so I think we’re really grateful to have gotten to this point.
“We’re going in the tournament to win, but like we just talked about. We deserve to have joy. It’s been hard, but it’s like a new birth here.”
The state of Utah grabbed two national seeds as BYU is No. 16. The Cougars will face the winner of a first-round match between Rider and UCLA.
Weber State and Utah Valley both received automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big Sky and WAC titles, respectively. Both teams will open tournament play on April 14, the Wildcats against Bowling Green and the Wolverines against Texas State.
A Weber State win would send it to the second round against No. 1 overall seed Wisconsin, which is 15-0, but had seven matches canceled during the regular season.