NCAA Tournament Preview: With heavyweight Nebraska looming, MU volleyball keeps eyes on first-round Arizona clash

The Tigers head into their 15th NCAA Tournament following back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Missouri’s Alyssa Munlyn celebrates a successful save during the third set of a match against Drake on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Munlyn, originally from Suwanee, GA, was SEC Freshman of the Year in 2015.

While the Missouri volleyball players anxiously waited to find out where they would be heading this weekend in the NCAA Tournament, coach Wayne Kreklow was not even watching the selection show.

His wife and assistant coach Susan Kreklow was watching and told him Missouri’s fate: the No. 24 Tigers (23-7, 13-5 SEC) will be heading to Lincoln, Nebraska, to take on No. 23 Arizona in the first round Friday.

“I think we’re pretty excited about it,” redshirt junior libero Riley Sents said. “Obviously Arizona’s a really good team, but I think it’s going to be a good matchup for us. We’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for what we think they’re gonna throw at us this weekend.”

Friday’s match will be the first time Missouri and Arizona have faced each other since 1995. The Wildcats (22-10, 11-9 Pac-12) finished fifth in their conference, while Missouri finished fourth in the SEC.

Kreklow said preparing for Arizona means preparing for a faster-paced attack than Missouri is used to.

“Actually, nothing different than we’ve done in the past when we’ve had the personnel to do that,” Kreklow said. “They run a little bit faster attack out of the back row, which we haven’t seen as much so that’s something that we’re trying to practice against.”

The Wildcats are led by senior outside hitter Kendra Dahlke, who earned earned All-Pac-12 honors, hitting .235 on the season. She recorded 477 kills, averaging 4.82 per set.

Kreklow said Arizona’s talent pool will be formidable because the best Pac-12 teams typically dominate recruiting from volleyball-rich west coast high schools.

“There’s a lot of good volleyball players out there, a lot of kids who have played a long time, so a lot of times their skill set is really high,” he said. “They’re generally pretty good serve-and-pass teams, defensive teams, so we will have to be really clean on our side to be able to attack them to try and keep them out of system.”

If Missouri moves past Arizona, its opponent will be the winner of the match between hosting Nebraska and Hofstra. The No. 7 Huskers (24-6, 15-5 Big Ten), who finished third in the powerhouse Big 10, would be the likely opponent. The only time a top-10 team has lost in the first round was when Missouri upset No. 5 Northern Iowa in the first round of the 2010 tournament.

Nebraska’s Bob Devaney Sports Center boasts the highest average attendance in the country since Huskers started playing there in 2013. In 2016, Nebraska set an NCAA attendance record, averaging 8,210 fans.

“Obviously you have one of the elite teams in the country if you get past the first round,” Kreklow said. “You’re there on their home court in front of 8,000-plus people, so in that sense it’s a little bit tougher.”

Even though they are heading to the Huskers’ home court, the Tigers are trying to not get ahead of themselves and stay focused on Arizona.

“Arizona is a good enough team, and I think our players understand that,” Kreklow said. “While I’m sure in the back of everybody’s mind is, ‘How would we do against Nebraska?’ I think they’re all very, very cognizant of the fact that we have to get past a really good Arizona team first.”

Between Nebraska, Missouri and Arizona, the Lincoln quartet of the bracket is considered to be one of the most impressive in the tournament field. Missouri has over-achieved so far in a season that seemed designed for a rebuild, but it did hit a bump toward the end of the season. The Tigers lost two of their last three matches and three of their last six.

“The most important thing that I’m trying to focus on right now is that nothing that we’ve done matters,” senior middleblocker Alyssa Munlyn said. “I think that we get to really write the script on what happens next and from here. I think whatever attitudes we have, whatever work we’re putting on the court, that’s what matters this tournament. It’s all about playing on that night.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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