Mark your calendar for Sunday, Nov. 25 — the 2018 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball selection show. The tournament’s 64-team field will be solidified that evening, and, perhaps more importantly, college volleyball will find out whether Ann Arbor’s Cliff Keen Arena will be a host site.
No. 18 Michigan (20-9 overall, 9-9 Big Ten) is practically guaranteed a spot in the field. Coming off the heels of securing their fourth consecutive 20-win regular season with a four-set victory in East Lansing last weekend, the Wolverines have established themselves as one of the nation’s top-tier programs.
Interestingly enough, the Wolverines are also ranked 18th in RPI. This formula — a critical tool in the selection committee’s seeding decisions — is used to measure teams across Division I on one uniform scale based on their wins, losses and strength of schedule.
Every team ranked inside the top-37 of the NCAA’s final RPI release has qualified for the tournament field since 2010. The Wolverines may be a shoo-in for the big dance, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to worry about at this point.
Because only the top-16 seeds host NCAA Tournament matches, Michigan needs to make a pair of statement wins when Northwestern (15-5, 5-13) and Michigan State (17-14, 5-13) come to town on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.
With a win in both matches, Michigan can cement a season series sweep of each opponent. Since the Wildcats and Spartans are both well outside of conference contention, losing a match to either team will eradicate any chance of this year's NCAA Tournament coming to Ann Arbor. After Michigan split its season series against No. 8 Wisconsin and unranked Maryland, dropped both of its matches to No. 6 Nebraska and No. 7 Penn State and compiled a 4-2 record against Big Ten teams it only faced once, it can’t pass up a golden opportunity to secure a pair of season series sweeps at home in its last impression on the selection committee.
If the Wolverines can take care of business against two subpar opponents this week, they’ll put themselves in a strong position to reach the Sweet Sixteen if they capture one of the tournament’s highly-coveted top-16 seeds and its accompanying right to a pair of home matches.
“We have great student representation (in Cliff Keen Arena),” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “They’re so fun, they’re so passionate, they’re funny, and they’re creative. Any time we have the students come out, it makes a big difference.”
One aspect that separates Cliff Keen Arena from other NCAA venues is its configuration. The arena only has stadium seating on three sides of the court; the fourth side is solely dedicated to The Zone — Michigan’s notoriously rowdy student section.
Most notably, the distance from the court to the beginning of the stands is next to nothing. With very little space separating the match from the crowd, Rosen’s players often claim that the crowd is more impactful at Cliff Keen than anywhere else.
“When you play in Cliff Keen, all the fans are close, much more than other arenas for sure,” said senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt. “We’re able to take the fans’ energy with us and use it.”
Since stepping onto the court at Cliff Keen Arena for the first time in the fall of 2015, Michigan’s trio of seniors — Skjodt, libero Jenna Lerg and setter Maddy Abbott — have amassed a remarkable 51-15 record at home. Hosting a pair of NCAA Tournament matches would give the Wolverines’ senior class the chance to build on its dominant record in Ann Arbor while simultaneously saying a fitting goodbye to the friendly confines of Cliff Keen Arena.
“Cliff Keen is our home,” said junior opposite hitter Sydney Wetterstrom on Oct. 5 after sweeping then-No. 14 Purdue. “We’re familiar with it — we practice there every day and it really feels like a home to all of us. The fans are a big part of that; they’re very passionate about representing Michigan.”