Jayhawks not flying under the radar anymore, as they head to Sweet 16

Kansas volleyball players, including outside hitter Caroline Bien (smiling), celebrate after a point during the Jayhawks' NCAA Tournament win over Oregon,  on Dec. 2, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.

Kansas volleyball players, including outside hitter Caroline Bien (smiling), celebrate after a point during the Jayhawks' NCAA Tournament win over Oregon, on Dec. 2, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

It turns out there may be a catch to becoming the NCAA Tournament’s giant killer.

“Whether we're flying under the radar still, I'm not sure,” Kansas volleyball head coach Ray Bechard said Tuesday, before the Jayhawks made their way to Pittsburgh for the Sweet 16, and a matchup with the tournament’s No. 3 overall seed, Pitt.

“We just beat two ranked teams — one on the road,” Bechard said of knocking out Oregon and No. 14 overall seed Creighton on back-to-back nights last week. “So I'm sure we'll get Pitt’s full attention and their best effort.”

The Panthers (28-3) will play host to upset-minded KU (18-11) on Thursday (approximately noon, ESPN+). The Jayhawks are one of just two teams remaining — Illinois is the other — who crashed the third round party, which includes 14 of the teams the committee seeded in the top 16 of this year’s field.

Bechard said the Jayhawks have had some fun busting brackets on the way to the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015. The Jayhawks’ surprising run also has helped shine a spotlight on the program, which earned its first postseason berth since 2017.

As Bechard has spoken with other coaches in recent weeks, he said there’s “a little bit of excitement” for a team being invited to the tournament. But now there are only 16 teams left to talk about.

“That's when I think the national prominence really starts to develop, when you're playing the second weekend. And there's not a ton of other teams doing that,” Bechard said. “So that, I think, creates a pretty good buzz, certainly around the country about Kansas volleyball.”

While the Jayhawks might have shocked the college volleyball world by surviving a difficult path into this week’s regional semifinals, the players on the roster felt confident about the team’s ceiling, despite its record (the Jayhawks’ current .621 winning percentage ranks 101st in the nation).

Said KU’s breakout freshman setter from Topeka, Camryn Turner: “We weren’t performing how we wanted to, but we knew that we could get to this point if we wanted to. And we have.”

Now that the Jayhawks already have won on one team’s home court — they knocked off Creighton (31-4) this past Friday — postseason home court advantage doesn’t seem like too large of an obstacle either, according to freshman Caroline Bien.

“I think we made D.J. Sokol Arena feel like we owned the place,” Bien said. “It didn't feel like we were the away team at all.”

Sophomore Caroline Crawford said discipline and communication will be some of the keys for KU, as it looks to extend its tournament run at Pitt.

Senior Rachel Langs, while referencing the detailed scouting reports the coaches provided last week that helped KU beat Oregon and Creighton, said learning all about Pitt will be a focus for the team and part of any potential upset win on Thursday.

“But the most important thing is just focusing on our side of the net, and just staying together and just playing how we've been playing the past couple of games,” Langs said.

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 matchups

No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 16 Florida

No. 9 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Georgia Tech

No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 12 Minnesota

No. 13 UCLA vs. No. 4 Wisconsin

No. 3 Pittsburgh vs. Kansas

No. 11 BYU vs. No. 6 Purdue

Illinois vs. No. 10 Nebraska

No. 15 Washington vs. No. 2 Texas

Postseason honors for Jayhawks

Three KU volleyball players earned spots on the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Midwest All-Region team, which was announced on Tuesday.

The AVCA named Bien the regional freshman of the year, and the 6-foot freshman from Overland Park earned a spot on the all-region team, alongside 6-3 sophomore Crawford. Super-senior Jenny Mosser received all-region honorable mention.

The 2021 Big 12 freshman of the year, Bien became the first KU player to win the AVCA regional freshman of the year since Tayler Soucie, in 2013.

Crawford picked up all-midwest region honors from the AVCA for the second year in a row.