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When Texas returned every member except Sha’dare McNeal from last year’s national championship team, it was pegged as the favorite to win it all again.
The Longhorns started the year as the No. 1 team and are No. 1 entering the tournament, a ranking that’s been dominated by Penn State in recent history.
After sweeping No. 8 Nebraska in front of a sea of red in Lincoln, Neb. last week in the Elite Eight, the Longhorns found themselves in a familiar spot.
“We've been to five out of the last six Final Fours,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “Every time I go, I make sure to try to cherish it because you never know when you'll get back. We're on an amazing run as a program.”
Elliott will be in a different position in this Final Four than in past ones. When Texas won it all last year, they were the No. 3 seed. This time, the Longhorns have a target on their back.
“I think one of the biggest things that we do right is we stay with routines,” Elliott said. “We don't watch more film with them; we don't try to over-analyze things with them.”
Instead, he danced as his team prepares in Seattle.
“My job is to stay relaxed and smile a bit more and dance a little bit more with them and play some music,” Elliott said. “They've seen me in situations when I'm not comfortable and I usually try to get comfortable when it’s matches that I think … we're going to be tested or that we're supposed to win.”
Tested and favored is exactly what Elliott’s team will be Thursday. For the first time in his coaching career, the Longhorns are supposed to win the championship, but getting by No. 12 Wisconsin (27-9) won’t be easy. The Badgers finished just 12-8 in conference, but have only dropped two sets in the tournament, knocking off four unranked teams to advance to their second Final Four.
“We got a Wisconsin that is playing very hot, Thursday,” Elliott said. “We'll pay a lot of respect.”
The two teams haven’t played since 2006, and Wisconsin hasn’t beaten Texas since 1997. First serve will be at 6:30 p.m. CST Thursday at Key Arena.
If the Longhorns get by the Badgers, either the perennial powerhouse Penn State (No. 2) or hometown favorite Washington (No. 3) will be waiting for Texas for a chance to hoist the trophy in their respective states.
The Longhorns are looking to their experience to guide them.
“I think it helps with the underclassmen, especially the freshman class,” said junior All-American outside hitter Haley Eckerman. “My class freshman year … had the loss and then we had a win last year, and so that gives us a kind of advantage over everyone else because we've been there twice on both the losing side and the winning side. So we know what to take into [these matches].”