STATE COLLEGE -- Russ Rose sat almost stone-faced and spoke with a monotone. Save for the briefest flashes of his trademark dry wit, it was hard to tell if the Penn State women's volleyball coach was pumped for the postseason or not.
Because his players sure are -- this is NCAA tournament time, of course.
A year after seeing their record run of four straight national championships come to an end, the Nittany Lions are the top seed and the favorites to reclaim the title once again, as the tourney turns toward regional play this weekend.
"He's hard on us. Everyone knows that he's harsh," setter Micha Hancock said before practice Wednesday about her veteran coach. "That's the biggest thing, keeping up the standard. He wants perfection, that's what I like about him."
After cruising through the regular season -- Penn State (31-2) won the Big Ten by four games with a 19-1 conference record -- the Nittany Lions, as expected, steamrolled through the opening two rounds at Rec Hall over Binghamton and Bowling Green. They advanced to play Kentucky in a regional to be played at West Lafayette, Ind., inside Purdue's Mackey Arena.
The Nittany Lions are primed for a deep NCAA run given their success in the Big Ten, a conference that ended up placing six teams including Penn State into the regional semifinals. Unseeded Michigan State pulled off a second-round stunner by beating defending national-champion UCLA on the Bruins' home court, setting up an all-Big Ten regional semifinal with Michigan.
Fourth-seeded Nebraska has also moved on to a matchup that would have just as much appeal on the football field, playing Washington from the Pac-12 in a virtual home regional game at Omaha, Neb. The Cornhuskers were one of only two teams to beat Penn State this year -- the other being Oregon State.
Nebraska coach John Cook has been looking forward to this weekend for a while.
"It's going to feel like a really long week because of the anticipation of getting to Omaha," he said. "We've been talking about this regional for over a year. This is a weekend we've got to play our best volleyball."
The top teams in the other regional brackets -- second-seeded Stanford and third-seeded Texas -- also advanced as expected. The Longhorns also get to savor home cooking this weekend after advancing to the Austin regional to secure a date with Florida.
"That is fantastic to be home," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said after last week's four-set victory over Texas A&M in Round 2. "It is important for the players to get some rest so that they can compete against next week at a very high level."
The Cardinal's three-set sweep in the second round last week over Western Kentucky allowed Stanford to become the first program to have 100 NCAA tournament wins. Stanford is also one of only two programs to have appeared in every tournament since the NCAAs began in 1981.
The other one? Penn State.
Stanford's six national titles are also most in the nation, one more than Penn State.
But the Nittany Lions have approached dynastic heights over the last six years, having won four straight titles from 2007 -2010. The run included a record winning streak of 109 consecutive victories snapped in September 2010 by Stanford.
Ariel Scott, the Big Ten player of the year, played a key role as a freshman on the last title team in 2010, along with fellow current juniors Deja McClendon and Katie Slay. Now the trio -- and top setter Hancock -- hope to start a new streak.
"Being No. 1, everyone is out to get you," Scott said last week. "We can't be complacent."