Arizona is getting ready to play its final season in one of the top volleyball conferences in the country. In fact, the Pac-12 has been across-the-board the best conference for women’s sports as a whole. It’s a murderers’ row every year in just about every sport. What does the future look like for the major women’s sports once the school moves to the Big 12 in 2024-25?
In the Big 12, most of the women’s sports have been dominated by Texas, Oklahoma, or both. In the case of volleyball, Texas has been the bully on the block. The Longhorns are the defending national champions and lost just one match all of last year. It could be considered fortunate or unfortunate, depending on whether a fan is looking for stiff competition or the ability to compete immediately, but both of those schools will be gone by the time Arizona arrives.
So, what does the future look like for Rita Stubbs’ team? In the first in a series, we take a look at the competition in Arizona’s future home and what that means for the Wildcats.
In the Pac-12, all schools sponsor women’s volleyball, but that’s not the case in the Big 12. Oklahoma State does not sponsor the sport. That means that when Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah arrive, there will be 15 schools competing.
The 2023-24 additions
The conference is losing its top dog, but it will still have some solid teams remaining. It’s also adding two strong programs this season in BYU and UCF, as well as one that’s on the upswing in Houston. The only program entering the league this season that does not appear competitive is Cincinnati.
BYU has been a top volleyball program for years. The Cougars are coming off a down year by their standards and they still reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. They have not missed the tournament since 2011 and have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 nine times since including two Final Four appearances. The last time they were in the tournament and didn’t win at least one match was 2005. Their last losing season was 2010 and they were still right around .500 at 14-16.
One would expect the Cougars to continue their winning ways, perhaps becoming the new dominant program in the Big 12. While they have previously played in smaller conferences, they have always challenged themselves outside their league, even getting wins against upper-echelon teams from the Pac-12 and Big 10.
UCF was the class of the American Athletic Conference last year. Except for the pandemic-shortened season of 2020-21, the Knights last won fewer than 25 matches in 2017 and they still went 20-14 that season. Unlike the Cougars, they were not generally facing the toughest out-of-conference competition, so it’s less clear whether those results will carry over with a stronger conference schedule.
Houston was the program that produced the great Flo Hyman, but it had been on a bit of a downswing until two years ago. These Cougars finished 25-7 in 2021, but they weren’t invited to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, they bumped that up to 30-4 and made their first NCAA appearance since 2000. They advanced to the Sweet 16, falling to No. 1 seed Stanford in three sets.
The Big 12 Old Guard
As in many women’s sports, Baylor is the strongest of the teams from last year’s Big 12 that will still be there when Arizona arrives. The Bears went 25-7 last season and ended their year against eventual national runner-up Louisville in the Sweet 16. They have at least 20 wins per season stretching back to 2016. Their last year below .500 was 2014. They have finished second or tied for first in the league every year since 2017. They have not missed the NCAA Tournament since 2015.
Still, the truth is that Baylor is no BYU. It may be the strongest of the programs that make up the “old guard” of the league, but its history just isn’t on the same level as the Cougars from Provo. It has been much more successful than Arizona in recent years, though.
Right behind Baylor in last year’s conference standings was TCU. The Horned Frogs finished 11-5 in the league and 17-11 overall. They played a solid out-of-conference schedule, including matches against Top 5 teams Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Big 10/Big 12 Challenge, but they couldn’t make headway against teams at the top of the sport.
Iowa State was the only other team to finish above .500 in conference play last year (Kansas was at exactly .500). The Cyclones were one of just three Big 12 teams (including Texas) to get at least 20 wins, but everyone except West Virginia ended with an overall winning record.
ISU was also the only team inside or outside the conference to beat the national champion Longhorns last season. It got to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cyclones have only had one losing season since 2004, and that was during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The pandemic-affected 2020 season is also the only year since 2007 that they haven’t finished between 2nd and 4th in the standings of their conference. They finished 10th in the NCAA in attendance last year with almost 3,000 fans per match.
The Cyclones have only missed two NCAA Tournaments since 2006. They did not go in 2018 or in the 48-team tournament held in the spring of 2021, but they returned in the fall of 2021. They have been to two Elite Eights and three additional Sweet 16s since 2006, but the last time they advanced beyond the second round was 2012.
Kansas ended 8-8 in the conference and 19-11 overall, getting to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. The year before, they reached the Sweet 16. While they missed the tournament for three straight seasons in 2018, 2019, and the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, they have been in the draw every other year stretching back to 2012. That run included another Sweet 16 and a Final Four appearance.
Under former head coach Dave Rubio, the Wildcats went to the NCAA Tournament 20 times in 31 years. The last few years had their struggles, though. The Wildcats have hovered right around .500 since 2019. Their last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2018. That was also their last year with a winning record in the Pac-12. They have only advanced beyond the second round of the tournament once since 2005.
In the Wildcats’ favor, the best overall program that is moving from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 is Utah, and they aren’t the juggernaut that some of the top Pac-12 teams are. The Utes had a down year last season, finishing just below .500 overall. They still were stronger in the conference than Arizona was with an 8-12 record.
The Utes have won at least 20 matches in four of the last seven years and went 13-5 in the pandemic-shortened spring season of 2021. They had 19 wins in yet a sixth season during that period.
Prior to last year, Utah had been to six straight NCAA Tournaments. Its best finishes are three Sweet 16 appearances in 2008, 2017, and 2019. The final two ended in Palo Alto at the hands of Pac-12 foe Stanford.
Colorado has trended up and down, but the Buffaloes made it to last year’s tournament. They lost in the opening round to Rice on Baylor’s home court. They are a program that can win 24 matches or six, and they have done both while in the Pac-12. Most seasons, they keep their heads well above .500 overall, though.
ASU has generally been below Arizona in head-to-head competition, but it has also been able to pull out unexpected wins against the top of the conference more often than the Wildcats in recent years. Like their rivals, the Sun Devils underwent a lot of changes in the offseason after a coaching change.
The top Pac-12 teams—Stanford, Washington, Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington State—will either be in the Big 10 or in places currently unknown after this season. Of the teams that will be waiting in the Big 12 when the four new teams arrive, BYU will be the strongest historically speaking. Discounting Baylor, TCU, ISU, KU, or UCF should not be on the agenda, though.
The wildcard for Arizona is that it will be under a new coach this year, as will ASU. It’s tough to know whether those coaches will raise the level of their programs to the degree that they compete at the top of whatever league they play in. In the Wildcats’ favor, the recruiting has taken an uptick and they should have a strong team heading into their first Big 12 season.
Arizona doesn’t get a lot of its talent from the West Coast. It has just three players from California on the current roster, although it occasionally reaches into the Pacific Northwest like with former outside hitter Paige Whipple and 2025 commit Paige Thies from Oregon and former middle blocker Zyonna Fellows from Washington.
Most of the Wildcats’ top players on the current roster are from the state of Arizona or outside the U.S. Their setters are both from Texas. Their defensive specialists are from all over the country and outside of it.
They have commits and current players from the Midwest, including top 2024 recruit Carlie Cisneros, who comes from Kansas City, Missouri. They also have 2025 commit Renee Jones, who grew up in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area and will be playing her final two seasons of prep ball at IMG Academy in Florida. The other 2025 commits are setter Chloe Giehtbrock from Michigan and defensive specialist Brookelyn Hatton from Kansas.
Rubio used to say that they had difficulty getting players out of the state of Texas. The move to a league with four Texas schools, including in the large Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth metros, could help that.
Cisneros’ mother retweeted a map of the new Big 12, a move that will mean her daughter plays closer to home more often than she would have in the Pac-12. With a lot of volleyball talent in the Midwest, it could be a boost to Arizona’s recruiting in that area.
Getting to away competitions will be a challenge for some sports. While football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball generally charter, Arizona has not previously offered that luxury to most of its programs on anything like a regular basis.
In the Pac-12, every city except Tucson, Eugene, Corvallis, Boulder, and Pullman is in the same metro as one of the 31 large air hubs in the U.S. Boulder, while considered to be in its own metro, is less than 30 miles from the Denver metro, which also has one of the busiest 31 airports in the country as far as passenger boardings.
The most difficult opponent to reach was Washington State, which has a very small regional airport but generally required teams to fly into Spokane over an hour away or bus from Seattle over four hours away. Eugene also has its own small airport. Tucson has a larger airport than Eugene, but it is not so far from Phoenix Sky Harbor as to be unreachable from one of the largest airports in the country.
Some programs will not feel the sting of the travel so much simply because there are fewer schools in the Big 12 that sponsor the sport. Softball, for example, will have 11 of the eventual 16 members sponsoring the sport. That gives Arizona softball 10 possible opponents, four of which are in the same metro as a major airport (including ASU).
Volleyball is not one of the sports that will be saved from traveling a great deal. It will have to find a way to get to 14 other schools, only five of which are in metros with one of the large air hubs. Since one of those five is Tempe, that means that the Wildcats will be flying primarily to schools that have smaller regional airports. Some are especially concerning.
Ames, Iowa is about 35 miles from Des Moines, which has the closest airport. It isn’t a major airport, though. There simply isn’t one in the area. Even Omaha, Nebraska, which is located almost five hours away, is No. 62 on the list of passenger boardings as of 2022. Anchorage, Boise, and Albuquerque all had busier airports as of last year.
Manhattan, Kansas presents a similar problem. It has a fairly minuscule local airport, and the largest nearby airport is in Kansas City. That is a medium-sized airport located roughly 2.5 hours away.
The loss of the Pac-12 Network and the free streams offered by the Pac-12 mean that fans will need to make a small investment to watch most women’s sports. Few Big 12 women’s sports make their way to the linear TV airwaves, so ESPN+ will likely be the way to go for most Wildcat volleyball, soccer, women’s basketball, softball, and gymnastics competitions once the school changes conferences.