When: Monday, 7 PM PST
Where: Pauley Pavilion
Watch: Pac-12 Network
Tonight the #3 ranked UCLA Bruins face #10 UC Irvine, the two-time defending NCAA Champions--a program that came to prominence under the guidance of Coach Speraw. Don't be misled by UCI's early season struggles into thinking that this will be a relatively easy match for the Bruins. Coach Kniffin decided to give his players a break after their second straight national championship, and as a result, UCI (5-4, 2-3) had very little preseason preparation. It's not surprising then that UCI had a difficult start to the season, and it's worth remembering that UCI's losses have come against teams currently ranked first, second, sixth and seventh. Also, UCI was ranked first in the preseason national poll, so this is a team with a lot of talent that is just starting to play like a title contender.
UCI's attack is led by middle blocker Collin Mehring. Outside attacker Connor Hughes, a preseason All-MPSF selection, has struggled a bit to start the season, but outside attacker Jeremy Dejno and opposite Zack La Cavera have stepped up to lead the Anteaters in kills. The UCI defense is anchored by Michael Brinkley who is arguably the best libero in the MPSF.
Although the Bruins (6-1, 3-0) continue to improve defensively and have been more consistent in attack, there are some worrying signs from the last two matches. First, the injury to setter Steve O'Dell's foot could prove problematic if it lingers. Backup setter Michael Beals has filled in admirably when needed, but the UCLA attack is noticeably weaker with Beals in the game because his set placement is inconsistent. Second, the blocking so far has been less than impressive--I'm sure this is something that Coach Speraw will be working on as the season progresses. Third, although freshman opposite Jackson Bantle has been a very pleasant surprise so far, he hasn't been tested in pressure situations yet. UCLA hasn't played an MPSF road match to date, so how Bantle will perform in a small venue with a hostile crowd in a critical conference match remains a big unknown.
This is a very important early season conference match for UCLA. The Bruins currently share first place in the conference with BYU. As we know from last season, winning the conference title and earning the right to host the MPSF tournament is an enormous advantage, particularly for BYU. Fortunately for UCLA, some of the MPSF title contenders have collected several conference losses at the start of the season. Although Pepperdine picked up just its first loss this past week, UCI, Long Beach State and Stanford already have 3 MPSF losses and USC has 2. UCLA needs to keep winning at home to protect its early advantage.