When: Saturday, February 1, 7 PM PST
Where: UCI's Bren Center
Listen: Bruin Audio
Watch: According to the UCLA Athletic Department, there is no video available for this game. However, according to the UCI Athletic Department website, video is available here.
Yesterday UCLA slipped into first place in the MPSF when Pepperdine handed BYU its first conference defeat. If the Bruins can beat two-time defending national champions UC Irvine for the second time within a week, they'll consolidate their lead in the conference, and will move further ahead of one of the top MPSF contenders when #4 BYU squares off against #5 USC tonight. In other words, the Bruins need to win tonight to boost their title ambitions and to maintain their momentum heading into a difficult part of their schedule.
On Monday, the #1 ranked UCLA Bruins swept #8 UC Irvine 25-14, 25-23, 25-23 . The UCLA attack was led by the usual suspects: Gonzalo Quiroga notched 14 kills and Robart Page totaled 11 kills. In a surprise move, Coach Speraw gave freshman Michael Fisher just his second start of the season, and Fisher responded with a terrific performance, contributing 10 kills and 3 aces.
Coach Speraw has experimented with three different freshman at opposite: Mitch Stahl, Jackson Bantle, and Michael Fisher. Each player brings different skill sets, and Coach Speraw is flexible in adapting his system to take advantage of the strengths of each of these players. It's interesting to compare some of the key statistics for these freshman to see how they're contributing to the early success of the team.
Although Stahl is probably the strongest hitter of the three, his attack percentage is lower than expected as a result of too many attack errors. As expected, Stahl is the best blocker of the three. In fact, statistically-speaking, Stahl is one of the Bruins' best blockers. Stahl also leads the team in aces per set. However, for tactical reasons, Coach Speraw prefers to employ a system in which the opposite receives serve, and that is not one of Stahl's strengths. Fisher is significantly stronger than Bantle in attack but isn't as good defensively. This means that Coach Speraw is spoiled for choices; he can base his team selection on the match tactics he wants to employ, or he can go with the hot player and adapt his tactics to fit the players he wants to use.
The Bruins are still without starting setter Steve O'Dell. Although I've been critical of the inconsistent setting of backup setter Michael Beals, I want to emphasize how difficult it is for a backup setter with essentially no game experience to immediately establish a rhythm with his attackers. Beals has done an admirable job under the circumstances. The Bruins have shown the ability to win without O'Dell and with Beals learning on the job. Let's hope that continues while O'Dell is recovering.
UCI is an experienced team with several very good players. In particular, middle blocker Collin Mehring and outside attacker Connor Hughes are the players that carry the biggest threat. And as I mentioned in the preview before Monday's match, the UCI defense is anchored by Michael Brinkley who is probably the best libero in the MPSF. Don't underestimate the Anteaters based on their record; they are a tough team playing at home and playing for pride.
The official preview is here.