When: Friday, February 14, 7 PM PST
Where: Pauley Pavilion
Listen: Bruin Audio
Watch: Pac-12 UCLA Streaming Video
UCLA's home stand got off to a bad start with a loss to #6 Long Beach State on Wednesday. The second-ranked Bruins (10-3, 7-2) will try to get back to winning ways tonight against #13 Cal State Northridge (3-7, 3-6). Following Wednesday's defeat, the Bruins dropped into second place, a full game behind BYU and just half a game ahead of third place Pepperdine. Although UCLA still has home and away matches with BYU left to play, the Bruins can't afford to drop a match to a significantly weaker opponent.
It's rare to be able to take away something positive from a disappointing loss, but the performance of freshman Hagen Smith in relief of setter Michael Beals was impressive. In his first significant appearance as a setter, Smith displayed a sweet setting technique, great court sense and a knack for getting the ball to the right attacker in rhythm. Equally impressive was Smith's effort on defense; he made several terrific saves and a couple of key blocks, bringing energy to a UCLA defense that finally started to slow down Long Beach State's attack. Coach Speraw may be tempted to give Hagen Smith his first start as a setter tonight.
In a related bit of news, Coach Scates mentioned during the broadcast that starting setter Steve O'Dell is getting close to returning from his (undisclosed) foot injury. When O'Dell is ready to return to action, Coach Speraw will have an interesting decision to make: will Hagen Smith continue to be used as a backup setter (as he has been since O'Dell's injury), or will he return to his early season role as libero?
Cal State Northridge is an unusual team in that there isn't an attacker or two that get the majority of kills. Without a dominant attacker, the Matadors will distribute the attack between junior MB Greg Faulkner, sophomore OH Sam Holt, and redshirt freshmen Damani Lenore and Jakub Ciesla in the hope of confounding the UCLA block. Realistically, the best chance the Matadors have of causing the Bruins problems is with their outstanding serving. Since UCLA has shown a bit of inconsistency in serve reception recently, the ability of the Bruins to deliver a good first ball to Beals (or Smith) will probably be the key to tonight's match.
The Bruins continue to rely heavily on senior outside hitters Gonzalo Quiroga and Robart Page in attack. Of the two, Quiroga has been the stronger in the last few matches, and as his hitting efficiency has improved, so has his serving. Middle blockers Spencer Rowe and Trent Kersten remain effective options through the middle. Interestingly, UCLA is still running a few back slides to Kersten each match with fantastic results.
There are signs that UCLA's block is slowly improving. Coach Speraw has made blocking technique a point of emphasis in recent practices, and against USC and Long Beach State, the Bruins did a somewhat better job on the outside.
As I mentioned in the preview before the match against Long Beach State, there aren't many easy opponents in the MPSF. Currently 8 of the 10 top nationally ranked teams are in the MPSF. Although Cal State Northridge sits outside the top 10, they can be a difficult opponent. However, the Matadors are in the bottom third of the MPSF, so the Bruins simply can't afford a slip up tonight. I expect a quick start from Coach Speraw's squad and an early finish. With a northern California road trip beginning next Sunday, the Bruins should be focused and motivated to produce a dominant performance.
The official preview is here.