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UCLA Olympic Sports Sunday: Taking the Next Step

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Today's action starts this morning with #11 UCLA Women's Volleyball against #23 Arizona in a match that the Bruins need to win to keep up with Stanford. This afternoon, UCLA Women's Basketball plays host to #2 South Carolina in a game that will tell us how good Coach Close's team really is.

UCLAWomensVB

UCLA Women's Volleyball

Opponent: #23 Arizona (17-12, 7-10)

When: 11:00 AM PST, Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where: McKale Center, Tucson, AZ

Audio: None

Video: Arizona Live Stream

Live StatsArizona StatBroadcast

Official Match Preview | Match Notes

The #11 Bruins (22-5, 13-4) needed a comeback to edge the Sun Devils 3-2 on Friday. After winning the opening set, UCLA dropped the next two and fell behind in the fourth. Trailing 23-20 in the fourth set, the Bruins won the next four points, and eventually won 28-26 to force a fifth set. UCLA raised its game in the fifth to earn a 15-10 victory in the match-deciding set.

It was an exciting match for sure, but ultimately it wasn't very satisfying. In fact, in many ways, the match was reminiscent of UCLA's five set battle with Oregon last week. The key difference between the two matches is that UCLA pulled out a win against the Sun Devils after failing to do so against the Ducks.

So what does all of this say about the Bruins? Unfortunately, it shows that UCLA is probably closer to the teams in the middle of the Pac-12 (ASU, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona) than it is to the teams at the top of the standings--Southern Cal and Washington. Considering  that the Bruins were a "middle of the Pac" team last season and were projected to be much the same in 2015, the fact that UCLA now occupies fourth place in the conference, five full games ahead of the fifth-place ASU is a sign of progress. However, it represents a tiny step forward, not the larger step that I'd hoped to see from the program.

The Bruins still have the power to make that step forward a little bigger, though. UCLA is just half a game behind Stanford, so if the Bruins can win today, the end-of-season match against the Cardinal will decide which team finishes third. That may seem like a small prize--and it is--but it's a prize that will help the Bruins with short term goals (e.g., seeding in the NCAA Tournament) as well as long term goals (e.g., recruiting battles against west coast rivals). Even though Stanford is a notch below Southern Cal and Washington this season, as the recruiting classes for 2016 show, Stanford remains one of the nation's elite programs. By defeating Stanford this year, UCLA will finish ahead of the Cardinal in the Pac-12 for the first time since the Bruins' championship season (2011).

Again, to have a realistic chance of overtaking Stanford for third place, the Bruins have to tame the Wildcats today. Like Arizona State, Arizona is a good but not great team. Both are top-25 teams, and both will likely earn a place in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Although the Wildcats are ranked one spot higher than the Sun Devils in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll, I rate ASU as the better team. That said, the Wildcats managed to take a set off the #1 Trojans on Friday, which is better than the Bruins did when they played USC at the start of the Pac-12 campaign.

In other words, the Bruins can't afford to underestimate the Wildcats. Senior Halli Amaro is an efficient attacker through the middle, junior Kalei Mau is a volume hitter on the outside, and senior Nikki Attea has had a strong season at opposite. Attea and setter Penina Snuka are two of Pac-12's strongest servers, so the Bruins will be under pressure in their passing game. However, the Bruins are a better attacking side, so if they can pass reasonably well, the Wildcats will be in trouble.

This is a game the Bruins should win. But as we saw against Oregon and Arizona State in the past two weeks, UCLA can't expect to win these games on the basis of its résumé.

Go BRUINS!

UCLA Women's Basketball

Opponent: South Carolina (3-0)

When: 1:00 PM PST, Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA

AudioBruin Live Audio

Video: Pac-12 Los Angeles

Live StatsUCLA StatBroadcast

Official Match Preview | Game Notes

On Friday I described UCLA's contest against James Madison as a "tough game." James Madison came into the game ranked in the top-40, and with two blowout wins in two games. In fact, James Madison had defeated its first two opponents by an average margin of nearly 60 points. This was a team returning its two top players from 2014-15--a season in which JMU won its conference tournament and played in the NCAA Tournament.

The Bruins certainly weren't intimidated by the Dukes, and to be honest, UCLA made JMU look second-rate. The Bruins took an early lead and never looked back, cruising to a 90-61 victory. Nirra Fields and Jordin Canada led the Bruins with 23 and 20 points, respectively.

Is this edition of the Bruins really that good, or did the Dukes have an off-night? We'll find out today when UCLA (2-0) hosts #2 South Carolina (2-0). There's no doubt that the Gamecocks are a very good team, so today's game will be a reference point in judging the progress of Coach Close's basketball program since the end of last season.

The Bruins' first two games against solid programs have revealed a few indisputable truths about this season's team. The first is that the strength of the team is its guards. Jordin Canada and Nirra Fields are top conference players, Kari Korver is a steady perimeter shooter, Kelli Hayes provides strong defense and a scoring punch off the bench, and freshman Kennedy Burke is ready to contribute in big ways this season.

On the other hand, the situation in the frontcourt isn't so clear. Kacy Swain appears to be the only forward with refined offensive skills, though she is probably the least athletic of Coach Close's top four options. Monique Billings has done a great job on the glass and she's a long, athletic defender, but she's still raw as a post player. Lajahna Drummer didn't play against JMU, and she had trouble getting untracked in the opener against St. John's. Like Billings, Drummer is a tenacious rebounder and is a tough defender, but her offensive game needs development. Freshman Ashley Hearn played better in her second collegiate game, but she looks out-of-sync on offense. She's full of potential, though, so she will be a difference-maker for UCLA as she grows into the college game.

Fortunately for the Bruins, South Carolina isn't a big team, which means that there won't be any obvious mismatches that the Gamecocks can exploit.

Last season, UCLA lost by an average of 25 points against top-5 opponents. Against #2 Connecticut last year, the Bruins lost by 36. If the Bruins can keep the final margin of today's game in single digits, it will be a welcome sign of progress from last year. However, if the Bruins let the game become a rout, there will be cause for concern.

Go BRUINS!