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UCLA Men's Volleyball Season Preview: Ready for a Return to Glory?

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The Bruins open their season today against #14 George Mason. It's been 10 years since the Bruins won their last NCAA title in men's volleyball. Will the drought end this season?

@UCLAMVB

Tonight

Opponent: George Mason (0-0)

When: 4:00 PM PST, Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Where: RAC Gym, Fairfax, VA

Audio: None

Video: Patriot Vision (Registration and payment required)

Live StatsGeorge Mason Live Stats

Official Match PreviewMatch Notes

2016 Media Guide: Not Available (Thanks, Dan!)

George Mason Match Preview

Bruins Nation's 2016 Men's Volleyball Preview

The Basics

Preseason Rankings:

AVCA Preseason Coaches Poll: 5th Nationally

MPSF Coaches Preseason Poll: 3rd

Departing Players:
  • MB Trent Kersten
  • Opp Clayton Paullin
Key Returning Players:
  • L Jackson Bantle (Jr.)
  • S Eric Matheis (So.)
  • S Hagen Smith (Jr.)
  • Opp Christian Hessenauer (So.)
  • MB Oliver Martin (RSo.)
  • MB Eric Sprague (RSo.)
  • MB John Zappia (RJr.)
  • MB Mitch Stahl (Jr.)
  • OH JT Hatch (So.)
  • OH Jake Arnitz (So.)
  • OH Michael Fisher (So.)
  • OH Jake Reeves (Jr.)
Key Newcomers:
  • L Davis Gillett (Fr.)
  • OH Dylan Missry (Fr.)
  • S Micah Ma'a (Fr.)

The fifth-ranked Bruins open the 2016 season against #14 George Mason University today. The last two seasons have been particularly tough for UCLA volleyball fans, as the Bruins have been crippled by injuries, and have been forced to deal with unexpected departures, Coach Speraw has continued to recruit elite high school talent to Westwood, however, and he appears to have landed an elite setter this season.

Although the Bruins are young and without NCAA tournament experience, there's good reason to think that UCLA's absence from the NCAA tourney will end this season. Ultimately, the Bruins' success this season will hinge on how quickly Coach Speraw can develop his young players and create a framework in which they can thrive.

The Schedule

Because of the inflexibility and limited scope of the NCAA Tournament for men's volleyball, nonconference games tend to have marginal impact on most teams' chances of making the tourney. With just six spots in the tournament up for grabs, and with four of those bids going to conference champions, the path to the tournament for most teams involves defeating conference foes rather than nonconference opponents.

Nevertheless, UCLA has a tough and important nonconference slate this season, starting with tonight's season opener against #14 George Mason, Thursday's match against #6 Ohio State, and Friday's game against #10 Penn State. That's not an easy opening week to the season, but it gets even harder in week 2.

After a season-opening trip to the east coast to play three top-15 teams in 4 days, the Bruins open the MPSF season the following week with an away match against #2 UC Irvine. It's a critically important early game for the Bruins against a strong Anteaters squad that is a legitimate contender for the conference title.

UCLA has another important series of matches at the end of the month. The Bruins host three big matches in the span of five days: a rivalry game against #12 USC, a nonconference tilt with Princeton, and a showdown with #4 Long Beach State.

And then, in the first week of February, the Bruins have the always difficult Hawai'i road trip. UCLA will play #7 Hawai'i twice in two days, and then shortly after returning, the Bruins host #2 UCI.

UCLA has an odd series of games at the end of February and beginning of March. The Bruins play Southern Cal, then a home-and-away set with #9 UC Santa Barbara within the space of two days, which is then followed by a pair of nonconference matches against #14 Ball State and Concordia.

The Bruins have one final challenging stretch of games in the week spanning March and April. The week begins with a road trip to #4 Long Beach State and ends with a pair of matches at the John Wooden Center against #1 BYU. In one of the few breaks UCLA gets with its conference schedule this year, the Bruins don't have to travel to Provo where the Cougars enjoy a tremendous home court advantage.

If the Bruins are as good as many of us think they are, those back-to-back matches against BYU could well determine the MPSF regular season champion.

The Players

Coach Speraw has assembled a wonderfully deep and talented squad for the 2016 season, but it remains to be seen how he intends to use the available players. It's a squad without a senior, and as far as I can tell from the preseason, only two players who seem to have locked down starting roles.

The prize of Coach Speraw's recruiting class is 6'3" freshman setter Micah Ma'a. Ma'a is arguably the best freshman setter in the nation, but his versatility gives Coach Speraw the option of running a 6-0 system or some sort of hybrid. In that case, junior Hagen Smith will likely be the other setter, and will probably not see any duty as a libero this season. Sophomore Eric Matheis had the opportunity to start last season when Hagen Smith was injured and did a fine job under difficult circumstances.

Junior Mitch Stahl (6'7") is set to start as one of the Bruins middle blockers. Stahl has the potential to become one of the finest middle attackers in the MPSF. Among the other middle blockers on the roster, it appears that redshirt junior John Zappia (6'5") may have the inside track on locking down the other starting spot, though redshirt sophomores Eric Sprague (6'8") and Oliver Martin (6'10") both looked good in limited roles last season.

Sophomore JT Hatch (6'1") was sensational in his freshman campaign. He was named MPSF Freshman of the Year as well as earning Second Team All-MPSF donors. He was also an AVCA Honorable Mention All-America selection. He will certainly start at one of the outside hitter spots. There's a real battle between junior Michael Fisher and sophomore Jake Arnitz for the spot opposite Hatch. My gut tells me that Arnitz (6'7")--a member of last year's All-MPSF Freshman team--will eventually win the starter's role, but that Fisher (6''5") may hold the advantage at the moment. UCLA has plenty of depth behind those three, with talented freshman Dylan Missry (6'4") fighting for playing time, and junior Jake Reeves (6'4") having previously proved himself a competent, versatile backup.

Sophomore Christian Hessenauer (6''5") is the lone opposite on the roster. If Coach Speraw opts for a 5-1 system, Hessenauer is likely to play opposite. Jackson Bantle  can fill that role as well.

The battle for the libero spot is also tight. Junior Jackson Bantle is not your typical libero. He started his UCLA career as an opposite, but at just 6'1", he's not ideal as a blocker. His style of play is perfectly suited for beach volleyball, and he has a wicked hard jump serve. Freshman Davis Gillett (5'9") is the alternative; he's a highly regarded prospect.

Head Coach John Speraw

In my opinion, Coach Speraw is the best collegiate volleyball coach in the nation. He won three NCAA championships in ten seasons at UC Irvine. In his spare time, he coaches the US Men's National Team. He's a great teacher of volleyball, a good tactician, and a fantastic recruiter.

This is his fourth season in charge of UCLA's program. In his first season, the Bruins improved dramatically during the course of the season, and just missed out qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. UCLA suffered serious injury problems during his second and third seasons, and the lack of an elite setter has held the Bruins back. That problem has been addressed this season with the addition of freshman Micah Ma'a.

As I mentioned above, the 2016 roster is talented and deep. Coach Speraw has done a wonderful job of bringing in elite players at every position. The only things missing from this team are senior leadership and NCAA tournament experience; the 2016 roster consists of 6 juniors, 6 sophomores, and 6 freshmen, none of whom have played in an NCAA tournament.

Expectations

As always seems to be the case, most of the country's top teams are in the MPSF. This season, four of the five highest ranked teams (#1 BYU, #2 UC Irvine, #4 Long Beach State, and #5 UCLA) are in the MPSF. Half of the nation's top-10 are MPSF teams, and over half of the top-15 are in the MPSF. Therefore, it goes without saying that winning the MPSF regular season title and/or the MPSF Tournament is extremely difficult. Furthermore, with the current structure of the NCAA Tournament, it's extremely hard for the third and fourth best MPSF teams to find a path into the tournament even when they are ranked in the top-5.

I mention this because setting expectations for this year's team indirectly depends on the structure and rules of the MPSF conference and the NCAA tournament. That said, I expect the 2016 Bruins to contend for the conference title. A regular season finish outside of the top-4 would be a huge disappointment given the talent available to Coach Speraw.

Because BYU enjoys an incredible home court advantage, it may be very difficult for the Bruins to earn a spot in the 2016 NCAA Tournament if they have to go through the Cougars to get to the final of the MPSF Tournament. That's what happened to the Bruins in 2013 when they fell just short of knocking off BYU in Provo in the MPSF Tournament semifinals. In my estimation, UCLA and BYU were the best and second-best teams in the nation at that point in the season, but the Cougars' home court advantage was a key factor in keeping the Bruins from advancing to the final.

In other words, I expect the Bruins to make a strong run in the conference tournament. UCLA should be much improved in the final weeks of the season, so unless a scenario similar to what we witnessed in 2013 occurs, it's reasonable to expect the Bruins to play in the finals of the MPSF tournament and to finish the season with a top-5 ranking.

Of course, I would love to see the Bruins playing in the NCAA tournament again and I think that there's a good chance that it will happen this season. Ten years since have passed since our last NCAA title in men's volleyball. That's much too long given UCLA's long history of dominance in men's volleyball. The 2016 Bruins have a realistic chance of ending that decade-long drought; Coach Speraw has UCLA Men's Volleyball primed to contend for a national championship.

Go BRUINS!