#2 UCLA Men's Volleyball (11-1, 7-1)
Opponent: #12 UC Irvine (3-8, 2-7)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Thursday, February 11, 2016
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: UCLA Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
A week ago, the Bruins were undefeated and the top-ranked team in the country. However, after splitting their pair of matches in Honolulu against #5 Hawai'i, the Bruins begin this week of action as the second-ranked team in the latest AVCA poll.
Far more important than the polls, though, is the MPSF title race. Despite picking up their first loss of the season, the Bruins remain in first place in the conference, half a game ahead of Long Beach State and a full game ahead of Stanford and Hawai'i. With home games against UC Irvine and UC San Diego this week, UCLA should be able to hold or extend its lead in the standings this week.
12th-ranked UC Irvine (3-8, 2-7) is tonight's opponent. The Anteaters have to be regarded as one of this year's biggest disappointments based on early season results. UCI opened the season in the top-5 in the national rankings but has been unable to turn in performances that match those expectations. That trend continued yesterday when the Anteaters were swept by the 10th-ranked Gauchos.
UCLA beat UC Irvine 3-1 in the Bruins' MPSF season opener. However, aside from the opening set, all of the sets were decided by the narrowest of margins, so it would be a mistake to discount the Anteaters based on their record.
Instead of previewing UC Irvine, I want to focus my pre-match report on the battle for the OH starting spot opposite Jake Arnitz. This position has been a weakness for the Bruins through the first dozen games, and I'm not convinced that Coach Speraw is much closer to finding an answer than he was a month ago.
Before I assess Coach Speraw's options, it's worth remembering that one of his options is choosing a starter on a game-by-game basis depending on the matchups. And at this point, with none of the players delivering performances that would earn a starting role, choosing a starter based on favorable matchups may be the best option.
At the moment, three players are in the mix for the second OH starting spot: junior Michael Fisher, sophomore JT Hatch, and freshman Dylan Missry. At the start of the season, I was certain that Hatch would start based on his superb freshman season, but he's been subpar in limited opportunities.
Going into the season, Hatch's strengths were considered to be his hitting and backcourt play. However, so far this season, Missry has been the best of the three in attack. Fisher's strengths were considered to be his blocking and serving, but to date, Missry has been the best blocker of the three. In fact, based on statistics from the first dozen games, Dylan Missry has performed better than either Hatch or Fisher.
The catch here is that Missry hasn't performed well against top teams (Long Beach State, Hawai'i). Unfortunately, neither Hatch nor Fisher have made the most of their opportunities--both have failed to deliver the goods when presented with chances to claim the second OH spot.
That said, JT Hatch may have taken a very small step towards claiming that spot with his performance against the Rainbow Warriors on Saturday. Hatch played well in relief of Missry, starting the final two sets that sealed UCLA's comeback victory. Hatch hit .545 for the match with 6 kills and no errors. He added an ace and was errorless in receiving serve. It was a big performance in a big game. Yes, in the context of all the volleyball that's been played so far this season, it represents a small step, but it's a step forward, and any step forward is potentially a big step for UCLA in trying to shore up its weakness on the outside opposite Arnitz.
I hope that Hatch's strong performance against Hawai'i is rewarded with a start tonight against UC Irvine. If Hatch can return to the level of play he turned in as a freshman, the Bruins will become a much more dangerous team.