#4 UCLA Men's Volleyball (16-3, 12-3)
Opponent: #9 UC Santa Barbara (13-7, 9-6)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Friday, March 2, 2016
Where: Robertson Gym, Santa Barbara, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: UCSB Live Stream
Live Stats: UCSB Live Stats
On Wednesday night the Bruins took care of business in the home leg of their two-match series this week with #9 UC Santa Barbara. After yet another slow start, the Bruins fought back after dropping the first set to claim a 3-1 win. Set scores were 21-25, 25-22, 25-18, 25-18.
It's fair to say that, aside from the first set, UCLA's attack was in fine form. Three Bruins registered double digit kills, with Jake Arnitz leading the way with 13 while hitting .385. As good as Arnitz was, Micah Ma'a was even better. He pounded 12 kills and hit a blistering .550 for the match. JT Hatch also tallied 12 kills, and he continued his hot serving with a pair of aces.
Once again UCLA's middle attack was highly efficient but arguably under-utilized. Oliver Martin and Mitch Stahl each notched six kills, with both middles hitting over .400.
Hagen Smith and Ma'a continue to share the setting duties in the Bruins' 6-0 system. On Wednesday, Ma'a collected 24 assists and Smith had 20.
I should also mention the improved play of freshman libero Davis Gillett. Against the Gauchos, Gillett added 10 digs to go along with 30 errorless service receptions.
Tonight is the return leg of the series. The Bruins travel to Santa Barbara trailing BYU, Stanford and Long Beach State by one game. Until the conference leaders start playing each other, UCLA will likely need to keep winning just to keep pace. It's an unenviable position to be in because it means that there's great pressure to keep winning, but the payout for winning isn't particularly satisfying. That can be hard to maintain week after week, but with a midseason pause in the MPSF conference schedule, that's precisely what the Bruins will have to do.
Of course it's still unclear where the ceiling is for the 2016 Bruins. UCLA's three losses have been more about execution than talent, but the Bruins are using a system that reduces the margin of error. That seems to be part of the reason for UCLA's frequent slow start in matches. Unfortunately it's a bad habit against all opponents, and it is a dangerous habit against elite competition.
The Gauchos don't qualify as elite competition, however. UCSB has a strong team, but the Gauchos are simply not at the same level as the group of conference leaders. Tonight will answer an important question for the Bruins: do they belong with the trio of teams contending for the MPSF title, or will they spend the rest of the season fighting UCSB and Hawai'i for fourth place?