#1 UCLA Men's Volleyball (21-3, 15-3)
Opponent: #3 BYU (19-3, 15-3)
When: 8:00 PM PST, Friday, April 1, 2016
Where: John Wooden Center, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: Pac-12 Los Angeles
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
Earlier this week, the Bruins became the top-ranked team in the AVCA Coaches poll. This weekend they'll have a chance to prove they deserve that ranking when they host a pair of matches against #3 BYU, the first of which is at 8 PM tonight in the John Wooden Center.
UCLA Hammers the 49ers
After a nearly two week break, the Bruins returned to action last week, starting with a narrow 3-2 victory over #10 Cal State Northridge. The win didn't inspire confidence with #4 Long Beach State up next, but the Bruins rose to the occasion to sweep the 49ers, 25-22, 25-22, 25-22.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Bruins' triumph was that they did it without their most experienced and arguably best player, Mitch Stahl. With Stahl sitting on the bench with his foot in a walking boot, Eric Sprague had a terrific game as Stahl's replacement. Sprague tallied 8 kills while hitting a blistering .800 for the match.
Outside hitters Jake Arnitz and JT Hatch led the Bruins with 16 and 10 kills, respectively, and freshman libero Davis Gillett had another strong game, contributing 11 digs and receiving 30 serves without error. Both Hagen Smith and Micah Ma'a collected 19 assists.
Scouting the Cougars
From the end of January until about two weeks ago, the Cougars were unbeatable. During their 13 game winning streak, the Cougars dropped just one set, and that was to Hawai'i in Honolulu. It was a period of nearly seven weeks in which BYU absolutely dominated every opponent.
And then Pepperdine came to Provo. In the first match, BYU posted another 3-0 win. In the match the next day, Pepperdine stunned BYU on its home court. The Cougars outhit the Waves. The Cougars out-blocked the Waves. But the Waves prevailed, largely because they put the Cougars under tremendous pressure with their serve.
Since that loss, BYU has returned to its previous form with a pair of 3-0 wins.
BYU leads the country in hitting percentage thanks to their outstanding outside hitters. Sophomore OPP Ben Patch is undoubtedly one of the best attackers in the country. He averages 4.55 kills/set while hitting .400. Sophomore OH Brendan Sander and junior OH Jake Langlois aren't in the same class as Patch, but they are both plenty dangerous. At 6'10", Langlois is a tough matchup on the outside. He averages 3.26 kills/set and has an attack percentage of .316. Sander is equally dangerous, averaging 3.21 kills/set while leading the team with 21 aces.
The Cougars are also the top blocking team in the nation. They average 3.29 blocks/set with the majority of the work done by senior MB Michael Hatch and sophomore MB Price Jarman.
Sophomore Leo Durkin is the Cougars' lone setter. At 6'4", he's a decent blocker, but he's fairly conservative in the way he runs the BYU offense.
What's At Stake
Although both teams have already clinched spots in the MPSF Tournament, the fact that there are only two at-large bids for the NCAA Men's Volleyball Tournament means that the competition for first and second place in the regular season conference standings is fierce. At the moment, the Bruins and Cougars are locked in a three-way tie for first with Stanford. However, at the end of the match tonight, either UCLA or BYU will be a game behind.
The Bruins have the disadvantage of a killer schedule to close out the regular season. After the pair of games against #3 BYU this weekend, UCLA faces #4 Stanford and #6 Pepperdine next week. It's a tough stretch of matches for the Bruins, but it does give UCLA the advantage of controlling its fate. As long as the Bruins keep winning, no team can stop them from winning the MPSF regular season title outright.
The Bruins don't have to be perfect to finish the season in first place, though. They can afford one loss as long as it's not to Stanford. They certainly can't afford two losses, which means that even though a victory tonight isn't essential, a loss will put in doubt UCLA's push for an NCAA Tournament berth.