NCAA Tournament Semifinals
#3 UCLA Men's Volleyball (25-6)
Opponent: #2 Ohio State (28-3)
When: 5:00 PM PDT, Thursday, May 5, 2016
Where: Rec Hall, University Park, PA
Video: NCAA Live Player
Live Stats: GameTracker
It's been a long time since UCLA Men's Volleyball last played in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, it was 10 years ago, in the Rec Hall at Penn State, that the Bruins last battled for a national championship. On that occasion, Al Scates' Bruins defied the odds to capture their 19th national championship by defeating the Nittany Lions, 3-0.
UCLA hasn't been back to the NCAA Tournament since then.
That drought will end tonight when the third-ranked Bruins (25-6) meet the second-ranked Buckeyes (28-3) in the second of today's semifinals.
MPSF foes BYU--the top-seeded team--and Long Beach State will square off in the evening's first semifinal.
In spite of the team's rankings in the AVCA Coaches Poll, the Bruins are the tournament's second-seed, and therefore earned a first round bye. As the third seed, the Buckeyes advanced to the semis only after defeating George Mason 3-1 in an NCAA play-in match on Tuesday.
Whether it's an advantage or disadvantage to have a first round bye is a much-debated question in the volleyball community. Ordinarily, earning a bye is considered advantageous, but when a team hasn't played in nearly two weeks and then faces one of the nation's top teams in the tournament semifinals, then the calculation changes a bit. In this case, the Bruins will certainly have the advantage of being well-rested, but they will have to adjust very quickly to the pace and intensity of competition against an elite opponent.
Although none of Coach Speraw's players have any experience in the NCAA Tournament, they do have experience against Ohio State in tonight's venue. In the first week of January, the Bruins east coast road trip brought them to Penn State for a pair of matches against the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions. After dropping the opening set to Ohio State, UCLA rallied to win the next three sets and the match, 24-26, 25-22, 25-22, 25-22.
It's worth noting that Coach Speraw gave starts to freshman Dylan Missry and senior John Zappia against the Buckeyes. Also, JT Hatch started as an outside attacker, but junior Michael Fisher played the majority of the points. Missry, Fisher, and Zappia are unlikely to see much court time tonight, however. In all likelihood, Jake Arnitz--the Bruins' best outside hitter--will start tonight along with JT Hatch and middle blocker Oliver Martin.
The Bruins and Buckeyes have very different offenses. Ohio State relies heavily on a pair of dangerous hitters: AVCA Pleyaer of the Year, sophomore Nicolas Szerszen, and junior opposite Miles Johnson. In the first meeting this year between UCLA and OSU, Szerszen tallied 21 kills, although he needed 45 swings to get to that total.
UCLA has a far more balanced attack and, unusually, uses a 6-0 offense. The fact that Coach Speraw has been able to run a 6-0 effectively is a consequence of the tremendous versatility of his two setters: junior Hagen Smith and freshman Micah Ma'a.
In my opinion, Ma'a is the nation's top freshman. He is a smart, crafty hitter, an outstanding defender, a terrific setter, and one of the top two or three servers in the country. In fact, Ma'a was named 2016 Off the Block/Springbak National Server of the Year last week, and earlier this week was one of three Bruins earning AVCA All-American honors.
Congratulations to our 3 AVCA All-Americans! Bring home that championship #114 pic.twitter.com/FT8xrNGPYv— UCLA M. Volleyball (@UCLAMVB) May 2, 2016
Junior MB Mitch Stahl and sophomore OH Jake Arnitz are the other two Bruins to be named AVCA All-American. In addition to being two of the Bruins' most potent attackers, Stahl and Arnitz are exceptional from the service line, combining with Ma'a, Hatch and Smith to give UCLA a deadly serving game. Unfortunately, UCLA's serve took the day off in the Bruins last match--the MPSF Tournament final against BYU. In that match, UCLA collected a solitary ace while committing 27 service errors.
The Bruins will have to snap out of their serving slump immediately to advance to the NCAA Tournament championship game. It's not just about aces and errors, though. UCLA has to apply pressure with its serve to make its opponent's attack more predictable. If the Bruins struggle early in the match to apply that pressure, UCLA's chances of winning its 20th NCAA men's volleyball title may fade very quickly. On the other hand, if Coach Speraw's relatively young team enjoys some early success, the Bruins' superior talent and experience playing in the dominant MPSF conference should give them the edge over the Buckeyes.