#2 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (2-1, 0-0)
Opponent: #7 UC Irvine (3-0, 2-0)
When: Thursday, January 12, 2017, 7:30 PM PT
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruins Live Audio
Video Stream: UCLA/Pac-12 Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
The second-ranked Bruins (2-1, 0-0) begin the 2017 MPSF season tonight when they host the seventh-ranked Anteaters (3-0, 2-0). While the Bruins were tuning up for the conference season with a road trip against a trio of top-15 opponents, including top-ranked Ohio State, the Anteaters jumped quickly into conference play and earned wins with a sweep of UCSD and a hard-fought 3-2 victory over #12 UC Santa Barbara.
The MPSF regular season title chase promises to be extremely challenging this year. Three of the nation's top five teams (UCLA, BYU, Long Beach State) are likely to battle for the conference crown, while another four teams (Pepperdine, Hawai'i, UC Irvine, and Stanford) ranked in the national top-10 will ensure that there will be few easy games along the way.
Although we are only a week into MPSF competition, there have already been a couple of notable upsets. Yesterday, Cal Baptist knocked off #13 Cal State Northridge and, even more surprising, Southern Cal thumped #3 Long Beach State. Less surprising, in my opinion, was #4 BYU's loss to #11 Loyola last weekend; frankly, BYU's status as a volleyball powerhouse is strongly influenced by its enormous home court advantage, and that's been shown to be true postseason after postseason.
All of this means that UCLA heads into its conference opener with a good opportunity to take a share of the lead in the MPSF standings. But the Bruins will have to play better than they did in their match against the Buckeyes last weekend. In particular, the Bruins continue to struggle from the service line in big matches. Of course there are other things that have to be cleaned up too--particularly service receive--but it's hard not to be a little concerned about the Bruins lack of poise late in sets, the same problem that the Bruins had in the postseason in 2016.
Coach Speraw shared his thoughts with Off The Block following UCLA's 3-1 loss to Ohio State:
His observation about the frequency with which the Bruins were attacking out-of-system is telling. If the Bruins are going to avoid upsets in the conference season, they have to achieve greater consistency. Teams like UCI and Pepperdine are too good to beat reliably with uneven performances.
That said, there was a lot to like about UCLA's opening weekend. Freshman middle blocker Daenan Gyimah leads the Bruins in aces (4) and attack percentage (.444), and junior OH Jake Arnitz isn't far behind in hitting percentage (.422) and leads the team in kills per set (3.86) by a large margin. And considering how sporadically setters Hagen Smith and Micah Ma'a participated in preseason due to injuries, the Bruins' attack has been relatively good.
The key for the Bruins tonight is to get past any lingering doubts following their first loss of the season by jumping out to a quick start against the Anteaters. Confidence and rhythm are critically important in volleyball, so if the Bruins get off to a strong start in set 1, they should be able to send the Anteaters home with their first loss of 2017.