#4 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (9-4, 6-3)
Opponent: #9 Pepperdine (5-3, 3-2)
When: Saturday, February 11, 2017, 7:00 PM PT
Where: Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: GoWaves Live Stream
Live Stats: Pepperdine Waves GameTracker
Just over a week ago, the Bruins headed to Provo with a perfect conference record and an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and at least one of the other MPSF title contenders. Three matches later, the Bruins have absorbed three tough losses, are sitting in fifth place in the MPSF standings, and at risk of falling so far behind Long Beach State and BYU that any chance of clawing their way back into first place will be lost for good.
It's tempting to attribute UCLA's current woes to injuries. After all, winning in Provo against an elite opponent is hard enough without having to suddenly adapt to playing without two All-Americans. But Thursday's loss to #8 Stanford is a different story. Once again, the Bruins couldn't find a way to win big points at the end of tight sets. And once again, the Bruins' couldn't get the job done with their serve, leading to too many errors and not enough pressure on Stanford's offense.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of UCLA's five set loss to the Cardinal (27-29, 27-25, 25-23, 27-29, 11-15) is that Mitch Stahl returned to action and played reasonably well. Obviously it takes time to fully adjust to different players on the court, but the Bruins shouldn't need to be perfectly fine-tuned to defeat a second-tier MPSF opponent. If UCLA had managed to take advantage of even just a few of the opportunities it was presented in the past few matches, the Bruins could easily be 2-1 instead of 0-3 at this point of their road trip.
Somehow the Bruins have to find a way out of their current funk. Like Stanford, Pepperdine is a second-tier MPSF team that is realistically playing for seeding in the MPSF Tournament, not for the regular season title. If UCLA loses today, it would probably take a remarkable set of circumstances for the team to finish higher than third in the standings. With matches still to play against Long Beach State and Hawai'i, UCLA can gain ground on two of the conference's four elite teams, but the Bruins will need some help along the way to catch BYU.
There's no point in thinking too far ahead, though. If the Bruins can't beat the Waves this evening, any realistic path to claiming the MPSF regular season title evaporates. Furthermore, as UCLA slides down the national rankings, the likelihood of an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017 hinges almost entirely on winning the MPSF Tournament, and that's no easy task, especially if it involves a trip to Provo.
For today, all that matters is that the Bruins find a way to snap their three game skid. They don't have to dominate, but they have to turn in a performance that gets them over the hurdle, whatever it takes.