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UCLA vs. BYU: Could the MPSF Title Be Decided this Weekend?

The second-ranked Bruins are in Provo this weekend for two crucial matches against fourth-ranked BYU.

#2 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (9-1, 6-0)

Opponent: #4 BYU (7-2, 2-1)

When: Friday, February 3, 2017, 6:00 PM PT

Where: Smith Fieldhouse, Provo, UT

Audio: BYURadio

Streaming Video: BYUTV

Live Stats: BYU StatBroadcast

Official Match Preview

In what may prove to be a season-defining road trip, the second-ranked Bruins (9-1, 6-0) face fourth-ranked BYU (7-2, 2-1) tonight and tomorrow.

As usual, there's a lot at stake when these two teams meet. In this case, although it's still early in the conference season, the team that finishes the weekend ahead of the other in the conference standings will hold a significant advantage as the second half of the MPSF season plays out. That's not to say that third-ranked Long Beach State won't be a factor in the title race, but considering BYU's tremendous home court advantage, the fact that both the Bruins and 49ers have to play their matches against the Cougars in Provo gives BYU a significant edge.

Of course the Bruins have played a lot of tough matches against BYU over the years--both home and away--and it's fair to say that in men's volleyball, the Cougars have become the Bruins' main rival. Last year, UCLA lost all three matches against BYU, and the last one--the MPSF Championship match--was a particularly painful defeat as one of the Bruins' great strengths deserted them. UCLA committed 27 service errors in that match and looked rattled as serve after serve missed long, wide, or in the net. Whether the Bruins struggles from the service line were partly due to playing at altitude is unclear, but it definitely hit UCLA's confidence and seemed to trouble the Bruins for the rest of the postseason.

UCLA returns much the same team this year. The Bruins are still running a 6-2 offense, and the key players are back for another crack at the Cougars. UCLA is currently sitting at the top of the MPSF standings, but unless it can win at least one of the matches this weekend, the Bruins will need help to capture the regular season title in 2017.

The Bruins enter the match after a less-than-impressive sweep of Princeton on Sunday, 25-15, 25-23, 27-25. While I'm not inclined to make excuses for subpar performances, the Bruins were playing their third match of the week, and Coach Speraw gave starts to bench players MB Oliver Martin and OH Michael Fisher. And to be fair, UCLA played well in the opening set before apparently losing focus.

The official site has match highlights

and a brief iinterview with JT Hatch

Hatch led the Bruins in attack with 14 kills, but the top performer in my opinion was Fisher who racked up eight block assists to go along with six digs. Martin also had a strong game off the bench, hitting a perfect 4 for 4 in attack while tallying seven blocks.

Surprisingly, the Cougars split a home set against UC Irvine last weekend. The loss in the opening match was primarily a result of self-inflicted wounds: BYU committed a whopping 25 service errors and added nine errors in receiving serve. BYU cut back on the errors in the second match and earned a sweep, which undoubtedly provides the Cougars with a much-needed confidence boost heading into tonight's match.

As those who follow men's volleyball know, the Cougars have a pretty terrific group of attackers. Junior opposite Ben Patch was an AVCA First-Team All-American in 2016 and is BYU's go-to hitter; senior OH Jake Langlois was an AVCA Second-Team All-American last year, and at 6'10", he can be awfully hard to slow down when he's in rhythm; junior OH Brendan Sander was an AVCA First-Team All-American in 2016, and although he hasn't reached peak form in 2017, remains a very dangerous attacker.

And of course Smith Fieldhouse is a very challenging venue for visiting teams. Attendance is typically 3000 or more, and the crowds are raucous. The Bruins will have to show more poise than they did last year in order to beat the Cougars at home. One thing working in UCLA's favor tonight is the fact that BYU's schedule so far this season has been a bit soft. Matches against McKendree and Concordia Irvine don't prepare a team for the intensity of battles with elite opponents. Hopefully that will work to the Bruins' advantage against the Cougars in the unfriendly confines of Smith Fieldhouse.  There's a lot on the line this weekend.