#6 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (17-9, 10-8)
Opponent: #5 UC Irvine (19-6, 13-5)
When: Saturday, April 15, 2017, 7:00 PM PT
Where: Bren Events Center, Irvine, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Streaming Video: UCI Live Stream (YouTube)
Live Stats: UCI Live Stats
It's come down to this for UCLA Men's Volleyball: if the Bruins lose tonight, their season is over. For a team that was widely regarded as a top contender for the 2017 national title, it's a huge disappointment to be the fifth-seed in the conference tournament. Worse still, unless the Bruins can find a way to beat fourth-seeded UC Irvine, and probably top-seeded Long Beach State and second-seeded BYU to capture the MPSF tourney title, UCLA won't be in the NCAA Tournament this year.
It goes without saying that UCLA's national championship dreams were seriously derailed by a series of injuries to key players. But if you want to understand how the Bruins got into this position, you need look no further than their record against the nation's four elite teams: Ohio State, Long Beach State, BYU, and Hawai'i. From January to April, UCLA compiled a 0-6 record against those four squads. With at most three teams from the MPSF conference able to earn spots in the NCAA tournament, it's easy to see why UCLA won't be seriously considered for an at-large bid.
Again, injuries played a huge role in UCLA's February funk, but the Bruins' problems go deeper than that. Since February, each of Coach Speraw's lineups has seemed like an experiment. Obviously, many of the changes were forced on him by injuries to senior MB Mitch Stahl, junior OH Jake Arnitz, and sophomore setter Micah Ma'a, but even when those players were healthy enough to be on the court again, there was lineup shuffling. For instance, Coach Speraw has used multiple players at libero this season--most recently, OH JT Hatch--and while the changes may be based on sound reasoning, it's awfully late in the season for that level of experimentation.
I can't emphasize enough how unusual it is for there to be uncertainty about the offense a team will run heading into the post-season. Similarly, it's rare for there to be so many questions about a team's starting lineup in mid-April. Any advantage the Bruins gain through unpredictability is overwhelmed by the disadvantage of an unsettled lineup. Coach Speraw knows this, of course, but in trying to solve the problem created by multiple injuries, he's failed so far to find a winning solution.
The Bruins problems don't end with personnel decisions. In the postseason last year, UCLA was plagued by inconsistent serving, and it's continued to be a problem in big matches this year, and it was a big factor is UCLA's loss last Saturday against Hawai'i. If the Bruins struggles from the service line continue tonight, they'll be watching the rest of the tournament from Westwood.
UCLA split their two contests against UCI this season. Back in January, before injuries knocked out All-Americans Jake Arnitz and Mitch Stahl, the Bruins thumped the Anteaters 3-0. In February, when the Bruins were trying to cope without Mitch Stahl and were experimenting with a 5-1, UC Irvine slipped past UCLA 3-2 even though overall the Bruins out-played the Anteaters.
My gut feeling heading into tonight's quarterfinal is that the Bruins will win in four sets. If the match goes to five sets, I give the edge to the Anteaters. However, unless the Bruins rediscover the chemistry they enjoyed in January, their post-season isn't likely to last very long.