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UCLA's Postseason Path May Run through Hawai'i

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The Bruins need to sweep Hawai'i this weekend to keep open their most likely path to a 2017 NCAA Tournament bid.

@UCLAMVB

#6 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (17-7, 10-6)

Opponent: #4 Hawai’i (22-4, 12-4)

When: Friday, April 7, 2017, 5:00 PM PT

Where: John Wooden Center, Los Angeles, CA

Audio: Bruin Live Audio

Streaming Video: Pac-12 Network

Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast

Official Match Preview

The Bruins' 2017 regular season comes to an end this weekend against the fourth-ranked Rainbow Warriors. UCLA is scheduled to play Hawai'i today and tomorrow, and the outcome of the pair of weekend matches will play a large role in determining which team among UCLA, UCI, and Hawai'i is most likely to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

Of course the MPSF tournament will play a role in that determination as well, but with it looking probable that any challenger for the tourney title will have to beat both Long Beach State and BYU, which at the moment looks like a really steep hill to climb.

The Bruins and the Rainbow Warriors both enter tonight's match on a pretty decent run of form. Three weeks ago, Hawai'i lost a pair of matches against BYU in Provo, but before that, the Rainbow Warriors had won 15 in a row. In fact, Hawai'i has lost just four matches all season; two on the road against #1 Long Beach State, and the pair in Provo against the third-ranked Cougars.

The Rainbow Warriors are well-deserving of their #4 ranking. In my opinion, they played by far the toughest conference schedule this season, having to play the four strongest MPSF foes exclusively on the road.

The Bruins bring a seven-game winning streak to today's contest. However, it would be wrong to assume that UCLA has been playing consistently strong volleyball during that stretch. In fact the Bruins' recent results have been puzzling. After a trio of impressive results to begin the month, UCLA struggled to beat Concordia, looked very good in beating #11 Southern Cal, but then needed five sets to turn back cellar-dwelling Cal Baptist last Saturday.

There are a couple of possible explanations for UCLA's up-and-down form. The first is that the Bruins have a bad habit of playing down to the level of their competition. It may be because they get bored after getting a lead in these matches. Alternatively, it may be the result of looking ahead to the big challenges down the road. Either way, losing focus against weaker opponents is not a characteristic of a national title contending team.

An alternative theory is that the Bruins' inconsistent performances are a consequence of the constant lineup reshuffling that has been forced on Coach Speraw by injuries to several key players, with Micah Ma'a being the latest.

The explanations aren't mutually exclusive, and I think there's reason to believe that there's an element of truth in each of them.

That said, there can be no reason for lack of focus against Hawai'i. The Rainbow Warriors are formidable, and the two matches will have a significant impact on how the postseason shapes up for UCLA. Unless the Bruins can sweep against Hawai'i, it's almost certain that UCLA will have to travel for a first-round MPSF Tournament game. That would be a far from ideal result, especially considering the fact that one or more losses to Hawai'i will leave UCLA with the thinnest résumé of the teams that still have a legitimate shot at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

The Bruins have done a good job of fighting back after a crippling February. They have a realistic shot at earning a spot in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but it essentially requires victories over Hawai'i today and tomorrow. It is certainly a tall order. Today we will find out if the Bruins are up to it.

Go BRUINS!