It's a busy Friday night for UCLA's Olympic sports teams with softball, women's basketball, women's water polo, and men's volleyball all playing important games tonight. However, because of some unfortunate scheduling, all of the games will overlap, making it difficult to follow all of the action.
In any case, here's what's on the menu tonight:
#8 UCLA Softball vs. #15 UCF at 6:00 PM
#12 UCLA Women's Basketball vs. Oregon at 6:00 PM
#2 UCLA Women's Water Polo vs. #9 UC Irvine at 7:00 PM
#3 UCLA Men's Volleyball vs. #9 Pepperdine at 7:00 PM
Each link will take you directly to the relevant preview which will provide resources for audio, video and live stats feeds (as available).
My selection for game of the day is UCLA vs. Oregon in women's basketball. Although the Ducks aren't currently ranked in the AP top-25, they've been playing great basketball for a month, winning seven of their last eight games. It's a game that the Bruins probably need to win in their bid to secure home court advantage for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament and to remain in contention for the Pac-12 regular season title.
Opponent: #15 UCF (4-1)
When: 6:00 PM PST, Friday, February 19, 2016
Where: Big League Dreams Sports Park, Cathedral City, CA
Video: Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
Official Game Preview | Game Notes
The Bruins are in Cathedral City this weekend to participate in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. As it did last weekend, the eighth-ranked Bruins (4-1) will play five games in three days, starting with an opening round game against #15 UCF (4-1). The highlight of the weekend from UCLA's perspective is the Sunday morning game against #4 LSU.
As we saw last weekend, the Bruins will only go as far as their pitching takes them this year. Sophomores Selina Ta'amilo and Johanna Grauer are trying to fill the void left by the graduation of ace Ally Carda and the unavailability of Paige McDuffee and Rachel Garcia as they recover from injuries. While it's still early in the season, the results from Ta'amilo and Grauer from the Aggie Classic were mixed and certainly raise concerns about the ability of the pair to keep good teams in check.
Ta'amilo (1.53 ERA) has had a significantly better start to the season than Grauer (6.26 ERA), but the Bruins desperately need production from both if they are going to win weekend series. The biggest worry is Grauer's propensity to allow baserunners--she's allowing over 2 runners per inning, and opponents are batting .343 against her. That makes it dangerous to use her in relief, especially since she's not a strikeout pitcher.
Freshman Paige Halstead made a strong start to her UCLA career last weekend, finishing with a .313 batting average and her first home run as a Bruin. UCLA's other two freshman starters didn't fare so well, though. Both Taylor Pack and Zoe Shaw managed just one hit apiece in five games, leaving both with sub-.100 batting averages. As I detailed in my abbreviated preview of this year's team, Coach Inouye-Perez has plenty of lineup options, so it will be interesting to see how patient she is with her freshmen. Of course, production at the plate is essential for a first baseman and a right fielder, so lack of offensive production from those players isn't a situation that can reasonably be ignored beyond this weekend.
Lastly, Mysha Sataraka deserves special recognition for her sizzling start to the 2016 season. Sataraka hit .615 at the Aggie Classic and had eight straight hits at one point. Mysha also hammered two home runs and drove in 10 runs in 13 at-bats.
My best guess is that Ta'amilo has earned the game 1 starter role and will start tonight against UCF. This will represent a much stiffer challenge than she faced in the Aggie Classic, so it will be interesting to see how she performs.
#12 UCLA Women's Basketball (19-6, 11-3)
Opponent: Oregon (19-6, 8-6)
When: 6:00 PM PST, Friday, February 19, 2016
Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: Pac-12 Networks
Live Stats: Oregon StatBroadcast
UCLA Game Preview | UCLA Game Notes | Oregon Game Preview | Oregon Game Notes
It's GameDay in Eugene! #GoBruins pic.twitter.com/ZorWRHUawx— UCLA W. Basketball (@UCLAWBB) February 19, 2016
As I mentioned in my opening comments, this is a big game for the Bruins. Oregon has played really well for almost a month, winning seven of its last eight games. The Bruins now have sole possession of third place in the Pac-12 after Stanford lost to ASU last week, but the Cardinal are just one game back and have a much easier pair of games this weekend against the Rocky Mountain schools.
But it's not just third place that's at stake for UCLA. The Bruins are hoping to secure a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament which would allow UCLA to host the first two rounds of the tourney. That's a big prize, and with games against conference leaders Oregon State and Arizona State in the next 10 days, the Bruins can't afford to drop games against "middle of the Pac" teams, including Oregon.
Oregon is particularly difficult team to defend. The Ducks are the best three-point shooting team in the nation, hitting nearly 42% of their threes. At the same time, Oregon has one of the conference's best inside scorers in Jillian Alleyne. Allen is tied for second in NCAA history with 90 career double-doubles and is third in NCAA history with 1,683 boards. This season, Alleyne is leading the Ducks in rebounding (13.6 boards/game) and in scoring (18.6 points/game).
Oregon has a critical weakness that the Bruins will try to exploit tonight: the Ducks are turnover prone. However, this also creates a dilemma for Coach Close. If the Ducks break the UCLA press, they're likely to spot up for a three-pointer. Whatever Coach Close decides, the Bruins are likely to have a real battle on their hands tonight.
Red-hot @OregonWBB. Rock-solid @UCLAWBB.
Tonight's going to be FUN in L.A. https://t.co/q0ltvMKcow pic.twitter.com/vNeoNcMTNP— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) February 19, 2016
#2 UCLA Women's Water Polo (7-1)
Opponent: #9 UC Irvine (6-4)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Friday, February 19, 2016
Where: Anteater Aquatics Complex, Irvine, CA
Live Stats: None
Preview: No. 2 UCLA Faces No. 9 Irvine Friday https://t.co/vcu9UPlkyd #UCLA #ImABruin #GoBruins @CWPAWaterPolo pic.twitter.com/SqwAzRm3by— UCLA Water Polo (@UCLAWaterPolo) February 18, 2016
I think it's fair to say that UCLA has become a water polo school during the Dan Guerrero era. Not that Guerrero deserves credit for the excellence of UCLA Water Polo, but he deserves a pat on the back for staying out of the way of programs that have been elite for a long time.
Given that UCLA Water Polo has been very good to Guerrero in terms of bringing home national titles, it seems odd that Morgan Center does such a terrible job of promoting the programs and enabling fans at home to follow the action.
As usual, tonight's game features no streaming video. There's also no streaming audio. There's also no live stats. I suspect that Morgan Center will proudly point to the existence of a shared (with UCLA Men's Water Polo) twitter account, but as we saw last weekend, the account isn't reliably used to provide updates of action from the pool. That fact doesn't reflect well on Guerrero's management of UCLA Athletics.
UCLA Women's Water Polo went into last weekend's Triton Invitational as the nation's top-ranked team, and it definitely looked the part on the opening day of the tournament with wins against Sonoma State (17-1) and Loyola Marymount (14-7). The Bruins were somewhat less convincing in the tournament semifinal against UC Davis though they advanced to the final with a hard-fought 5-1 victory. But UCLA started slowly against #2 USC in the final, and unfortunately the Bruins weren't able to overcome an early two-goal deficit.
The Bruins should be able to get back on track this evening against #9 UC Irvine. Although the Anteaters have a solid team, they don't have the talent or depth of the Bruins. Unless the Bruins have a sluggish start to the match, they shouldn't have too much trouble tonight collecting their eighth win of the 2016 season.
#3 UCLA Men's Volleyball (12-2, 8-2)
Opponent: #9 Pepperdine (6-4, 5-4)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Friday, February 19, 2016
Where: Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: West Coast Conference Sports Live Stream
Live Stats: Pepperdine GameTracker
UCLA Official Game Preview | Pepperdine Official Game Preview
It's GAMEDAY Bruins! We're in Malibu tonight for a top-10 matchup as the No. 3 Bruins take on the No. 9 Waves pic.twitter.com/eI2QEiBl1k— UCLA M. Volleyball (@UCLAMVB) February 19, 2016
I wish I could say that tonight's match against #9 Pepperdine will be a cakewalk for the Bruins. The third-ranked Bruins have struggled the past two weeks, unfortunately, and it remains to be seen if they can get back to turning in the consistently strong performances that characterized their 10-game winning streak to open the season.
To be fair, it is completely understandable that the Bruins dropped a match in Hawai'i. To their credit, they came back the next day to beat Hawai'i in five sets. But the performances were inconsistent, and that carried over the next match against UC Irvine. Once again, the Bruins started the match slowly, and eventually that was the difference as UCLA lost in five sets to the nation's 12th-ranked team.
The defeat dropped UCLA into a three-way tie for second place in the MPSF conference, half a game behind #1 Long Beach State, and even with #2 BYU and #4 Stanford.
It's hard to overstate the importance of winning the conference title. Winning the regular season MPSF title essentially secures a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It also guarantees home court advantage for the conference tournament. Of course, winning the conference tournament locks in an NCAA Tournament berth, so the value of finishing first in the standings shouldn't be underestimated.
The Bruins simply can't afford to drop another match to a team outside of the top-4 in the conference. That realization emphasizes the importance of tonight's match against a good Pepperdine team. The Waves have wins against Hawai'i and UC Irvine already this season, which are the two teams responsible for UCLA's two losses. On the other hand, Pepperdine has a two-game losing streak, so it may be that the Bruins are catching the Waves at a good time.
For now, Coach Speraw seems to have settled on JT Hatch as the hitter opposite OH Jake Arnitz in the Bruins' 6-0 offense. Hatch played well against UCSD in the Bruins' most recent match, though it's important to take into consideration the fact that the Tritons remain the weakest team in the conference, Hatch doesn't need to be spectacular in attack to fill the role that the Bruins require; rather, he simply needs to make good decisions in attack and to play solid defense.
After an amazing start to the season, freshman Micah Ma'a was significantly less productive in last week's matches. He is such a critical piece in the Bruins' offensive scheme that when he's below par, the Bruins are bound to struggle. Let's hope that he's back to his best for tonight's battle with the Waves.