Sunday, May 16

UCLA women’s volleyball NCAA tournament predictions

UCLA women's volleyball was not seeded in the top 16 in the NCAA Tournament despite its No. 15 ranking at the end of the season. The blue and gold will take on Rider in its first match of the competition Wednesday. (Lillie Yazdi/Daily Bruin)

Bryan Palmero
Women’s volleyball beat writer
Prediction: Third Round

The Pac-12 is called the “Conference of Champions” for a reason.

Ever since the conference expanded to 12 schools in 2011, four of its teams have gone on to win it all, including the Bruins in that inaugural year.

And in a season where most schools scrapped interconference play, the tournament will be the first opportunity for No. 15 in the country UCLA (14-6) and the Pac-12 to reintroduce themselves to the competition.

Even after a rough late stretch in the season, I think the Bruins’ conference-only schedule has thrown them everything they need to muster up a championship mindset in time for the playoffs.

Against Rider (7-4, 4-4 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) – a team hailing from the MAAC and making its first tournament appearance since 1996 – UCLA should have no problem finishing the job and making it to the second round.

Going up against No. 14-ranked BYU (16-1, 15-1 WCC) may prove more difficult. The WCC-champion Cougars, a team I believe was underseeded at No. 16, boast a near-perfect record behind their player and setter of the year, sophomore Whitney Bower.

The Bruins, however, have bested great players and teams before. They’ve picked up wins over Pac-12 setter of the year junior Ella May Powell’s No. 6-seeded Washington Huskies and Pac-12 player of the year senior Dani Drews’ No. 14-seeded Utah Utes.

Come Thursday, BYU will face its toughest opponent all year, as well as its first in over two weeks. The same cannot be said for UCLA, with its tougher schedule.

But sticking to this conference script has its downfalls. A regional semifinal berth should have the Bruins face off against last year’s runners-up – the No. 1-seeded Badgers. The top team in the national rankings at the end of the regular season, Wisconsin (15-0) was undefeated in the regular season against Big Ten competition – arguably the best conference in women’s volleyball – and is favored to give the conference its fifth NCAA title in 10 seasons.

Even with juniors outside hitter/opposite élan McCall and libero/defensive specialist Zoe Fleck transferring to UCLA this year, the Badgers’ seven All-Big Ten honorees will once again prove too much for senior outside hitter/opposite Mac May and the younger Bruins.

Lexi Grimes
Women’s volleyball beat writer
Prediction: Second Round

UCLA will secure a victory in the first round, before losing in its very next game.

The Bruins were never quite able to achieve consistent success in the regular season, and I believe this problem will follow them into the tournament.

What will help UCLA in the first round is the team’s experience. Rider has competed in only 11 matches this season, while the Bruins have played in 20. These nine extra games will have allowed UCLA to develop a better rhythm and better communication than a team that has played hardly more than half as many games.

The Bruins also have the added bonus of having players who competed in the NCAA tournament in 2019, a tournament the Broncs did not qualify for.

However, I believe UCLA will be outmatched in the second round by BYU. The Cougars dominated almost everyone they competed against this season, losing only nine of the 57 sets that they played. The Bruins lost 29 of their 77 sets.

May will undoubtedly be one of the best players on the court in the round two matchup. May led the Pac-12 in kills this season, with 327 recorded, while averaging 4.25 kills per set. Meanwhile, BYU’s top player, senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon, is averaging only 3.89 kills per set. May will also have more service aces than any other player in the game, having recorded 26 this season.

However, as a team, UCLA is behind in almost every major statistic. The Bruins have recorded a .252 hitting percentage this season, significantly lower than the Cougars’ percentage of .312. UCLA has also averaged fewer kills, assists, digs and blocks per set than BYU.

The Cougars will also have momentum on their side, entering the tournament on a nine-match winning streak, while the Bruins dropped three of their last seven contests.

Tung Lin
Women’s volleyball beat writer
Prediction: Third Round

With a Pac-12 record of 14-6, UCLA has not fallen to the same Pac-12 opponent twice, which has not been observed since the turn of the 21st century.

Also in 2000, the blue and gold fell to Wisconsin in the NCAA final match. I think history will repeat itself, although not in the championship game.

Five out of the Bruins’ six losses happened in the second meetups of doubleheaders this season. UCLA comes out strong, but is unable to counteract the same opponent given a bit of time, analysis and practice. This vulnerability of the Bruins will not be exposed in the single-elimination NCAA tournament, however, with no opportunity for back-to-back meetups..

UCLA has another advantage – the Pac-12 conference. Compared to its next two opponents, Rider and BYU, the Pac-12 supplies the Bruins with more competitive opponents and practice. After all, the Pac-12 sent more teams to the NCAA tournament than the Cougars’ and Broncs’ respective conferences combined.

While Rider’s making the NCAA tournament is no small feat, it will also be no small feat to defeat UCLA, with five Bruins recognized on the All-Pac-12 Conference teams.

Next up is BYU, and although its stats across the board have been impressive, with a .312 hitting percentage and an overall conference record of 16-1, UCLA has one less vulnerability, with a more competitive conference on its side.

After that, despite the Bruins’ hard work through this pandemic, they will meet the same fate as in 2000. Their late season will be cut short after their victory against the Cougars, losing in the third round against the Badgers.

Sports contributor

Palmero is currently a Sports contributor on the beach volleyball and women's volleyball beats.

Sports contributor

Grimes is currently a Sports contributor on the women's volleyball beat. She was previously a contributor on the beach volleyball beat.

Assistant Video Producer

Lin is currently an Assistant Video Producer and a Sports contributor on the women's volleyball beat, and is a second-year psychobiology student. She was previously a 2019-2020 video contributor.


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