'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 20 UCLA at No. 16 Oregon

UCLA Athletics / GoDucks.com

Who: No. 20 UCLA at No. 16 Oregon in Pac-12 women’s volleyball action.

When: Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Networks, with Anne Marie Anderson and Holly McPeak on the call.

Spike Night presents us with a top-20 battle this week, as tied-for-first Oregon welcomes a UCLA team looking to stay within shouting distance of the top of the Pac-12 mountain following a .500 weekend at home against the Arizona schools.

Since We Last Met: No. 20 UCLA (12-4 Overall, 3-3 Pac-12)

The Bruins have been nothing if not consistent in their results since Pac-12 play and "Spike Night" started, winning their first match and dropping their second each week of conference play – a win at USC was followed by a loss to Washington State, a win at Utah was followed by a loss at Colorado, and a win against Arizona State was succeeded by a defeat to Arizona. There’s no shame in any of those defeats – Washington State is tied for first in the Pac-12 and ranked 13th in the nation, while Arizona and Colorado are the first two teams out of the AVCA top 25 – but for a team that was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 preseason poll as the preseason No. 12 team in the nation, I’m sure the Bruins hoped they’d have a better-than-.500 record in conference play by this point of the season.

UCLA has had its chances for perfect weeks, but dropped five-set decisions to both Washington State (18-16 in the fifth set) and Arizona. The loss to the Wildcats had to be especially frustrating, as the Bruins blew a 2-0 set lead, hit under .100 in two of the last three sets and were tied 10-10 in the fifth set against the 'Cats.

If the Bruins can pull off the very minor upset (I’m not sure it would even qualify as such yet at this point), UCLA would have to feel good about its chances of getting a road sweep with 1-5 Oregon State next on the ledger. The Bruins play four in a row at home after this trip, so there will be a chance to make up some ground in the Pac-12, especially so if they are able to get within one game of the Ducks after Wednesday night.

The Story so Far: No. 16 Oregon (12-3 Overall, 5-1 Pac-12)

Head coach Jim Moore can recruit. One year after hauling in the No. 4 incoming class in the nation, Moore and staff were able to bring in the No. 2 class in the country behind only Stanford. As such, projections were high for this team, predicted to finish fourth a year after going .500 in league play. And so far, nothing has dampened those expectations. After a couple of losses to top-10 teams in Texas and Florida to start the season, the Ducks ripped off 11 straight wins, included in which was a win over No. 21 Illinois and a 4-0 start to league play.

The problem, up until Sunday at least, was that Oregon had gotten fat on inferior competition. Oregon’s first three conference wins came against Oregon State, Cal and Arizona State, all of whom likely won’t be in the NCAA Tournament conversation. In the non-conference, the Ducks only beat one team with an RPI better than 120 outside of the Illini (San Diego State, 69). However, the résumé got a nice boost when Oregon swept then-No. 10 Washington State, holding the Cougs to a combined 24 points over the last two sets and hitting at least .500 as a team in each of those sets.

The 5-1 start to league play is good and all, but there are no breaks in the foreseeable future schedule-wise – 12 of the Ducks’ next 13 matches come against teams who at the very least will have a good shot of playing in December. The win against Wazzu was a good start, but the Ducks’ mettle is about to be seriously tested.

Three Players to Watch: UCLA

  • #11 Taylor Formico (5’7", senior libero) Liberos dig, and Formico can construct an underground parking lot with the way she does her job. The UCSB transfer posted a UCLA-career-high 36 digs in the five-set loss to Arizona on Sunday and is third in the conference with 4.88 digs per set. After last weekend, Formico moved up to fourth on UCLA’s career digs list, as she now has 1,319 for her Bruin career.
  • #3 Reily Buechler (6’1", junior outside hitter) It’s not often you see an outside hitter go error-free in a match, but that’s what happened with Buechler Friday night against Arizona State, when she hit .571 with 12 kills on 21 error-free attacks in the Bruins’ 3-0 win over the Sun Devils. For the season, she leads the team with 202 kills and 3.37 kills per set.
  • #7 Zana Muno (5’10", sophomore defensive specialist) Muno has been basically everywhere on the court in her short Bruin career thus far. Last year, she was a setter. This year, she has been a back-row player and an occasional hitter, amassing 59 kills so far in 2016 (11 more than all of last year) and is averaging one kill per set despite a four-match stretch this year where she did nothing but play in the back row. She’s had a 13-kill match earlier this season against Pacific and has amassed at least 10 attacks in five of her last six matches.

Three Players to Watch: Oregon

  • #10 Amanda Benson (5’7", senior libero) It doesn’t get much better than Taylor Formico, but Benson is one of those few liberos who can say she has a leg up on the Bruin off-colored jersey-wearer. Benson leads the Pac-12 with 5.02 digs per set and was a big bright spot in the three-set loss to Washington, piling up an eyebrow-raising 22 digs. Currently No. 2 all-time in career digs at Oregon, Benson needs 372 to surpass Katie Swoboda for most all time (with a maximum of 20 matches remaining, she’s gonna need a lot of matches to go five sets for that to happen).
  • #17 Ronika Stone (6’2" freshman middle blocker) One of the big early returns from the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation has been Stone, who in addition to her 1.23 blocks per set (eighth in the Pac-12) is second in the conference with a .420 hitting percentage. The San Jose native (brownie points) is the highest-rated recruit in program history.
  • #6 Lauren Page (6’0" sophomore middle blocker) She’s buried a bit on the overall season stats page, but Page was huge in handing the Cougars their first Pac-12 loss, leading the team with 11 points thanks to seven kills and six blocks (two solo) and hitting .700 in the process.

Three Notes to Know

1.No. 1 Offense vs. No. 2 Defense Oregon hits .306 on the season, which leads the Pac-12 by a mile (the Ducks are fourth in the nation in hitting percentage and are one of just seven teams nationally to hit above .300). UCLA, meanwhile has held opponents to a .152 attack percentage, which is good for second best in the conference. One major reason for that low opponent hitting percentage is that UCLA leads the conference in digs at 18.12 per set. Which side wins out?

2.An array of options for the Ducks Running a 6-2 system where many players are in for three rotations, Jim Moore has been able to foster a lot of potent hitters. On the season, eight Ducks who have played at least 25 sets are averaging at least one kill per set, making Oregon the only team in the Pac-12 that can make that claim.

3.UCLA is getting it done across the board Entering the week, UCLA was one of three teams in the nation who were in the top 20 nationally in four different categories alongside Minnesota and Nebraska. UCLA comes into Wednesday’s match fifth in the nation in digs per set (18.12), 12th in assists per set (13.43), 15th in kills per set (14.33) and 17th in opponent hitting percentage (stat rankings are through games played on Oct. 10).

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