'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 8 UCLA at No. 7 Washington

UCLABruins.com, GoHuskies.com

Who: No. 8 UCLA at No. 7 Washington in women’s volleyball action.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT, with Elise Woodward and Amy Gant on the call.

The 2016 Spike Night campaign ends with a bang, as UCLA and Washington play a de-facto Pac-12 championship game in the final week of the regular season.

What’s at Stake: No. 7 Washington (24-4, 14-4 Pac-12) and No. 8 UCLA (23-5, 14-4 Pac-12)

Simply put, this match is for pretty much all of the marbles, as the winner of Washington-UCLA gets at least a share of the Pac-12 title, and since this is the only meeting between the Huskies and Bruins, the winner also gets the tiebreaker over the other for NCAA at-large vs. automatic qualifier purposes if only these two teams finish the season with identical conference records.

The only thing from making this a true conference championship game is that Stanford is one game back and could potentially tie for the Pac-12 title if it wins out against Oregon and Cal, while both the Huskies and Bruins split their final two games of the season.

We’ll break down the tiebreaking scenarios later, but just know this – UCLA and Washington are playing scorching-hot volleyball coming into this, as both have won five straight, with the Bruins having won 11 of 12 overall and the Dawgs having dropped just three sets during their win streak.

For a league that does not have a postseason tournament, this is as big as it gets. Not only does the winner get at least a share of the Pac-12 title and control its own destiny to an out-right conference championship with a win in the season finale (Wazzu for the Dawgs, USC for the Bruins), and not only does the conference champ get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the conference champ probably has a leg up on tournament seeding, which could be huge.

Unlike recent years, the top seeds will host up until the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, meaning if you get a top-four seed, you don’t have to leave campus for the first four rounds of the tournament. Neither team figures to be a serious contender for a top-four seed (Washington is No 11 in RPI, UCLA is No. 12 in RPI; Stanford actually has the best RPI ranking in the conference at No. 9), but logic would say that the closer you are to the top four, the better, so as to avoid higher-seeded teams until later rounds.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it – this is the biggest Pac-12 Networks Spike Night in the history of humankind, so if you have any interest in volleyball, American history, human history or life in general, you should probably tune in.

Three Players to Watch: UCLA

  1. #11 Taylor Formico (5’7" – senior, libero) If you’re a frequent reader of the Spike Night Chronicles (in bookstores nationwide; wishful thinking) or you watch UCLA volleyball, you’ve seen or heard this name plenty. The recently-minted three-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for 2016 had 42 digs over seven sets last weekend against the Oregon schools, but the work she did last Wednesday on Spike Night against the Beavs was unreal – 27 digs in three sets (one shy of the school three-set record), including a monster 12 in the first set alone. Formico, who has double-digit digs in 49 straight matches, has taken over the Pac-12 digs per set lead from Oregon’s Amanda Benson with 5.15.
  2. #10 Jennie Frager (6’5" – senior, middle blocker) I haven’t given her a ton of love in previous Spike Night previews, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that Frager is seventh in the conference in blocks per set (1.15, a team high) and third in the conference in hitting percentage (.365). She was a beast against Oregon, going for 15 kills on .636 hitting with seven blocks in the four-set win over the Ducks.
  3. #1 Jordan Anderson (6’0" – senior, outside hitter) – The West Virginia transfer isn’t coming off her best performance (nine kills is fine enough, but the .080 hitting isn’t), but she is less than a hundredth of a kill per set off the team lead in that category despite going under her average of 3.18 in her last four matches. In other words, she’s due.

Three Players to Watch: Washington

  1. #13 Bailey Tanner (6’1" – junior, setter) Consider me old-fashioned, but I’m a 5-1 kinda guy, so when I see that Tanner leads the Pac-12 with 10.91 assists per set, I know I’m going to be in for a treat.
  2. #15 Kara Bajema (6’2" – freshman, middle blocker) – Washington State and Stanford are the top two teams in the nation in blocking, so it’s a fair caveat to say that Bajema leads all non-Cardinal/Cougar Pac-12 players with 1.31 blocks per set (that’s officially fifth in the conference, but as we’ve stated, the Cougs and Card are in another stratosphere on the blocking front, so you can say she leads all Pac-12 mortals in this category).
  3. #28 Crissy Jones (6’2" – junior outside hitter) – Don’t overlook the service game, yo. The No. 1 canned response to a “what it did take to win this match” question in postgame volleyball interviews is “serving and passing,” so please do take note that Jones is second in the conference with 0.33 service aces per set.

Three Notes to Know

  1. The last time they won the Pac-12 UCLA (seven) and Washington (four) are two of the four most-frequent Pac-12 title winners, with the two trailing Stanford’s 11 titles and Washington behind USC’s five. The Huskies have won at least a share of two of the last three conference titles, taking down co-champ honors with USC in 2015, while UCLA is looking for its first conference title since 1999.
  2. NCAA Tournament picture for the Pac-12 It’s looking like eight Pac-12 teams will make the NCAA Tournament, with the top eight teams in the conference standings all safely in (UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Oregon, Utah, USC, Washington State and Arizona). The mid-50s were the RPI cutoff for at-large teams in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, and eighth-place Arizona is currently sitting at No. 31 in the RPI, so they should be good (of course, winning a match or two this weekend wouldn’t hurt matters). The Pac-12 teams furthest down the RPI line who figure to be locks or near-locks for the NCAAs are No. 43 USC and No. 45 Washington State, so they appear to have some wiggle room.
  3. Tiebreaker Scenarios for the league’s NCAA auotmatic qualifier  Washington, UCLA and Stanford are all locks for the NCAA Tournament and pretty much locks to host the first two rounds, but one of these teams will get the auto-bid to the tournament, which goes to the Pac-12 champion (the Pac-12 recognizes co-champions, so this is merely an exercise in technicalities). If the winner of UCLA-Washington also wins its final regular-season match, then it’s easy – that team wins the Pac-12. But what if we get a 15-5 bottleneck? Here’s how it could look:
    1. UCLA and Washington tie for 1st  winner of Wednesday match has the tiebreaker since it’s the only meeting between the two this year and gets auto-bid to the NCAAs.
    2. UCLA and Stanford tie for 1st  UCLA gets the auto-bid, as the Bruins defeated the Cardinal twice this year.
    3. Washington and Stanford tie for 1st  Stanford gets the auto-bid, as Stanford defeated the Dawgs twice in 2016.
    4. UCLA, Stanford and Washington all tie for 1st, with UCLA beating Washington in this case, UCLA would be 3-0 against Stanford and Washington, so the Bruins would get the auto-bid.
    5. UCLA, Stanford and Washington all tie for 1st, with Washington beating UCLA in this case, UCLA would still get the auto-bid, as UCLA would be 2-1 against Washington and Stanford, Stanford would be 2-2 against UCLA and Washington, and Washington would be 1-2 against Stanford and UCLA.
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