The goal this season for the Arizona Wildcats was to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season. With a weak non-conference schedule, Arizona (17-7, 6-6 Pac-12) needs to find wins against the top teams in the league if it hopes to accomplish that.
Friday’s trip to Washington State provides such an opportunity.
The Wildcats are comfortably in the AVCA Top 25, climbing two spots to No. 21 and picking up over 100 ranking points despite dropping a match to Oregon on Sunday. It’s entirely conceivable that they could be ranked in the Top 25 and miss the postseason, though.
After last weekend, Arizona dropped six spots in the RPI to No. 43. Coming down the stretch, the Wildcats have five matches against teams with better RPI numbers than they have: Washington State, Washington, Utah, UCLA and USC. The problem is that four of those five teams have already beaten the Wildcats once this season, and Arizona will continue to be shorthanded for at least another week.
“The RPI, I feel like we need to be in the thirties in order for us to get in,” Arizona coach Dave Rubio said. “And, if I was to give you a magic number ... even if we got to 21 wins, I still feel like the RPI ... the conference RPI isn’t that high, that’s the problem. Normally, the conference RPI is pretty high and if we beat a few teams, that’s going to elevate our RPI. But the teams aren’t as high as they need to be. Like Washington State may be, outside of Stanford, the highest RPI team, and I think they were at 12 last week. That’s why that match here was such a critical match for us. Because had we beat them, it would have been almost a slam dunk for us to get into the NCAAs. But now, we got to win some matches.”
Relying on the setter
Although Rubio said Kendra Dahlke is improving, there’s no timetable for her return to practice. In her absence, there will be more pressure on junior setter Julia Patterson to keep the offense moving.
“It just kind of affects the decision making a little bit,” Patterson said about the shifts in the lineup this season, especially with Dahlke out. “Obviously, Kendra’s always a go-to. And I have to be more careful about who I’m setting, whether Katie [Smoot] or Paige [Whipple] is maybe having an off game or if they’re struggling. But having the middles stay consistent has been helpful.”
She has certainly been up to the challenge. Patterson ranks No. 4 in the Pac-12 for assists per set. She also surpassed 2,000 career assists in the loss to Oregon moving her to No. 9 on Arizona’s career assists list with 2,015.
“I had no idea about it until my mom called me after the game,” Patterson said about the milestone. “I don’t really keep up with stats. Probably not the best thing, but I had no idea. Excited though.”
She has accomplished the milestone in less than two years as the regular setter. As a freshman, she saw limited time as the backup to 2016 Pac-12 Setter of the Year, Penina Snuka. She also missed five matches last season while out with an injury.
This season, Patterson has tallied 970 assists while averaging 11.15 per set. With eight regular season matches to go, she’s on pace to head into her senior season with at least 2,283 career assists.
Since beating Arizona in Tucson last month, Washington (13-9, 5-7) and Washington State (17-5, 8-4) have gone in opposite directions. The Huskies have won only one match, going 1-5 the last three weeks with the lone win coming over the 12-12 Cal Bears. The Cougars are 4-2 over the same stretch.
When the teams came to McKale Center, Rubio believed Washington State would be the tougher match because Washington is in a rebuilding year. His team came out flat and failed to compete against the Huskies, though, losing in three sets.
“We don’t really talk too much about what happened in the past,” he said. “We draw some comparisons, like I felt like the fourth game against Oregon was a lot like the fourth game against USC. But Washington was the first time we were without a six, without Paige or Kendra. So, that really took us a full match to kind of adjust to that.”
The Wildcats came out much sharper against WSU two days later, losing in five. Rubio said he believes if they had played against Washington the way they played against the Cougars, they would have been in a better position to win.
Now, they are moving on to the tough return trip, beginning at Washington State. Both Rubio and Patterson believe the match in Bohler Gym will be an especially difficult test.
“It’s always obviously hard to play on the road, especially at Washington State,” Patterson said, noting the strong fan support in Pullman. “There’s always extra pressure there for me.”
“Any time you’re traveling from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, that alone makes it difficult,” Rubio added. “And, then, you’re playing in a venue at Washington State that is definitely a home court advantage. The kids are right on top of you. They’re going to have a really good crowd. They’re an excellent team, right now the second-best team in the conference. It’s just a tough place to play. Without question, that’s the most difficult place for us to play in the conference.”
Rubio believes offensive adjustments will be the most important factor for Arizona this weekend.
“I feel that based on the fact that we’re such a solid serve-receive team, that we should offensively kind of change some things for us,” he said. “We need to definitely start to move the ball around a little more. Whether that’s setting the middle or setting the outside a little more.”
Washington State has gone 7-0 at home this season, but Arizona will need to pull out a win or two against this type of team if they hope to get to the tournament. They also need to take care of business against teams like Washington, who are ranked but have some vulnerabilities. The opportunities are quickly disappearing.
How to watch
The Washington State match begins at 7 p.m. MST on Friday. It can only be viewed via Washington State’s Live Stream.
Sunday’s match against Washington begins at 1 p.m. MST and can be viewed live on the Pac-12 Network’s Washington channel.
Arizona fans can also follow both matches via the university’s Live Stats.