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Arizona volleyball prepares to face Missouri in NCAA Tournament

Two young teams look to advance to play the defending champs

Arizona volleyball practices at Nebraska, the site of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Coming from a conference that features eight members of the 64-team field, the No. 23 Arizona Wildcats have faced off against almost every type of team they might run into at the NCAA Tournament. Their first-round opponent, the Missouri Tigers, will be most like facing California—but with some added twists.

“I think their outside hitters are very similar to Cal,” Arizona coach Dave Rubio said. “Good, explosive kids. I think Cal’s middles are terrific and I think (Missouri) has two really good middles. The difference is that Cal’s middles stayed in front of the setter. Missouri has an excellent slide-attacking middle, which is the one that goes behind the setter. It’s a little bit easier to defend when the middles stay in front in a 5-1 when the setter is in the front row.”

If that’s an accurate comparison, the Tigers could be a handful for the Wildcats. While the Golden Bears ended up 10th in the Pac-12, they gave Arizona everything they could handle in the teams’ single matchup this season.

Regardless of who they face, the Wildcats are just happy to end the one-year absence from the tournament, especially after having to overcome significant injuries throughout the year.

“Obviously, you put in a lot of hard work in the spring and the summer,” Julia Patterson said. “And all through the season we’ve been battling a lot of injuries. To know that the work has paid off, it means a lot to all of us.”

Now, the Wildcats and the Tigers must battle for the likely opportunity of facing defending NCAA champion Nebraska on its home floor. Who will they lean on to get that done?

Players to watch for

Missouri put four players on the All-SEC team, and another on the conference All-Freshman team. On the other side of the net, Arizona placed Kendra Dahlke on the All-Pac-12 team, while Patterson and Devyn Cross were named honorable mention.

Dahlke leads the Pac-12 in kills per set and is third in total kills despite missing six matches this season. Patterson is fourth in assists per set and second in total assists in the conference, while Cross led the team in blocks for the third straight year.

Sophomore outside hitter Kylie Deberg paces Missouri on the offensive end. Deberg was one of the Tigers to make it onto the All-SEC team.

The 6-foot-4 transfer from Illinois came out of high school ranked No. 15 on the PrepVolleyball’s Senior Aces list. That came a year after being named one of the top 50 juniors in the country. She hasn’t disappointed since arriving on campus.

In her first season in the SEC, she was eighth in the conference with 3.58 kills per set. Her 404 total kills were sixth in the conference. She also found easy points off the serve, placing third in the conference with 57 total aces and .50 aces per set. Her 4.4 points per set were good enough for seventh in the SEC.

Middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn also made the All-SEC team. The 6’2” senior put up 1.25 blocks per set, good for second in her conference. She leads what has been a strong part of the Tigers’ success this season.

Right-side hitter Dariana Hollingsworth was the third member of the Tigers to get All-SEC honors. The sophomore averaged 2.5 kills per set this season. She was joined by classmate Leketor Member-Meneh, who averaged 2.96 kills per set.

The offense runs through redshirt freshman setter Andrea Fuentes. Fuentes became the featured setter in a 5-1 offense for the final 14 matches of the season. During that period, the team went 11-3 and she had 11.00 assists per set.

How they got here

Missouri ended the season fourth in the SEC with a 23-7 overall record and 13-5 conference mark. According to the final RPI numbers for the regular season, the Tigers went 2-5 against the top 50 teams in the nation.

Arizona finished fifth in the Pac-12, which sent its top eight teams to the tournament. The Wildcats went 8-10 against the top 50 teams in the RPI and 7-9 against teams in the NCAA field.

How they compare

While the AVCA places Arizona one spot above Missouri, the RPI favors the Tigers. The Tigers ended the regular season ranked No. 31 in the RPI, while Arizona ended up No. 39.

For both teams, having to go on the road during the first round can be attributed to weak non-conference schedules. For Arizona, it can also be laid at the door of missed opportunities in the countries’ deepest conference.

Even with the increased competition in their conference, the Wildcats were statistically superior to the Tigers in most offensive categories. Missouri equals or surpasses Arizona at the net, though, despite not being considerably taller across the front.

The Tigers average 2.59 blocks per set, good for second in the SEC. On the other side, Arizona is tenth in the Pac-12 with 2.15 blocks per set.

Missouri has two players in the top nine of the SEC. Munlyn leads the team, but gets help from, Tyanna Omazic. Omazic’s 1.03 blocks per set are eighth in the league. Arizona’s leading blocker, Devyn Cross, is 14th in the Pac-12 with 1.06 b/s.

Missouri’s strongest play is at the net, where Arizona will have to find a way to get around the Tigers’ effective block. The Wildcats have had a balanced attack this season, though, with both Dahlke and Paige Whipple averaging double-digit kills per match, and Cross, Candice Denny, and Katie Smoot providing solid back-up

Young Cats

Both the Tigers and the Wildcats will be relying on a core group of young players. Arizona only starts one senior. Missouri relies heavily on sophomores and a redshirt freshman, while also starting a single senior.

The biggest difference is that the young Tigers have been to the NCAA Tournament, ending their season against No. 1 Penn State in the Sweet Sixteen last year. It was the second straight season they had advanced that far in the tournament.

For Arizona, the freshmen and sophomores will be making their first trip to the tournament. While the team made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2016, they didn’t make the field last year. They are relying on their coaches and upperclassmen to prepare them for the experience.

“Like Dave said, at this point, all the rankings are gone, all the numbers don’t matter,” Whipple said. “At this point, it’s just who’s going to play their best. I think that’s something that’s really exciting to look forward to is that it doesn’t necessarily matter who’s ranked the highest or the lowest anymore. Everything’s fair game and everyone’s at the same place right now.”

After an injury-plagued regular season, the Wildcats also get to look forward to having their entire team healthy for the tournament. The injuries also allowed some players to get playing time during the regular season that could prove useful in the postseason.

“Now, I think is the second or third week that we’ve been with our full line-up,” Dahlke said. “So, going into the tournament with our full line-up is obviously a plus for us.”

“I think [the injury issue] has given people experience that maybe would not have had that court experience,” Patterson added. “So, I think it gives us a little bit more depth when we go into this weekend.”

The Wildcats will need both the experience and the depth if they hope to advance. A win over the Tigers will likely be rewarded with an appointment with the champs.

How to watch

The match will begin at 3:30 p.m. MST on Friday, Nov. 30 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The live stream can be accessed by visiting the Nebraska Live Events page close to the start time. Arizona fans can also follow along via Arizona Live Stats.