It’s never too early to consider postseason prospects. The Arizona Wildcats have put themselves in a position where those prospects look solid—especially when compared to last season.
The Wildcats had their first 3-0 weekend at the Kansas Invitational last weekend when they beat Kansas, Morehead State, and Syracuse without dropping a set. While dropping a match in each of their first two tournaments wasn’t optimal, a closer look reveals a team that has a much better NCAA Tournament outlook than it did at this time last year.
Arizona had an extremely easy non-conference schedule in 2018. When they suffered an unexpected road loss to New Mexico State, it was reasonable to wonder whether a weak schedule and some questionable losses would keep them out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. As it turned out, they got in, but had a very tough draw and were ousted in the first round.
Despite having an unexpected home loss to Samford in the first week of 2019, they are in a much stronger position simply because coach Dave Rubio upgraded the schedule. The Wildcats go into their final weekend of non-conference play ranked No. 29 in the unofficial RPI kept by Figstats. Of their nine contests, six have come against the Top 100, and Arizona has gone 4-2 in those matches.
Even the loss against Samford is looking better than it did last month with the Bulldogs now sitting at 6-1 on the season and No. 64 in the RPI. (Samford lost to Loyola Marymount on the court in the Cactus Classic, but that match has since been listed as a No Contest on their schedule and their record adjusted.) The Wildcats have not played anyone outside the top 200 so far.
That will change this weekend, but Arizona should still emerge with a much better outlook than they had last year. The goal is to keep perfecting the new offense and improve regardless of the level of competition.
“Alabama State—their setter went down,” Rubio said. “It would be like if Julia went down for us, it’d be—as good as Hina is—it would be a struggle for us. So, Alabama State’s been struggling. They just lost last night. They’re (3-8). So, they’re trying to figure some things out in terms of the setting position.
“New Mexico State is going to be very good, as they always are. And there’s always....a rivalry. We play them home and away almost every year now. S,o I like playing those guys. They are tough and they’re talented and well coached. So that’ll push this Friday night.
“Sacramento State’s kind of a rebuilding phase. So, the hope is that we put ourselves in a position to win every single match by how we play. We just can’t get sloppy on our end. We need to continue to make progress every single week. And so, the following week, we open the conference and have ASU on the road and USC. So, the key for us to just continue to improve.”
Middle blocker Devyn Cross is just ready to get the non-conference season over and the Pac-12 schedule started.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so ready,” she said. “I’m so ready to play conference. I’m excited because we’ve been keeping up with all the other teams, just like preseason on. It’s like, ‘Okay, we are ready, just bring on conference.’ We’re ready to see how it goes. I’m most excited just to start and get out there.”
Let’s take a closer look at the three teams the Wildcats will face before they can get to conference play.
Note: The Figstats unofficial RPI is updated as matches around the country are completed. This can cause rapid fluctuations. The numbers used in this article were accurate as of 6:20 p.m. MST on Sept. 19, 2019.
Alabama State Hornets
Unofficial RPI: 307
Arizona will kick off with what should be their easiest matchup of the weekend and the season. The Hornets are the only team outside the top 200 of the RPI that the Wildcats will face this year.
In a down year for the three-time defending SWAC champions, Alabama State has not only played a soft schedule, but it has lost handily to that schedule. The Hornets were picked to finish first in the SWAC before the season started, but have won only 14 sets in 11 matches.
As Rubio mentioned, a major issue for Alabama State has been the loss of their setter. Last year, they played with not one but two setters who had won SWAC Setter of the Year. They don’t have that luxury this season.
The Hornets have given playing time to two setters, but are relying heavily on Madison Beasley, a freshman out of Gilbert, Arizona. Beasley is doing a solid job, winning two straight SWAC Setter of the Week honors, but it’s a big step up from Perry High School to starting setter in college at a Division I school. She is averaging 5.9 assists per set in 11 matches with 5 starts.
McKenzie Boland has appeared in 10 matches this season. She has added 3.71 assists per set in her playing time.
The offense relies on Bayle’ Bennett and Krysta Medearis. They are the only two players on the team averaging at least 2 kills per set. Bennett leads the Hornets with 3.23 k/s. Medearis comes in at 2.73 k/s.
How and when to watch
First serve is at 10 a.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 20 at McKale Center. All three Arizona matches are available to stream on Arizona Live Stream.
New Mexico State Aggies
Unofficial RPI: 57
The Aggies and Wildcats know each other well. Not only do the teams play regularly—including twice last season—but Rubio’s brother Keith Rubio is the associate head coach in Las Cruces.
NMSU have lost only once this season, a rather suprising straight-set loss to Portland at home. They were able to right the ship and win their final two matches in that tournament, but they would certainly like to prove that it was a fluke...and that their victory over Arizona last year was not a fluke.
New Mexico State has been very efficient, as well. They have won 24 of 30 sets played and have only been pushed to 5 sets once.
The Aggies have four seniors, but their offense is led by underclassment. They come in with three players accounting for at least 3 kills per set. Two of them are sophomores.
Redshirt sophomore Savannah Davison leads the way with 3.33 k/s on a .244 hitting percentage. Sohomore Cat Kelly is right behind her at 2.53 k/s. Senior middle blocker Megan Hart rounds out the trio with 2.45 on .469 hitting. That percentage is tops on the team for players with at least 10 total kills this season.
NMSU has two capable setters in their 6-2 system. Junior Natalie Mikels averages 5.77 assists per set to go along with the 4.24 a/s contributed by sophomore Krysten Garrison.
The Wildcats will have the advantage of size, but they know that they can’t let down. The Aggies showed that they’re a worthy opponent last season when they beat Arizona. Samford showed the Wildcats this season that it can happen again.
How and when to watch
First serve is at 7 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 20 at McKale Center. All three Arizona matches are available to stream on Arizona Live Stream.
Sacramento State Hornets
Unofficial RPI: 179
The Wildcats will wind up the tournament against the other Hornets. It will be their final match before facing rival ASU to kick off Pac-12 play.
The Hornets’ offense is powered by Sarah Davis and Macey Hayden. Davis is averaging 3.76 kills per set so far this season, and Hayden adds 2.34 k/s.
Middle blocker Cianna Andrews is not far behind. Her 1.97 k/s and 1.17 blocks per set have helped her to 2.6 points per set, good for third on the team.
Sophomore setter Ashtin Olin is tallying 7.69 assists and 2.31 digs per set.
The Hornets come in hoping to end a three-game losing streak, but history isn’t on their side. In the teams’ five meetings, the Wildcats have won four times, including a 3-1 victory last year in Sacramento. Sacramento State last beat Arizona in 1999.
How and when to watch
First serve is at 12 p.m. MST on Saturday, Sept. 21 at McKale Center. All three Arizona matches are available to stream on Arizona Live Stream.