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Arizona volleyball notebook: On improved talent, postseason scenarios, gratitude, and more

Arizona volleyball senior outside hitter Paige Whipple jousts at the net.
Courtesy of @ArizonaVBall on Twitter

When the NCAA Division I Council approved possible guidelines for the move of 2020 fall championships to the Spring, it was natural to celebrate what looked like a return to some kind of normalcy. Arizona Wildcats volleyball coach Dave Rubio isn’t quite ready to pronounce those recommendations a done deal, though.

We caught up with Rubio just two days after the Council sent its recommendations to the NCAA Board of Governors. The recommendations were just one of the topics about which he shared his thoughts.

Is approval from the Board of Governors a mere formality?

Rubio does not see the recommendations being approved by the Board of Governors exactly as written. The Council approved a spring season that would start on Jan. 22 and wrap up on Apr. 10 with an Apr. 11 selection for an amended version of the NCAA Tournament.

While Rubio was glad to have a date on the calendar for the regular season to commence, he was less sure about the tournament being approved in the proposed form. The reasons were pretty simple: money and criteria for selecting at-large teams.

Under the guidelines, the tournament would consist of 32 automatic qualifiers and 16 at-large bids. All teams can play up to 28 matches. Those who played in the fall can spread those 28 matches over fall and spring, so they would pick up play again after Jan. 22 if they chose. Those who play just in the spring would play all 28 matches after the spring season commences.

The question for Rubio is whether it’s really economically feasible to put on a 48-team tournament. With the financial problems currently facing athletic departments across the country, it’s a concern that can’t be easily dismissed.

“I think the Board of Governors will look at it and the cost of going from 32 teams, which is 50 percent of the normal bracket, to a 48-team bracket is a $9 million difference,” Rubio said. “We spread that over all the teams that are competing for the championship, that’s a lot of money. So, I think that’s one reason why the potential to go a 32-team bracket is there.”

Rubio also has concerns about how the 16 at-large teams would be selected in a season when teams are playing on different timelines and most teams will only play members of their own conferences.

“The biggest question is what what are they going to use as a criteria to select those 16 at-large, because there’s no non-conference and there’s no RPI,” Rubio said.

In some conferences, teams aren’t even playing everyone in their own league. The ACC, for example, began its season on Sept. 17. Teams were broken up into pods of five. Each team will face the other four members of the pod twice each. That will be the extent of the conference season.

Programs are allowed to play non-conference at their discretion, but only up to 10 total matches including the eight conference matches. Looking at various schedules, like that of Florida State, indicates that many teams will only play eight matches this fall.

There is also questions of competitive balance within the ACC’s conference schedule.

North Carolina head coach Joe Sagula told Volleyball Mag, “There is no competitive balance attempted here. It’s strictly based on geography.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues with having just automatic qualifiers in the tournament. Such a scenario would eliminate most of the top teams in the country from national title contention because of the heavy concentration of top talent into just two conferences: the Pac-12 and the Big Ten.

Only one team from each of those powerhouse conferences would be allowed to even try to win the title. Only four teams not currently in the Pac-12 or Big Ten have ever won a national title and none have done it since Texas in 2012.

How will the shortened season affect players’ plans?

If the season were to unfold as Rubio suggests, that would likely eliminate Arizona from the postseason. While the Wildcats are extremely talented, they are also extremely young and play in one of the toughest leagues in the country.

Might that affect the plans of players like Paige Whipple or Akia Warrior, both of whom would be playing their final seasons in a normal world?

Rubio’s affection for Whipple—his lone four-year senior this year—has always been obvious. On both a personal level and an athletic level, his admiration for her is never in doubt. So, in a perfect world, he would love to have her back.

“We haven’t really crossed that bridge with those guys,” Rubio said. “I don’t know Akia as well because she’s new to the program, but I know Paige is on a schedule to graduate in the spring. Whether or not we get a season or not, I think she has a desire to come back, potentially, but we haven’t really discussed it. Just wait and see what happens in the spring, and then we’ll cross that bridge.”

The other topic is whether a late NCAA Tournament might allow two-sport athlete Lauren Ware to join the team after the women’s basketball season is over. Like the issue of returning seniors, that’s not something that’s been discussed yet.

“I would think that women’s basketball is going to make a deep run,” he said. “That’s the plan.”

The dates for the women’s basketball tournament are still undecided, but it usually ends the first week of April. With volleyball tournament selections scheduled for Apr. 11, that would give Ware very little time between sports.

It’s not out of the question, but the decision is entirely hers to make.

“If there’s an opportunity to come back and she wants to come back and start to play and train, I would certainly welcome her back with open arms,” Rubio said.

A talented group and a lot of gratitude

When asked about his players, Rubio is especially enthusiastic about his outside hitters, whom he calls “a really talented, young, great group of hitters with a great level of talent.”

“I think that was reflected in the class that was ranked No. 7,” he said. “And I can see why they were ranked.”

That level of talent isn’t merely athleticism. It’s also more advanced volleyball skills. Unlike some previous years, the incoming freshmen come from bigger club teams giving them more experience against higher competition levels.

“From a general aptitude standpoint, they’re further along than the players we’ve recruited in the past,” Rubio said. “Just their general volleyball knowledge and ability to function on the court is much, much greater than it has been in other past classes we’ve had.”

The middles are also coming along. With Ware off with the basketball team, the group consists of junior Zyonna Fellows, transfer Merle Weidt and freshman China Rai Crouch.

Fellows is entering her third year in the program and Weidt was able to do some work with the team last spring.

Crouch would probably prefer to play on the right side, Rubio said, but the circumstances require her to stay in the middle. To her advantage, she’s a “quick study,” he said.

The talent level doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to learn, though. Right now, the team is limited in how much they can do in the gym. Only three players can be on each side of the net in a competitive situation.

Rubio said that he thinks the players would prefer to move on and practice in more match-like scenarios, but he is enjoying the ability to focus on fundamentals and—most importantly—being in the gym with his players.

“For me, every day that I get a chance to spend in the gym with my players, I feel very fortunate,” Rubio said. “I think if we can pull off the spring season, I will feel very fortunate about that. And I think every coach in the country who coaches volleyball should feel the same way. The fact that they’re trying to squeeze this in amongst all the sports and trying to get volleyball an opportunity to have a championship, I think that shows the commitment by the NCAA.”