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Arizona volleyball returns home to cap non-conference play, hopes to rebound from two tough road tournaments

Courtesy of Arizona Athletics

There are advantages to playing three non-conference matches over a single weekend in a tournament setting. Less travel, saving money, getting more wins, and reducing the challenges of scheduling 12 matches before conference play are chief among them. There’s also a reason that the best programs in the country don’t schedule that way. For the rest of the conference, that can become an issue.

“A lot of the elite teams, the top teams, will only play two matches in a weekend,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “Ninety percent of the teams are like us, which is you’re trying to get as many wins as you can against a good enough RPI team. And so you want to walk out of the non-conference season at 10-2 normally depending on the level of competition... The elite teams like Stanford or some of the other teams are just like, ‘We’re fine with eight.’ The problem with that is that those teams in the conference, elite teams in the conference, aren’t getting RPI wins for us. So say that we beat UCLA, they don’t have enough other competition to help teams that are in the middle. We’re a team that’s in the middle, and so there’s a real philosophical difference for us.”

It’s certainly the prerogative of the elite teams around the country to look after their own interests. Besides, the teams in their own conferences need to help themselves by winning those four-team tournaments they schedule despite the pressures they present.

For Arizona, playing all of its non-conference matches in tournament settings may have had real consequences for its win-loss record this season. Fortunately for them, those road challenges will come to an end this weekend as they return home for the Wildcat Classic against UC Riverside, San Diego State and Texas Southern, three teams that they should beat fairly easily.

The problem for Arizona is that the damage already done may affect them at the end of the year. What will be the repercussions of dropping matches to teams outside the top 100 when it comes time to hear their name called for the NCAA Tournament?

In both of the Wildcats’ road tournaments this season, they have faced playing matches with less than ideal rest against opponents who had more time to recover and prepare. That’s the nature of being one of the visiting teams in an early-season tournament.

Being the host doesn’t just keep down travel expenses and allow players to sleep in their own beds. It also ensures that the team gets the best possible circumstances to recover between matches.

Playing road tournaments means that the Wildcats end up on the other side of the scheduling. In the Springhill Suites Invitational, which is hosted by both New Mexico State and UTEP, Arizona was already scheduled to play two matches with less recovery time on Friday.

That crunch became even more extreme when both early matches of the day ran to five sets, cutting the period between Arizona’s two matches that day. The Wildcats played 15 sets over approximately 24 hours that weekend. The fact that they were able to emerge 2-1 was a win for them.

“I haven’t coached too many teams that would be able to do what they did,” Rubio said when they returned from the trip to Las Cruces. “It shows a lot of character.”

A similar scenario unfolded when the Wildcats visited Texas last weekend. Rubio thought he had made the right decision by foregoing a place in a tournament at Texas State. He didn’t like the times being offered, so he opted to play the top-ranked Longhorns and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Austin instead.

Playing Texas first was likely a benefit for the Wildcats. They battled the Longhorns in four close sets on Friday evening in what was probably their best match of the season.

Libero Kamaile Hiapo was flying all over the court, ending her night with 14 digs and four assists. Outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge led the match with 16 kills. The team served well as a group, with Hodge, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Emery Herman ending with two aces each. Arizona kept Big XII Player of the Year Logan Eggleston off balance all match. You couldn’t ask for much more—except for a win.

But there was still a considerable challenge facing Arizona. The Wildcats had very little turnaround time before facing Notre Dame, which was coming off six days rest. Friday’s match against Texas ended after 7 p.m. MST, and Arizona was back on the court facing the Irish at 11 a.m. MST the next morning.

Based on the early season results of both teams, it was a match that Arizona should have won. They just weren’t able to respond. They pushed Notre Dame to five sets but seemed to completely run out of gas in the deciding frame.

It didn’t completely torpedo the gains from the match against Texas. Just playing the Longhorns helped the Wildcats improve their unofficial RPI* from No. 54 to No. 51. Things would have been much better without a loss to a Notre Dame team that came into the weekend at No. 206 in RPI.

The Wildcats won’t have the logistical issues this weekend that they have faced for the last two. They also won’t have a lot of opportunities to improve their RPI. Arizona will be the only team in town that comes in above No. 222.

It’s their last chance to tune up before entering Pac-12 play, where eight of the 12 teams are currently within the top 65 of the unofficial RPI. At this point, the Wildcats just need to win.

*All unofficial RPI numbers in this article come from Figstats. They are accurate as of 3:33 p.m. MST on Sept. 16, 2021.

UC Riverside Highlanders

Date, Time and Location: 10 a.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing information: The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record: 3-4

RPI: No. 226

History: The Highlanders play in the Big West, which cancelled women’s volleyball last season. They were 6-22 in 2019. Their last winning season was in 2006 when the team went 16-11 overall, but only 4-10 in the Big West.

What to expect: UCR is a young team with nine underclassmen on the 16-player roster. The Highlanders have just five players from the 2019 roster who are still with the team: Amarachi Osuji, Kayla Taitt, Ayanna Kimbrough, Dejah Dade and Mylei Vargas-Deason. Of that group, only Osuji, who leads the team with 2.63 kills per set, starts for UCR.

San Diego State Aztecs

Date, Time and Location: 6:30 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing information: The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record: 1-8

RPI: No. 222

History: The Aztecs went 6-9 against an all-Mountain West schedule last spring. As a program, they have hovered around .500 both overall and in conference play for the last several years.

What to expect: SDSU was picked to finish sixth in the MWC this season, but the early going isn’t backing up that projection. Currently, they stand in dead last with the same record as Nevada. The problem for the Aztecs was that the Wolf Pack was supposed to finish last. Meanwhile, other teams that were supposed to be near the bottom of the standings—like 8-1 New Mexico—have opened the season aiming to prove something.

The Aztecs can hang their hats on the fact that they have played a more difficult schedule than some of the teams in their conference. That may prepare them to be more competitive against the Wildcats than if they had avoided major conference opponents and strong mid-major teams.

Texas Southern Tigers

Date, Time and Location: 1:30 p.m. MST on Saturday. Sept. 18, 2021 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing information: The match will be televised on Pac-12 Insider. Pac-12 Insider is a new offering by the conference that features free live sporting events and studio shows on various smart TV platforms. Details are available on the conference website. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record: 1-8

RPI: No. 326

History: The Tigers went 2-10 in the spring including 2-8 in regular SWAC play. They went out in the first round of the SWAC Tournament. In 2019, they were 11-18 overall, but a respectable 10-8 in the SWAC. They earned the No. 6 seed in the SWAC Tournament in 2019, but were knocked out in the opening round by third-seeded Jackson State.

What to expect: The Tigers are historically one of the better teams in the SWAC, often advancing to the semifinals of their conference tournament. They just don’t threaten teams in major conferences like the Pac-12 in the non-conference portion of the schedule. This season, they are also struggling against mid-major teams from other leagues.

As a team TSU has just 297 kills on the season. While their opponents are managing 13.4 k/s, the Tigers find the floor just 9.9 times per set. That won’t be a recipe for success against an Arizona team that has 12.3 k/s against a much tougher schedule.