Beach volleyball NCAA tournament predictions
No. 1 seed UCLA beach volleyball will begin tournament play this Friday against No. 8 seed TCU, with the potential to deliver its third national championship in as many years. (David Rimer/Daily Bruin staff)
This post was updated May 7 at 11:13 a.m.
Beach volleyball beat writer
Prediction: 2021 NCAA champions
Coming into this weekend’s NCAA championships, No. 1 seed UCLA beach volleyball (28-3, 10-0 Pac-12) holds the top seed for the first time since the program’s first national triumph in 2018. If their most recent Pac-12 championship victory didn’t give them enough momentum, the Bruins are also the two-time defending national champions.
The blue and gold comes into the tournament with only three losses – the same number of losses it had prior to the Gulf Shores, Alabama, tournament when it brought home the second of UCLA’s back-to-back championships in 2019.
This season’s three losses came against crosstown rival No. 2 seed USC (26-4), with UCLA getting blanked 5-0 in its first encounter and bowing out 3-2 on the following two occasions. In each of these defeats, the team was missing a key starter, playing the first match without sophomore Abby Van Winkle and the last two without sophomore Lindsey Sparks.
With a fully healthy lineup, the Bruins were able to register successive wins over the Trojans by scores of 3-1 and 3-2 on Saturday to secure the program’s second Pac-12 championship.
UCLA’s starting lineup boasts a championship pedigree, as graduate student Savvy Simo, Van Winkle and Sparks contributed to the program’s most recent national championship in 2019. Juniors Lea Monkhouse and Megan Muret, as well as redshirt freshman Jaden Whitmarsh, were also on the team that won it all in 2019.
With championship memories built in Alabama, these players will raise their level and confidence throughout the tournament like they have done all season. All good things come in threes, and a third national championship in a row for the Bruins would be no different.
Beach volleyball beat writer
Prediction: National championship final
Preparation is the key to success.
And after the Bruins’ conference championship, that formula, no matter how cliche it might seem, has never rung truer.
However, that formula will prevent them from hoisting another trophy this weekend.
Even in a COVID-19-affected year, coach Stein Metzger packaged a competitive regular season schedule, as over half of the slate has been against championship-level opponents. There has been an emphasis on durability as well – as evidenced by UCLA’s grueling mid-April program.
But in a pandemic season, travel has been scarce, and this iteration of Bruin beach volleyball has suffered as a result.
UCLA should take care of business against No. 8 seed TCU (26-8, 17-4 CCSA), but beyond that, the picture becomes fuzzy. Despite capturing two wins over its likely second-round opponent, No. 4 seed LSU (25-7, 4-1 CCSA), there’s reason to believe UCLA’s results are a bit inflated.
All of the Bruins’ wins over top-four seeded competition have been in the comfort of their home stadium, Mapes Beach. Thanks to its deep sand, the venue has neutralized teams with attack and block-heavy personnel. It’s a big reason why the blue and gold finally captured its first wins over USC at home in the Pac-12 championships.
In the program’s first season with more matches at home than at neutral sites, the Bruins’ relative lack of preparation in different playing conditions could be the barrier to success in the packed-sand environment of Gulf Shores.
Compared to LSU and No. 3 seed Florida State (32-4, 17-1 CCSA) – teams that have played at the NCAA tournament site this year – UCLA might falter without the advantage it has relied upon all season.
The blue and gold will have to hope the rest of its preparation can make up the difference.
Beach volleyball beat writer
Prediction: Elimination bracket final
The Bruins’ streak of two consecutive national championships will come to an end this year in Alabama.
In my eyes, I see two obstacles UCLA will need to overcome to win its third-straight national championship.
First, the Bruins will need to handle their youth and inexperience. UCLA only has three players on its roster with tournament experience, so there is no way to tell how these young players will react to the most important matches they will play all year.
UCLA’s projected second-round matchup will be against LSU, a team that boasts 11 seniors to the Bruins’ five. The Tigers also have the best first court in college beach volleyball. Seniors Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth are 27-0 this year on the top court, dropping just two sets all year out of 56.
This will be a key matchup for UCLA. If the veteran Simo and freshman Lexy Denaburg can knock off the best pair in the country, nothing is stopping the Bruins.
The other hurdle the Bruins must overcome is finding a way to win away from their own sand. Although the blue and gold have defeated the other three top-four seeds – the only other teams in the tournament I think have a chance of upsetting UCLA – all of those wins have come at Mapes Beach.
This year, the Bruins are 0-2 against the Trojans away from Mapes Beach, and last year went 1-2 against the Tigers outside of Westwood. UCLA is going to need to find a way to continue to play its style of controlled beach volleyball while dealing with sand and conditions many of the players have never seen before.
I think the Bruins will easily get by the Horned Frogs in the first round, but then will get knocked down to the losers bracket by the Tigers. From there, I think they will make a run to the losers bracket finals, but will come up short to either the Trojans or Tigers again.
The lack of both championship and court experience will inevitably be the Bruins’ downfall.