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Men’s water polo NCAA tournament predictions

UCLA men’s water polo returned to the top of the national rankings in the latest poll but was left without a bye in the NCAA tournament, meaning the Bruins will have to win three games in four days to defend their title. (Alexia Saigh/Daily Bruin)

By Kyle Boal, Ricardo Garcia, and Cole Lizar

Dec. 2, 2021 2:57 p.m.

No. 1 UCLA men’s water polo (19-3, 1-2 MPSF) will begin its title defense with a quarterfinal matchup against No. 11 Princeton (26-7, 8-2 NWPC) before potentially facing No. 3 California (20-4, 4-0) in the semifinals. Tied atop the national rankings with the blue and gold, No. 1 USC (17-2, 2-1) commands the other side of the bracket, with a potential championship rematch in the cards for Sunday. Daily Bruin Sports predicts the Bruins’ chances at repeating as national champions.

Kyle Boal
Daily Bruin senior staff
Prediction: NCAA champions

Despite entering the NCAA tournament with four straight losses a season ago, the Bruins found a way to play their best water polo in their final games.

With the odds stacked against it, UCLA won three games, including matches over Stanford and USC, to claim its fourth national championship in seven years.

The odds are stacked against the Bruins once again this year – not because of their play in the pool, but rather tournament seeding out of their control. After winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, UCLA was seeded behind both at-large bids USC and Cal.

After a final tuneup match against Princeton on Thursday, which the Bruins should win roughly 14-6, the blue and gold will draw the only opponent it has yet to defeat in 2021. UCLA has lost all but one contest to Cal since 2020.

Home-pool advantage should be beneficial for the Bruins, who won the championship when last hosting the NCAA tournament in 2015. Stopping 2020-2021 MPSF Player of the Year and Cal center Nikolaos Papanikolaou has historically not been the problem for UCLA, but rather, the blue and gold must defend and contain contributing players.

If I had to put my tuition on it, I would take the Golden Bears to edge out the Bruins based on previous matchups. But since my tuition is not on the line, I optimistically believe UCLA will overcome its toughest adversary.

Overcoming Cal will lead, in all likelihood, to a matchup with USC, a program gifted a path to the championship on the other side of the bracket. Without scoring in the second half, the Bruins were able to defeat the Trojans in the MPSF tournament by holding their crosstown rivals to five goals. Replicating this level of defensive performance is the key to the championship for the blue and gold.

It’s clear the MPSF champions somehow ended up with the hardest tournament path of any team in the conference that made the tournament. Nonetheless, UCLA has proven over the last decade that it plays its best water polo when it matters most.

Ricardo Garcia
Daily Bruin reporter
Prediction: NCAA semifinals

There’s one reason why I am pessimistic about the Bruins repeating as national champions.

That reason is the Cal Golden Bears.

They have had UCLA’s number since last season – and this year, they handed the Bruins their worst defeat of the season.

If that 16-9 loss had occurred early in the season, I would not be as worried. Since it was right before the MPSF tournament, however, it is concerning.

UCLA also wasn’t done any favors by the seeding committee. Beating the No. 1 team in the country, USC, in a postseason game should have carried more weight than a one-goal loss to its crosstown rivals in the regular season. Alas, the committee thought the Trojans’ win was reason enough to place USC as the top seed, giving it a cakewalk to the championship game.

Cal’s seeding was the most interesting part of tournament selection. It lost twice to USC, lost to Stanford and lost to Pepperdine, which flamed out of the first round of the Golden Coast Conference tournament. Losing to the Waves should’ve been the loss that significantly weakened the Golden Bears’ resume, but apparently the committee had its mind made up.

As a result, UCLA’s path to a repeat is not very favorable, requiring an extra quarterfinal game and a semifinal matchup with Cal.

Being at home could possibly tip the scales in the Bruins’ favor. If they bring their own marching band like USC did a few weeks ago in the crosstown splashdown, they can generate a nice home-pool advantage.

But in all seriousness, unless UCLA has answers for Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg and center Nikolaos Papanikolaou, its season ends at home this year.

Cole Lizar
Daily Bruin contributor
Prediction: NCAA champions

The odds seem to be stacked against the Bruins this year.

But despite the adversity they are bound to face along the way, I have faith they will bring home the hardware.

UCLA is riding on momentum after winning the MPSF tournament, but MPSF champions have not fared well in the NCAA tournament over the past five years, with only one team successfully winning both the MPSF and NCAA tournaments in the same season over that span.

This week, UCLA surpassed Cal, claiming the No. 1 national ranking, while its Northern California rival was demoted to No. 3 in the nation. Despite their lower ranking, the Golden Bears received a bye in the opening round of the tournament, while the Bruins did not.

UCLA will face Princeton in the opening round, in a game I believe will just be a tuneup for the Bruins. This means UCLA will see Cal in the semifinals of the tournament. I think the winner of that game will win it all.

One of the only things going for the Bruins is poorly-reasoned sports logic – they have lost four straight matchups against the Golden Bears, so they must be due for a win this time around.

Despite the dominance Cal has displayed over the past two seasons, UCLA has home-pool advantage in this tournament, and I predict the blue and gold will pull off a glorious victory – in overtime – and send the Golden Bears home.

That leaves UCLA facing its crosstown rivals in the championship game, a rematch of last year’s championship. The two teams have already met twice this season, with each team winning one of the matchups.

In the final crosstown splashdown of the year, I predict the Bruins will beat the Trojans and take NCAA championship No. 120 home to Westwood.

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Kyle Boal | Sports senior staff
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
Ricardo Garcia | Sports reporter
Garcia is currently a reporter on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the swim & dive, track & field and men's water polo beats.
Garcia is currently a reporter on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the swim & dive, track & field and men's water polo beats.
Cole Lizar | Sports contributor
Lizar is currently a Sports contributor on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's water polo beat.
Lizar is currently a Sports contributor on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's water polo beat.
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