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Scouting report: UCLA men’s volleyball vs. Ohio State, Penn State

By Ira Gorawara and Anthony Aroyan

March 7, 2024 10:34 p.m.

The trifecta of No. 4 UCLA men’s volleyball (14-4, 5-1 MPSF), No. 8 Ohio State (14-4, 8-2 MIVA) and No. 9 Penn State (13-5, 4-0 EIVA) met in the First Point Collegiate Challenge in January, where the Bruins suffered a five-set loss to the Buckeyes and swept the Nittany Lions. Before potentially facing either squad in the NCAA tournament, UCLA will have a chance to avenge its loss to Ohio State on Friday and maintain its record against Penn State on Sunday. Here is this weekend’s scouting report from assistant Sports editor Ira Gorawara – who can’t wait for a weekend of both Bruin volleyball and Pac-12 women’s basketball playoffs – and staff writer Anthony Aroyan – who is not looking forward to finals week.

Ohio State
Coach: Kevin Burch
Starting lineup: S Michael Wright, OPP Shane Wetzel, OH Jacob Pasteur, MB Justin Howard, MB Cole Young, OH Ben Putnam, L Thomas Poole
Strength: Serving
Weakness: Depth and inconsistent block
X-Factor: Jacob Pasteur

Serving is a weapon in volleyball.

The sport offers minimal respite – there’s no holding, pausing or fancy footwork to occupy time.

As a result, rhythm can facilitate a match’s trajectory. Once a team harnesses its tempo, disrupting its stride becomes demanding.

But performance from the service line is akin to hurling a wrench into the gears of a well-oiled machine – inability to contend with serves can falter a team’s fluidity.

Ohio State slots in at fifth in the nation with 1.92 aces per set. It’s been out-aced just once in its 18 contests this season, falling short by three in its five-set loss to Loyola Chicago nearly a month ago. Performance on the service line has anchored all five of the Buckeyes’ most recent victories, as they have escaped each opponent with an ace margin of at least six.

Jacob Pasteur is among the Buckeyes’ biggest contributors to that feat – the outside hitter sits second-best in the nation with .75 aces per set. Ohio State’s veteran handily executes a jump float serve. With a high toss and a deceptive arm swing, the lack of spin on his serves makes it challenging for adversaries to anticipate its orbit.

Straying away from the service line, Pasteur ranks in the top 20 nationally in two other categories – No. 12 in kills per set and No. 15 in hitting percentage. The Buckeyes’ offensive stalwart carried forward his 2023 MIVA Player of the Year recognition, being crowned the same for this year’s preseason. A two-time AVCA First-Team All American, Pasteur has only notched three single-digit kill counts against 14 affairs of at least 10 kills.

Of those 14 contests, Pasteur summoned the largest kill tally of his career against UCLA on Jan. 19. The top-10 showpiece culminated in – fittingly – Pasteur’s 23rd kill to seal the fifth set at 15-13 and snap his team’s five-game losing streak against the 20-time national champions.

The Buckeyes’ elite figures this season are largely concentrated at the top. While Pasteur and opposite Shane Wetzel boast 424 combined kills, the next four players on the stat sheet collectively pale in comparison, coming up 18 shy. Pasteur maintains the lion’s share of the team’s attacking opportunities, with 119 attempts over Wetzel and 484 total.

Ohio State’s inconsistency on the block can prove to be its Achilles’ heel this weekend – beyond its thin bench lineup. Throughout their 2024 campaign, the Buckeyes have amassed 136 blocks at the net to the 136.5 allowed by opponents. In their four losses, the Buckeyes have been out-blocked in all but one, when they matched Penn State’s 10 blocks in the teams’ matchup Jan. 28.

The winningest midwest program’s blocking numbers are also largely contained within the team’s starting lineup – middle blocker Cole Young tallies 61 of the Buckeyes’ 136 total blocks.

Serving may be Ohio State’s strongest weapon – but its shield can be pierced.

Penn State
Coach: Mark Pavlik
Starting lineup: S Michael Schwob, OPP John Kerr, MB Owen Rose, MB Toby Ezeonu, OH Michal Kowal, OH Michael Valenzi, L Ryan Merk
Strength: Hitting
Weakness: Blocking
X-Factor: Toby Ezeonu

In last year’s rendition of the Penn State vs. UCLA scouting report, blocking was pinpointed as the Nittany Lions’ forte.

[Related: Scouting report: UCLA men’s volleyball vs. Penn State, Hawai’i]

While it held true last season – the Nittany Lions out-blocked the Bruins in both of the teams’ encounters last season – coach Mark Pavlik’s arsenal presents a different narrative this year.

In spite of their No. 9 ranking, the Nittany Lions have been limited by a porous group at the net. They rank 35th in the nation in blocks per set, behind every single member of their conference.

The Nittany Lions have let victory slip away in four matches. One thread weaves through the quartet of defeats – unveiling their recurrent motif of subpar blocking.

Penn State was out-blocked by its adversaries in three of the four losses, as the fourth featured a tie, with Stanford and Penn State garnering eight blocks apiece.

Beyond recent showings, UCLA dwarfed Penn State’s block in all but two of the teams’ last 10 encounters – spanning back to 2014. Middle blocker Toby Ezeonu collects 1.29 per set – but beyond the Nittany Lions’ kingpin, the team’s block proves its biggest kryptonite, time and time again.

Despite a lack of presence at the net, Penn State remains perched at the pinnacle of the EIVA, boasting a .722 winning percentage that outshines the conference’s second-best program, Harvard, by a .107 margin.

But volleyball’s battlefield has two sides of the net: offense and defense.

And Pavlik’s troupe has deflected attention from its defensive vulnerabilities through its offensive onslaught.

Penn State manages this offensive edge from its hitting and attacking efficiency. The Nittany Lions’ .320 hitting percentage files in at eighth in the nation, while they maintain a top-15 slot in kills per set with 12.33.

Ezeonu – beyond collecting team-high blocks on most nights – is largely credited for his team’s offensive proficiency. And beyond Ohio’s jurisdiction, the team’s gold mine leads the nation with a .515 hitting percentage.

In fact, Ezeonu is the only player in the NCAA striking above a .500 clip. In January, Penn State’s wildcard had four straight games hitting at .500 or above – the first of which came against UCLA.

While the veteran can make his attacks count unlike any other player in the country, he remains conservative in taking chances, standing at the team’s fourth option in attempts per game.

Penn State’s offensive juggernaut has compensated for its defensive shortcomings, but the sustainability of this imbalance remains uncertain.

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Ira Gorawara | Sports editor
Gorawara is the 2024-2025 Sports editor on the football, men’s basketball and NIL beats and a Copy contributor. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men’s volleyball, men’s tennis, women’s volleyball and rowing beats and a contributor on the men’s volleyball and rowing beats. She is a rising third-year economics and communication student minoring in professional writing from Hong Kong.
Gorawara is the 2024-2025 Sports editor on the football, men’s basketball and NIL beats and a Copy contributor. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men’s volleyball, men’s tennis, women’s volleyball and rowing beats and a contributor on the men’s volleyball and rowing beats. She is a rising third-year economics and communication student minoring in professional writing from Hong Kong.
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