Provo • Two weeks ago, BYU men’s volleyball coach Chris McGown figured the Cougars pretty much had an at-large berth into the NCAA volleyball tournament wrapped up. After all, his team had clinched the No. 1 seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament earlier than any team in league history, was ranked No. 2 in the country, and had a sparkling 18-4 record, 18-2 in league play.
What’s more, the national tournament is bigger than ever this year, with six teams making it to the finals April 29 to May 3 in Chicago, rather than four. Champions from the MPSF, EIVA, Conference Carolinas and MIVA will get the four automatic bids, and the remaining two spots, the at-large bids, will be chosen by a selection committee.
USC at BYUAt Smith Fieldhouse, Provo
» Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
» Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal
» No. 8 seed USC (16-10) at No. 1 seed BYU (18-8)
But something happened to the Cougars when the calendar hit April. They started losing, dropping back-to-back matches at Hawaii early in the month before falling at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA last weekend.
Now, the coach says BYU probably has to win a couple MPSF tournament games to secure at at-large bid.
"Who knows how many?" McGown said. "At least a quarterfinal win, maybe a semifinal win. Stanford is playing well right now, and Pepperdine, UCLA, Santa Barbara are, too. … I don’t know what the committee looks like in terms of ‘what have you done for me lately’ versus the body of work. The weekend losses maybe made [an at-large bid] a little bit less of a sure thing."
For 18-8 BYU, the MPSF tournament begins Saturday in the Smith Fieldhouse against eighth-seeded USC (16-10), a dangerous club, but one it handled twice in the regular season, 3-2 in Los Angeles on Feb. 1 and 3-0 in Provo on Feb. 28.
"They’re good," Sander said of the Trojans, who have the best setter in the country, junior Micah Christenson. "In this league, everybody is good. We couldn’t really slow them down [at USC], although we won. When they came here, we were able to slow their hitters down and pass really well, and that made a huge difference."
If BYU wins, it will host next week’s MPSF semifinals (Thursday) and finals (Saturday). If the Cougars lose, the semifinals will be played at the home of the tournament’s top remaining seed.
The Cougars have won 23 straight matches at home, a streak that dates back to February of 2013, and are expecting a crowd of more than 4,000 to help them recover from the recent slide.
McGown used some quotes from Viktor Frankl, author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, about enjoying the freedom to choose positive attitudes in the face of difficult circumstances, to motivate his team this week, he said.
"We are exactly where we want to be," he said. "We are the No. 1 seed in the tournament, and we are playing the rest of the matches here in the Fieldhouse, and we feel like we have put in a lot of really good work over the course of the season. We like our chances."
BYU sophomore setter Tyler Heap sprained an ankle against UCLA, and hasn’t been able to practice this week. He’s listed as day-to-day.
"We are hopeful [Heap will play], but it is hard to say," McGown said, noting that sophomore Robbie Sutton filled in admirably in Heap’s absence against the Bruins.
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