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OPINION: Even I admit the Arizona beach volleyball team should not have made the NCAA tournament

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Marison Bilagody | The Daily Wildcat The members of the Arizona beach volleyball team cheering on their teammates.

Another season came and went for the Arizona beach volleyball team. Even after finishing No. 9 in the final season rankings, the SandCats failed to make the NCAA tournament. I loved covering this team all year, and I wrote about how I think this was the most underappreciated team on campus

Nevertheless, even I had to come to terms with them not making the tournament. At first, I thought they were snubbed and were gearing up to roast the NCAA for selecting the wrong teams. Upon further analysis, I realized I was wrong and that the right teams were selected. Here is why I agree with the decision of leaving the SandCats out of the tournament. 

Regular-season schedule

While the SandCats did go 21-4 on the season, their schedule was not as strong as some of the teams that made the tournament. Arizona opened season play with seven straight non-ranked opponents. The next two games they played were against ranked opponents and they dropped both matches. 

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Compare that to TCU, one of the teams who squeaked into the tournament, who opened its regular season against four straight top-15 opponents, and TCU won three of the matches. All eight teams who made the tournament had a tougher schedule than the SandCats. While that is out of Arizona’s control, it is then up to the team to showcase what they have against ranked opponents. 

Record against ranked teams

Speaking of ranked teams, this was another area where the SandCats underperformed in the regular season. While they went 16-0 against unranked opponents, the SandCats only finished 5-4 against ranked opponents. Their four losses came against Cal Poly, Stanford, UCLA and Grand Canyon University. 

Of those four teams, three went on to advance to the NCAA tournament. Only GCU did not advance. What this sadly says was that had the SandCats faced any top-tier opponents at the tournament, it was very likely they would have been eliminated early on. The NCAA is not looking for either of the eight teams to be an easy opponent, so maybe that is what Arizona would have been in their eyes. 

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No strategy to defeat USC and UCLA

This might be me nitpicking, but I feel it must be addressed. I have grown up in Southern California my whole life, and after living here for 26 years, there are a few things that are a guarantee in the sports world in the Golden State.

  1. The Los Angeles Lakers are Los Angeles’ team, not the Los Angeles Clippers.
  2. Dodger Dogs are the best hot dogs of any baseball stadium.

And finally —

3. USC and UCLA are the best beach volleyball teams in the country.

I stressed this with many players during the regular season because since both of those teams are in the Pac-12, the road to the NCAA championship goes through both USC and/or UCLA every year. 

When the NCAA finally approved beach volleyball as an NCAA sport back in 2015, all five championships since then have been won by — wait for it — USC (three times) and UCLA (two times). 

When I asked what their strategy was for taking down the nation’s best teams, I got lackluster answers that involved playing hard or just needing luck, but nothing concrete. I was expecting to hear that the SandCats were going to practice twice as much or that they were going to live in the film room to study every move they make. 

Instead, Arizona was swept 5-0 by UCLA in their only regular-season matchup, and every SandCat pair lost in two sets. Seems as if playing hard and luck were not enough at all.

Poor performance at the Pac-12 championship

The final nail in the coffin for the SandCats was their performance at the Pac-12 championships. After a convincing win against rival ASU, a non-ranked opponent, Arizona then had to go up against a top-ranked opponent once again. I wonder who it was? Yeah, you guessed it, UCLA. 

Again, after they defeated ASU, I asked multiple players what their strategy was to beat UCLA, especially since they were embarrassed by them earlier in the regular season. Sadly, I was given the same answers by the SandCats of playing their game hard and getting lucky. I knew right then and there they were doomed, and sadly, I was right. Arizona was swept once again 3-0, standing no chance against UCLA. 

All hope was not lost though. They were still in the tournament and had a chance to still win the championship or at least finish high enough to be considered for the tournament. The SandCats would face Cal later in the day, a lower-seeded team who they defeated in the regular season 4-1. 

Out of nowhere, Cal found the winning formula and upset Arizona 3-2. I believe this loss was the difference between Arizona not making the tournament and Stanford making the tournament. Stanford played the final day of the tournament and was one game away from playing for the Pac-12 championship. Even though they lost to USC in the contenders' final, it was enough for Stanford to slip into the eighth and final tournament slot.

While this was hard for me to accept, I believe this team has a bright future next year. My only advice is simple. Please have a strategy to beat USC and UCLA because you will see them again for many years to come.


Follow Sean Fagan on Twitter 



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