An interesting three-team race for the Big West Conference women’s volleyball crown was on full display at the Stan Sheriff Center in the last few days.
Hawaii, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, at two losses in conference apiece, are all very much still in the running to claim the BWC regular-season championship and automatic berth to the NCAA tournament with either four or five games remaining.
No. 21 UH (20-3, 10-2 Big West) is undoubtedly the best positioned of the three after its five-set defeat of UCSB on Friday and its four-set victory over two-time defending champion CP on Sunday.
The three teams — UCSB is 19-3 and 9-2 and CP is 16-7 and 9-2, with a meeting still to come between those two — aren’t necessarily bitter foes on the nights they aren’t facing each other.
In fact, Mustangs coach Caroline Walters said she is hopeful of a rising tide to raise all three.
Walters was asked postgame Sunday about the difference that UH junior hitter Brooke Van Sickle made in the match. Van Sickle, who had a double-double of 12 kills and 11 digs, was not present for the Mustangs’ sweep of the Wahine at Mott Gym last month due to an injury. Walters chose to put the question in a big-picture context.
“She’s a wonderful all-around volleyball player. I think having her is an asset to Hawaii, and hopefully will help them along in the NCAA tournament,” Walters said. “We’re rooting for them once they get there. We want the Big West to become a conference that people look at, with hopefully three-bid teams this year with us, Santa Barbara and Hawaii. That’s the goal for all three of us.”
The metric that is ostensibly used more than any other by the NCAA tournament selection committee, the Ratings Percentage Index, had Hawaii at No. 17, UCSB at 29 and Cal Poly at 41 going into last week, before the league’s three prominent teams were in action here.
(An updated RPI will be put out Monday.) UPDATE: After the new RPI came out, UH is up to 11, UCSB is up to 26 and CP remained at 41.
Walters sees one specific way that three teams could get into the 64-team field. Of the three, Cal Poly, which has played without star Torrey Van Winden all season due to injury, probably faces the toughest odds. UH has the inside track on the automatic berth in a two- or three-team tiebreaker scenario because it swept UCSB.
What might be holding the Big West back is the mediocrity of all teams beyond UH, CP and UCSB. UC Davis, the next-best team in terms of overall record, is barely over .500, and it gets worse quickly if you scan lower in the league (see below).
“I think we have to win out. We have to beat Santa Barbara on Saturday and play the four remaining matches very, very well,” Walters said. “Do we need the automatic bid at that point? I don’t think so. I think if we win out, I like our chances of getting an at-large bid. But the selection committee, it comes down to RPI, and that thing’s pretty funky. You try to figure it out with how you schedule. But Hawaii’s figured it out this year. They’ve done an incredible job, and so hopefully this match will help our RPI even with a loss.
The Big West received two bids the last two years, one in the two years before that, and two in 2014.
You have to go back to 2013 for the last time the BWC put three teams in the field. Cal State Northridge, UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii made it that year, as Walters accurately recalled. Hawaii, the 11th seed, got to host a subregional that year, losing to BYU in straight sets in the round of 32. CSUN also reached the round of 32, beating Colorado State in five before losing to USC in straight sets. UCSB went one-and-done to San Diego.
Walters, a former player at Santa Clara, is a firm proponent of the regular season deciding teams’ postseason fates.
“People are starting to talk about a conference tournament, which I think is a horrible idea,” she said. “If you can play tough matches and have a high RPI, this is the way to do it.
“I think if none of the three of us drop a match to the opponents other than ourselves, it’ll be interesting once the final RPI comes out. But I’d like to think that we’ve all done enough to get at-large bids if we’re not the automatic qualifier.”
Through Nov. 16
|UC Santa Barbara||10-4||.714||20-5||.800|
|Long Beach State||9-6||.600||12-15||.444|
|Cal State Northridge||7-8||.467||12-15||.444|
|Cal State Fullerton||4-10||.286||12-13||.480|