Reassessing BYU men’s volleyball: Approaching the home stretch

“Unexpected” was the one word that junior Kupono Browne used to describe this team.

“We weren’t ranked before the season, no one saw us being a contender in the MPSF or the overall NCAA,” Browne said, and he isn’t wrong. The Cougars were picked to finish 6th in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and were only in the “receiving votes” category in the preseason AVCA coaches poll. However, it’s not necessarily hard to see why.

Last year wasn’t exactly the year Shawn Olmstead had imagined for his squad, as they went a dismal 8-17 overall, 3-9 in conference, and lost in the first round of the MPSF tournament. Not to say that there weren’t positives–like senior Davide Gardini who averaged a whopping 4.11 kills per set in his final crusade as a Cougar–but it is safe to say the team didn’t quite meet expectations.

2023 has been a different animal altogether. After a successful opening weekend, the now 12-6 Cougars jumped into the polls at No. 13 and haven’t let up, gradually climbing to No. 8, the same spot they’ve held for the last 5 weeks. In conference play, the Cougs have a 2-4 record that currently has them occupying 5th place.

However, the Olmstead and company will have a great opportunity to move up the ranks after a bye this weekend. Left on the schedule are No. 7 Pepperdine, USC, and No. 10 Stanford, who are third, sixth, and fourth respectively in the MPSF. Depending on how the final 6 matches go, the Cougars could conceivably finish as high as 3rd in the conference, which would mean a lot heading into the postseason, for multiple reasons.

The NCAA tournament has expanded in recent years to now consist of a 7-team field. The MPSF, MIVA, EIVA, Conference Carolinas, and Big West conferences each receive an automatic bid, awarded to the conference tournament winner. The final two spots are given to at-large teams, which is decided by the selection committee based on RPI ranking, strength of schedule, and several other metrics.

For a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, the Cougars first have to survive the MPSF tournament, which they won for the 8th time just 2 years ago in 2021. If they can close out the season on a hot streak and pull out a third-place finish, BYU could secure a second round matchup with Grand Canyon, would would be a much more favorable matchup than UCLA. The Cougs took the Antelopes to 5 sets just two weeks ago, falling 17-15 in the final set of a hotly contested match.

If they’re able to pull that upset, a rematch with UCLA for a ticket to the NCAA tournament would be the final boss. A win would obviously guarantee a spot in the Big Dance, but a closely contested loss might be enough to get them into an at-large conversation. Regardless, it would be an incredible finish for a very young, over-looked Cougars team.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; there’s still 6 matches to go before the team can even think about the postseason. Next up is No. 7 Pepperdine, who will make the trip to Provo for a pair of matches on March 24th and 25th. A couple of wins there, and the “unexpected” Cougs could start to get hot, at just the right time.

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