BYU's men's volleyball is built to win now, and the Cougars will get their shot at a fourth national championship starting Thursday, May 2 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. BYU joins a field of Loyola Chicago, Penn State and UC Irvine. The tournament semifinals will be streamed live on NCAA.com, and the championship match will air May 4 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
Schedule: No. 2 UC Irvine vs. No. 3 Loyola Chicago, May 2 at 9 p.m. ET (NCAA.com); No. 1 Brigham Young vs. No. 4 Penn State, May 2 11 p.m. ET (NCA.com); Winners meet in a one-game final on May 4 at 9 p.m. (ESPNU).
This is the Final Four, and every team is still standing for a reason. Here's why each team can win the Division I men's volleyball national championship. Also, check out MPSF coach of the year and BYU head coach Chris McGown in an Off The Block Q&A, where he talks about Penn State and returning to the tourney for the first time in nearly a decade.
No. 1 BYU (25-4)
Qualified by: Won MPSF Tournament title (No. 1 seed)
Key players: OH Taylor Sander (Jr.); OPP Ben Patch (Fr.); MB Russ Lavaja (Sr.).
Why they can win a national title: Taylor Sander has already broke the BYU all-time record for service aces — as a junior and outside hitter. The All-American still has a year to capture the Cougars' first national title since 2004, but this will likely be his best chance to do so with true freshman Ben Patch preparing to serve an LDS church mission and big body Russ Lavaja graduating. Patch, the MPSF newcomer of the year, and Lavaja, a second-team All-American, provide the necessary secondary options to make this BYU team deeper and more ready to handle a Sander shutdown than the previous two seasons. But make no mistake; this is still Taylor Sander's squad, and the Cougars will go as far as he takes them. History is on BYU's side; the Cougars are 7-1 in the NCAA Tournament, with their only loss coming to Lewis in the 2003 title match.
No. 4 Penn State (23-7)
Qualified by: Won EIVA Tournament title (No. 1 seed)
Key players: MH Aaron Russell (RS-So.); OH Peter Russell (Jr.); OH Nick Goodell (RS-So.)
Record vs. BYU: BYU 10-6 (1-1 neutral)
Why they can win a national title: Aaron Russell, the 2013 EIVA tournament most outstanding player, was a prodigy since his career began with the Nittany Lions. The Maryland native burst onto the scene as a freshman, when he put down 203 kills, 2.07 kills per set and a .423 hitting percentage en route to first-team all-EIVA honors. BYU fans will remember him for his nine kills and three blocks on a blistering .727 hitting percentage in a non-conference matchup on April 13, 2013. The sophomore who averages 3.57 kills per set will partner regularly with older brother Peter Russell, who averaged 2.77 kills per set during the regular season and took all-tournament honors, and fellow sophomore Nick Goodell, who averaged 3.22 kills per set.
No. 2 UC Irvine (23-7)
Qualified by: At-large bid.
Key players: OH Kevin Tillie (Sr.); LIB Michael Brinkley (So.); MB Collin Mehring (Jr.).
Record vs. BYU: BYU 41-12 (UCI 2-0 neutral)
Why they can win a national title: The defending national champion Anteaters will be the hungriest team in the Final Four, after falling to Long Beach State in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament. Still, UC Irvine earned the NCAA tourney's lone at-large bid by virtue of a superior rating in the selection committees myriad list of qualifiations, including RPI, national ranking and record against opponents under consideration for the at-large berth.
Kevin Tillie, a French national and outside hitter with France's Junior National Team, leads the team's attack with 351 kills and 3.66 kills per set. Sophomore libero Michael Brinkley, a 2012 alternate for the U.S. national team, is a defensive anchor with 271 digs and 2.51 digs per set. Junior Collin Mehring provides a big body up front, where he averages 1.89 kills and 1.28 of his team's 2.2 blocks per set.
No. 3 Loyola Chicago (22-9)
Qualified by: Won MIVA Tournament title (No. 2 seed)
Key players: Joe Smalzer; OH Thomas Jaeschke; S Peter Hutz
Record vs. BYU: BYU 4-1 (0-0 neutral)
Why they can win a national title: The Ramblers are already making history with their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and having nothing to lose by putting up a run in the national tournament. Loyola stunned top-seeded Lewis, 23-25, 25-23, 10-25, 25-22, 15-7 in the MIVA tourney final to claim the league's autobid.
Joe Smalzer, the MIVA tournament's most outstanding player, is the go-to guy on offense for the Ramblers after he blistered Lewis for 20 kills in the tourney final. He was joined on the MIVA all-tourney team by Thomas Jaeschke and Cody Caldwell, who also took advantage of the Flyers' shaky defense.
Though BYU owns the all-time series with Loyola Chicago, the Ramblers took the last meeting between the two schools, a 3-0 sweep in 2011.