For the first time this season the top two ranked teams will be across the net from each other.
No. 2 BYU (13-4, 9-3 MPSF) will travel to play No. 1 USC (13-1, 13-1 MPSF) for a two-match series Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles. Both teams are in first and second place in the MPSF and have been the top ranked teams in the coaches poll and media poll for multiple weeks.
In addition, the Cougars enter this weekend leading the nation with a 3.13 blocks per game average and have won nine of their last 10 conference matches.
Off the Block conducted an interview earlier this week with BYU interim head coach Rob Neilson to discuss his team’s success in the first half of the season and the upcoming match between No. 1 and No. 2.
This is the first of two Q&As Off the Block will publish leading up to the BYU and USC series. The final Q&A is with USC coach Bill Ferguson and will be published Friday.
Off the block: Coach you play No. 1 USC in a two-match series this weekend. What are your initial thoughts on these matches?
Rob Neilson: We are excited to play them. USC is good team and has lots of talented players. They are talented at each position and have good depth, which helps make their practices good and competitive. Defensively and offensively they are talented and it is going to be a good test for us. We have some good players and are training hard every day in the gym. This is going to be competition at its best, and we need to do what we do.
OTB: This weekend is No. 1 versus No. 2 and as always any time the top two teams play each other there is some extra hype surrounding the match. Is your team paying any attention to the building up for these matches?
RN: We think about it, but every week in our conference is a challenge. We just got done playing Santa Barbara, another top ranked team. We have played many top 10 teams and we have so many teams in this conference that are highly ranked. However, there is always something special about playing a top team in the country and they got a nice team. No. 1 versus No. 2 doesn’t happen all that much. We are excited, and it will be a great competition.
OTB: What has to happen this weekend for you to consider it a success?
RN: We want to play our best and if we play our best then we can win a couple a matches. We have a standard and expectation to play our best and to win matches playing our best. Those are our standards. Our players don’t except anything less than that. We need to play with passion and play hard, and if we do that we can be proud of that effort and build from that.
OTB: Statistically this weekend is one of the best defenses going up against one of the best offenses. What are your thoughts on that aspect of these matches?
RN: USC is good on both sides of the ball. Offensively we know the game of volleyball comes down to serving and passing. USC has so many weapons and they can set them in every rotation and that put a lot of pressure on a team. We know we have to serve tough and get them into more tendencies and play the percentages. If we’re playing well and sharp, I think we are athletic enough to play with their athletes, and we just need make enough plays to give ourselves a chance to win
OTB: Right now BYU is leading the nation averaging more than three blocks per game. Why has your block been so effective last year?
RN: I think we have room grow blocking. It’s nice to get some blocks and to be in leading the nation in blocks. We have some good athletes on our team. What is exciting about this team is they are executing and there is still lot of room to grow discipline and reading game. We feel we can get that much better. Futi Tavana is our big middle attacker and he has just continued to progress and develop into a great blocker.
OTB: Can you elaborate on the development of Futi Tavana, especially when you consider he moved to middle attacker less than two years ago?
RN:It’s been unbelievable. He is strong and big, but he is also athletic and quick. He moves quickly. Guys 6-8, 230 pound are not move like that. Tavana jumps well and he sees the game, and that’s where he really has progressed. Offensively he has matured and worked to improve arm swing and hitting with range. He has spent time really working with our setter and has come a long way. All the credit goes to him and his work ethic.
OTB: Long Beach State was able to really slow down Murphy Troy in the USC’s last match, holding the outside attacker to a season low attack percentage. Were you able to take anything from that match and apply it to your game plan?
RN: Long Beach served the ball very well, and we know the game of volleyball comes down to serving and passing. They were able put USC in a situation that made them more predictable and they could not bring all their guys forward and get them in system. We have a good serving team and like serving in Southern Cal. You can hit the ball heavier there and can hit it with more room for error.
OTB: When your at home opponents usually talk about having to adjust their serving to the altitude. Is the same true for your team when you are playing on the road and out of the altitude?
RN: When you come up to Provo, the ball doesn’t turn over as much and you can’t hit it as hard. So when in Provo it’s harder for other the guys. The opposite is true when we are on the road and you are just able to hit harder and find the court more often. For us, it’s also different receiving and the ball comes much more faster and it is a little difficult. Either way our guys in southern California have to be prepare to receive it sooner and than in Provo. The opposite is true up here, and we have advantage. It works both ways going to down to Southern Cal and ball comes on you faster.
OTB: This is something your team has deal with frequently, but something your players are able to adjust to before the match or does it take the first game to adjust to the altitude?
RN: We get an opportunity practice there on Thursday night and we do some sever-receive Friday morning. Our guys feel comfortable once the match starts. It is not something that our guys think about once the match starts. I think guys do nice job keeping it out of their mind and making the change and getting ready to go play.
OTB: Last year your team just missed out on the getting the automatic bid. As that been a source of motivation for your team this year?
RN: Absolutely. We have a program where we have the opportunity to compete and win national championships, and when you haven’t been to the Final Four for a few years that motivates you. Losing so close and missing out on that opportunity last year to play for a national championship stings and gives you an extra drive over the summer to train and helps push us to compete. We don’t want to have to feel that way again.