Season Preview: Preseason favorites to win 2014 NCAA championship

It’s that time of year when every team is hopeful, but there are those select teams have good reason to be even more optimistic about their chances of ending the year as NCAA champions.

With the regular season starting in less than a week, several teams begin the year as the favorites to be crowned national champions in May.


Check out the preseason favorites to win the 2014 college men’s volleyball national championship.

UC IRVINE
The Anteaters last season became the first men’s volleyball team in almost 20 years to win back-to-back NCAA championship and now have their eyes set on a possible three-peat. UC Irvine returns a majority of starters from last year’s championship team, including Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Preseason All-American outside attacker Connor Hughes, middle attacker Collin Mehring and libero Michael Brinkley. However, the team will have to replace its starting setter Chris Austin and its top offensive option outside attacker Kevin Tillie, who both finished their college careers last year. The Anteaters also enter the regular season after a relatively quiet fall training camp as the team opted not to play any preseason matches. Coach David Kniffin said in an interview with Off the Block in October that he decided not to schedule any preseason matches because his team needed more time off after the emotional toll of making back-to-back NCAA championship runs.

BYU
There is only one thing missing on senior outside attacker Taylor Sander’s college men’s volleyball resume: a NCAA championship. The three-time All-American and 2013 Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year in his final college season will now try to bring BYU its first NCAA title in more than a decade. BYU last season won the MPSF championship and came within one match of winning the national title before losing to UC Irvine in the NCAA finals. Despite Sander returning, the Cougars will have to replace a three starters, including two All-Americans, from last year’s team. The chances of BYU winning the NCAA championship could come down to the development of its two freshmen international recruits. The Cougars for the upcoming season added outside attacker Kiril Meretev, a member of the Bulgaria Junior National Team, and opposite Tim Dobbert, a member of the German Junior National Team.


LONG BEACH STATE
The team that exceeded everyone’s preseason expectations last season returns as a legitimate contender to win a national championship. Long Beach State ended the 2013 season losing in the MPSF Tournament championship match and narrowly missing out on the lone at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite being ranked No. 2 in the national coaches poll. The 49ers return a majority of starters from last season and had three players earn Preseason All-American honors. Among the players returning for the 49ers includes outside attacker Taylor Crabb, the 2013 AVCA National Player of the Year. With coach Alan Knipe back on the Long Beach State sidelines for a second consecutive year after he coached the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 2012 Olympics, the 49ers have a strong chance to win its first NCAA championship in more than 20 years.

UCLA
The second year of John Speraw’s tenure as the UCLA head coach has the Bruins back in their traditional role as a preseason favorite to win a national title. UCLA after reaching the MPSF Tournament semifinals last season returns two Preseason All-Americans, including senior outside attacker Gonzalo Quiroga. Speraw also added a record-setting recruiting class for the upcoming season. The Bruins tied an all-time best signing eight recruits who were Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selections. UCLA enters the upcoming season trying to win its 20 NCAA championship in program history and its first national title since 2006 — its longest championship drought in the school history.

LOYOLA
After reaching the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in its program history, the Ramblers have a chance to play for a national title on its home court. The Ramblers in the same season that they will play host to the NCAA Tournament in May enter as the overwhelming preseason favorites to win the MIVA. Loyola received all but one first-place vote in the conference preseason coaches poll. In addition, the Ramblers have two players named Preseason All-Americans — including outside attacker Joseph Smalzer who was named the Preseason MIVA Player of the Year. If Loyola reaches the NCAA Tournament, it would also become the fourth team in the last five years to make the tournament the same year it is playing host to the event.

PENN STATE
It’s almost fitting on the 20-year anniversary of winning a NCAA Tournament that was played in the Midwest, Penn State is a preseason favorite to another NCAA Tournament that will be played in the Midwest. Penn State since its first national championship in 1994 has been the one constant to the NCAA Tournament during the last 20 years. The Nittany Lions have reached every men’s volleyball final four during the last 15 seasons. In addition, outside attacker Aaron Russell, the 2013 co-EIVA Player of the Year, highlights the starters returning for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were also picked to win the EIVA in the conference preseason coaches poll, receiving seven of the eight first-place votes.