The Roundtable: Breaking down No. 1 Long Beach State vs. No. 2 UCLA

Compiled by Off the Block special contributor Brandon Johnson

The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country will face off twice in less than a week beginning with a match on Saturday night.

Long Beach State and UCLA on paper are evenly matched, and both teams have been dominant this year. The 49ers have yet to drop a match, and UCLA has one blemish on the resume while collecting four wins against top-five ranked teams.

In order to fully understand which team has the advantage in the upcoming match, Off the Block formed a roundtable with some of volleyball media members. Jonathan Bates (@MPSF_Bias), Tiff Wells (@TiffersHI), Brandon Johnson (@VB_GrowtheGame), Rob Espero (@robonthemic) and Vinnie Lopes (@vinnielopes) all weighed in on a variety of subjects.

[Editor’s note: All stats referenced are prior to UCLA’s sweep against USC on Wednesday night]

Setter: Josh Tuaniga vs. Micah Ma’a

Bates: Tuaniga and Ma’a are clearly the best two setters in the nation. Any of the other 40 teams in Division I-II (outside of UC Irvine and Hawai’i) would die to have either as their setter. LBSU is the top team in terms of hitting percentage, while UCLA is second. UCLA is tops in the nation in kills per set, and naturally, Ma’a is tops in the nation in assists per set. (Tuaniga is sixth in the nation in terms of assists per set.) The clear advantage, statistically speaking, for Ma’a over Tuaniga, is serving. Ma’a ranks 11th in the nation in terms of aces per set, while Tuaniga ranks No. 52.
Advantage: UCLA

Wells: Both Ma’a and Tuaniga are worth the price of admission. Volleyball fans appreciate the athleticism and knowledge of the game from two of the best players (not just setters) in the game, and they are in the same class (both are Juniors). I’ve yet to see Tuaniga and the Beach this year (they will be in Honolulu come April) but if not for the Ma’a sportscenter saving play, UCLA and UH on night two goes to five sets. Ma’a is not a traditional setter as is Tuaniga, meaning they go against the grain with their set distribution and as an opposing blocker, you have to keep that in mind and not try to guess where they will set the ball. Both are excellent servers (Ma’a with 58 aces his freshman year; Tuaniga is tough because he’s a lefty), both have USA Volleyball experience. I discussed this with Chris McLachlin (Spectrum Sports analyst for UH Volleyball), and we both agreed that with Ma’a, fans should expect the unexpected. You don’t know what to expect from him when he runs an offense and that could basically throw out the scouting report a team has on him.
Advantage: Toss Up

Johnson: Fans of college men’s volleyball get to witness greatness every time Tuaniga and Ma’a take the court. Both players are winners, having consistently won championships at the high school and club level. However, neither has brought home a NCAA title yet. Tuaniga runs a fast offense and his set placement is impeccable. The 49ers are hitting an astounding .429 on the season due in large part to his setting. However, I think the Bruins have the advantage here as Ma’a excels everywhere on the court. He is a tremendous server and defender to go along with setting. The Bruins are hitting an impressive .363 on the season while playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Because of the all-around skills that Ma’a possesses, this provides a small edge to UCLA.
Advantage: UCLA

Espero: Both setters are so different from a style perspective: one is a deep-disher, the other wrist-flicker. One thing is for certain they both know their hitters, offenses and are aggressive offensively (not afraid to dump often) and from the service line. This was a tight category for me, but what tilts the scales Ma’a’s way is his ability to make plays happen. The kid has been on SportsCenter Top 10 three times in two years for goodness sake!
Advantage: UCLA (slim)

Lopes: Both are likely going to be finalists for the 2018 Lloy Ball Award and have been by far the top setters in the nation so far this season. Their greatness really prevents either team from having a clear advantage. However, for the sake of this segment I’ll take Tuaniga. Tuaniga got the majority of playing time this summer when both Ma’a and him played for the United States at the FIVB U21 World Championship.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Opposite: Kyle Ensing vs Christian Hessenauer

Bates: This is the one position where I believe LBSU has the clear advantage, even though the serving (Ensing No. 77, Hessenauer No. 94 in the national rankings), blocking (Ensing N. 30, Hessenauer No. 21in the national rankings), digs (Ensing No. 87, Hessenauer No. 85in the national rankings), and kill stats (Ensing No. 21, Hessenauer No. 15 in the national rankings) are comparable. Ensing is hitting an efficient .424 on the season, good for sixth in the nation, while Hessenauer is hitting .321, which is good for 32nd best.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Wells: I only say this because he has more on the floor experience but that’s not his fault. For Hessenauer, he was in a numbers game early in his career because UCLA went with the modified 6-2 system that kept Ma’a and Hagen Smith on the floor as setters for the whole time. Hessenauer played way better in night two (20 kills) than in night one (seven kills) out here in Honolulu last month. To me, not enough pub and cred goes to Ensing because everyone looks at TJ DeFalco (which isn’t a bad thing because it’s merited). For his size, Ensing is one of the best front-row players in the country. The way he attacks every single ball, no matter if it’s in or out of system, he really goes for it. But at the same time, he’s a smart player. He’s one of the main reasons LBSU is undefeated and atop the rankings.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Johnson: In his first year of regular, steady playing time, Hessenauer has become a consistent scorer for the Bruins. In my opinion, he has exceeded expectations this year. Hessenauer has one thing working against him however. He is not Ensing. Ensing has been a solid performer since he stepped foot on the Long Beach State campus, but he has become a superstar in 2018, and the clear favorite to win the Bryan Ivie Award this year.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Espero: Hessenauer is playing the best ball of his career and having the offense that UCLA does really opens him up, however Ensing has been Mr. Consistent the last 2 years, leading the Beach in kills and offense in at least 75 percent of its matches.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Lopes: Ensing may be the most underrated player in the country because he was in the same Long Beach State recruiting class with DeFalco and Tuaniga. At most other schools, they would already be planning his jersey retirement ceremony.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Middle Attackers: Nick Amado/Simon Anderson vs. Daenan Gyimah/Oliver Martin

Bates: Gyimah nationally ranks 17th in aces, 10th in blocking, first in hitting pct, 100th in kills, 58th in blocks. In addition, Martin is 64th in the nation in blocking. For Long Beach State, Amado nationally ranks 22nd in blocks and Anderson is 39th. Anderson/Amado are the better blocking duo, while Gyimah is clearly the best individual player out of the four middle blockers. Based off of experience and the competition they’ve faced, I would give the slim advantage to UCLA. While you need to have two middle attackers to field a team, there is something to be said about having the best player at a given position.
Advantage: UCLA (slim)

Wells: Experience to me wins out in this one. UCLA wants to run the middle as much as possible and with their serve receive (especially with Hatch in the rotation), this happens often. Gyimah is arguably the most athletic player in the country. LBSU’s combo will get better as the season continues and to me, anything offensively from those two are considered a bonus in the eyes of coach Alan Knipe.
Advantage: UCLA

Johnson: To me, this is a clear advantage for the Bruins. Put statistics aside for a second and focus on the strength of the Bruins-down the middle of the court. Martin and Gyimah are efficient attackers, and outside attackers JT Hatch and Dylan Missry run the Bic constantly and effectively. The inexperienced Long Beach State middles have proven to be great on the offensive side of the ball in the 2018 season, but they have not seen an attack down the middle like what UCLA has. Gyimah has to be considered the early favorite to take home the Ryan Millar Award in 2018.
Advantage: UCLA (big)

Espero: Beach middles have been playing extremely well — especially Anderson — but as good as they are playing, they haven’t proven themselves against quality middles. Enter the Ghanaian Destroyer, a.k.a Kofi Gyimah — who has played against the best middles in the country so far this year — and has been extremely successful. Did I also mention that Martin is holding his own as well?!?
Advantage: UCLA

Lopes: The UCLA middle attackers have more experience playing in big matches. Gyimah is leading the nation in attack percentage and his serve has forced teams out of system all season. He even showed this summer that he could eventually be a factor on the Canadian Men’s National Team with his performance at the U21 World Championship. I really think Anderson is going to be a difference maker in a few years. However, when it’s close always go with the players who have previously performed big in big matches.
Advantage: UCLA

Outside Attackers: TJ DeFalco/Bjarn Huus vs JT Hatch/Dylan Missry

Bates: Just look at the stats. DeFalco nationally ranks ninth in aces, 12th in attack percentage, 19th in points, 21st in kills and 33rd in digs. In addition, Huus is 30th in attack percentage and 52nd in aces. For UCLA, Missry ranks 15th in aces, 19th in attack percentage and 75th in kills. Hatch also is in the nation’s top 100 for digs and points. While the LBSU outside attackers have a better hitting percentage, one must take Hatch’s stats with a grain of salt as he started the season at libero. DeFalco is clearly the best out of the four, and for that reason, I give the slim advantage to LBSU
Advantage: Long Beach State (slim)

Wells: Again, this one is a lot closer than what most people would think. To me, I feel DeFalco and Huus have the better serve receive game than Hatch and Missry. I also look at Huus the same way UH valued former Hawai’i outside attacker Kupono Fey last season — a second outside hitter who not much was expected from offensively (two kills per game which is where Huus is at right now) but is looked upon to really shore up serve receive and lighten the load in that category for the No. 1 outside hitter. I know and understand how Hatch is on the floor with his serve receive and defensive skills (I feel UCLA is better with him as libero). He’s a smart volleyball player and knows the game quite well; but to me Long Beach has the edge at outside hitter because they have DeFalco and his connection with Tuaniga going back to their high school days at Huntington Beach High. Also, TJ is THE BEST hitter in the country, bar none.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Johnson: Two words, Torey DeFalco. TJ is the best player in the country and that alone gives Long Beach the advantage. Even though he is not as strong on the offensive side of the ball, Huus is natural defender who complements DeFalco’s game nice. The Bruin contingent of outsides is solid across the board. Both Hatch and Missry serve, pass, defend and attack well. In addition, the Bruins run the Bic attack better than anyone in the country. But…Torey DeFalco
Advantage: Long Beach State

Espero: This is a tough category. If UCLA continues passing as well as it has been it can run the Bic out of EVERY rotation — which usually will have only one blocker up because opponents have to respect Gyimah and Martin on the quicks. Also, we have not seen a “breakout” DeFalco match—and this match has the potential “unleash the beast” within DeFalco.
Advantage: Push

Lopes: Only one of outside attacker in this match played in the FIVB World League during the offseason. TJ DeFalco is hands down the best outside attacker on the West Coast — the debate of who’s better DeFalco or Ohio State outside attacker Nicolas Szerszen can be for another time.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Libero: Jordan Molina vs Garland Peed

Bates: Peed is ranked 52nd in the nation at 1.79 digs per game average, while Molina is 29th averaging 2.00 digs per game. While this is Molina’s first season as the starting libero, he also has the experience advantage. It likely won’t matter unless the match comes down to the final point, but Peed only has one assist on the season, while Molina has 19.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Wells: Their numbers are nearly the same (both have 13 reception errors); Peed has 11 more digs (75 to 64) but that’s only because Long Beach has swept 11 of its 12 opponents and has played less sets than UCLA (more sets equal more opportunity to build stats). Molina has a better dig per set average. Each are in their first season as the starter (Molina replaced the All-American Andrew Stato; Peed steps in for the trio of Gillett/Hatch/Bantle). If JT Hatch was at Libero, UCLA would have the edge.
Advantage: Toss Up

Johnson: It is rare to see two teams being so dominant while giving so much time to an inexperienced libero. Both Molina and Peed are steady and dependable, but don’t expect either to challenge for the Erik Shoji Award this year.
Advantage: Push

Espero: Molina (at no fault of his own) is still unproven against top-five teams. With that, I’ve seen Peed and he is a freshman phenom without a doubt. He’s had multiple-dig rallies that have resulted in crucial points for the Bruins against top-five ranked teams. On top of that, he is extremely consistent in serve-receive.
Advantage: UCLA

Lopes: Truthfully, no idea in this category. I’m going to go with Long Beach State because its mascot dresses likes a hipster dad I’d find at a coffee shop in the Nashville suburbs.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Bench

Neither team uses their bench much but do we see an advantage for either team?

Bates: Neither coach uses its bench very much, but the advantage goes to UCLA here with outside attacker Jake Arnitz coming off the bench. It might be a factor if either Missry or Hatch have a rough night, or if UCLA is able to go on a run serving run when Arnitz replaces Hatch to end a set.
Advantage: UCLA

Wells: Neither team uses their bench that much, except for an occasional serving sub here or there. But to me, UCLA wins this because they have Arnitz. No other team has an All-American coming off the bench when needed and don’t be surprised if UCLA is in a rotation where they have Missry on the right front and Hessenauer on the left front and coach John Speraw brings in Arnitz to sub in for Hessenauer to give a natural outside hitter hitting on the left side a better opportunity to score instead of having the right side attacker stuck on the left side in serve receive. I know Arnitz has been battling injuries and confidence issues, but he’s still a darn good player and Long Beach doesn’t have that type of player on the bench.
Advantage: UCLA

Johnson: As my colleagues have pointed out, both coaches are pretty content with playing their normal starters. Arnitz is an All-American that is not starting for UCLA, but that says more about Arnitz than anything else. He has struggled with passing and serving throughout his UCLA career and now his attacking is declining due to the lack of playing time. So, I guess my answer is…
Advantage: I don’t know

Espero: The Beach does not go to its bench too often with the exception of a few service substitutions. UCLA doesn’t either, but its substitutions come in the form of All-American Arnitz for blocking or offensive purposes — which is a big bonus if the Bruins are stuck in a bad rotation.
Advantage: UCLA

Lopes: Just to reiterate the point brought up multiple times — UCLA has an All-American sitting on its bench that it can deploy at any moment. Very different situations, but I just keeping thinking back to last season when former All-American opposite Ben Patch would come off the bench to provide BYU with a much needed spark in big matches.
Advantage: UCLA

Coaching: Alan Knipe vs. John Speraw

Both coaches have coached U.S. Men’s National Team. Knipe led the United States to a fifth-place at the 2012 Olympics, and then Speraw took over and guided the team to a Olympic bronze medal in 2016. Plus, Speraw has three NCAA championships. Does either team hold an advantage at the coaching ranks?

Bates: Speraw’s first season at UCLA was in 2013, while Knipe returned back to Long Beach State in 2013 after his time as the U.S. Men’s National Team. Comparing their five year records (both in the MPSF), Knipe has the advantage. Knipe has a record of 109-43 over that span, while Speraw has a record of 94-53. Knipe has two NCAA Tournament appearances to Speraw’s one.
Advantage: Long Beach State

Wells: Both have been successful nationally and internationally. Only thing missing is a national championship (UCLA last won in 2006 with coach Al Scates and LBSU last won in ’91). Great volleyball minds and awesome to talk with pre-match. Two of the best the sport has ever seen.
Advantage: Even

Johnson: This is another category that is too close to call. As far as head coaches go, it’s a wash. UCLA might have a slight advantage with its assistant coaches.
Advantage: UCLA (slim)

Espero: The Beach has a good staff, but they are new (Scott Touzinsky, McKay Smith, and Paul Munoz) and this would be their first true big match of the year. UCLA has an extremely knowledgeable and talented staff with a lot of time together (John Speraw, Brad Keller, John Hawks and Rob Chai). In fact the only new face is volunteer assistant Eric Vallely.
Advantage: UCLA

Lopes: I’ll keep this short and simple (a rarity for me here on Off the Block). Both are great coaches and know how to get the best out of their players. There are probably hundreds of college volleyball programs that would try to hire either of these coaches within about five minutes if they ever became available.
Advantage: Push

Home Court Advantage: Do your foresee either team having a home court advantage?

Bates: I think there is a minor advantage (on paper) for UCLA in terms of home court advantage. Theoretically, it’s harder for LBSU fans to come up on a Wednesday night through traffic on the 405, than it will be for UCLA fans to travel south on the 405 on a Saturday. Am I over-thinking this too much? Probably.
Advantage: UCLA

Wells: LBSU hasn’t lost at home since 2016. Yes, UCLA is 8-0 at home and two of those have gone #CincoSets. Outside of coming to Hawai’i, neither plays in front of a large home crowd so that will be sort of a wash. Long Beach does have the student section in the endzone where as UCLA has its on the sideline. UCLA does own the strength of schedule and has a way better resume than Long Beach State.
Advantage: Long Beach State.

Johnson: Neither team has a traditional home court advantage. Both play in huge gyms that rarely sell out. It would be great for the sport if these match-ups can attract a large crowd.
Advantage: This is up to the fans!

Espero: No. 2/2 UCLA played in front of a HUGE energetic crowd of near 10,000 at the Stan Sheriff Center rooting against them. Even if the ‘Mid is filled to capacity of 5,000, it would NOT make a difference. Beach on the road versus a top-five opponent is still TBD in my opinion.
Advantage: UCLA (slim)

Lopes: Both teams are use to playing in big venues so players shouldn’t have to make any sight-line adjustments.
Advantage: Push

Prediction for Each Match: Who wins?

Bates: Long Beach State takes the Saturday match in  #CincoSets. UCLA wins the Wednesday match in #CincoSets

Wells: Long Beach State wins both matches because they have the better offense and defense, At the end of the day, Long Beach State has the two best pin hitters in the country in DeFalco and Ensing. UCLA will keep it close if their serving shows up. Not necessarily in terms of aces, but in how many times UCLA can get Long Beach out of system. As Speraw and Keller told me when they were in Honolulu, they were fine with the service errors, but they want to put pressure on the other team.

Johnson: Something to keep in mind, although Long Beach State played in the Eastern time zone this past weekend, it had no other match before facing UCLA. On the other hand, UCLA had to face its cross-town rival USC in a mid-week showdown. Although the Trojans are down from previous years, the Bruins were not able to turn their focus to the 49ers until late Wednesday night at the earliest. Long Beach State wins the first match in five games, and then UCLA wins the rematch in four games.

Espero: Being that Saturday is the Beach’s first true test, I’m going to have to give this match to UCLA in four games. For the following Wednesday, I’ll have to give that one to Beach in 5.

Lopes: In the spirit of good sportsmanship, the teams will split the first four games on Saturday. Speraw and Knipe will then meet at half-court and agree end the match in a tie. Not really. In all seriousness, I’m going to take Long Beach State beating UCLA 23-21 in the fifth game on a TJ DeFalco kill.