Top 5 storylines to follow during the men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament

One day away from the start of the men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament and the excitement level continues to build.

The four-team NCAA Tournament at UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion begins with the two semifinal matches Thursday. The No. 2 seed UC Irvine plays the No. 3 seed Loyola at 6 p.m. (PST) to open the tournament, while the No. 1 seed BYU plays the No. 4 seed Penn State at 8 p.m. (PST).

Check out the top five storylines to follow throughout the upcoming NCAA Tournament


1. Is this the year for BYU
It’s been nine years since BYU last won the national championship and this may be the Cougars’ best chance to end that streak. BYU after winning the MPSF Tournament during the weekend earned the No. 1 overall seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament and has recent success against every other team in the tournament. The team won both its regular season matches against the No. 2 seed UC Irvine and has not lost to its semifinal opponent Penn State since 2005. In addition, BYU is 4-1 all-time against the No. 3 seed Loyola with that one loss coming in 2011. For BYU, though, a No. 1 seed has not won the NCAA Tournament since 2010. In addition, this could be the Cougars best odds at a national title for the next few years as All-American outside attacker Ben Patch announced last week he will not play the next two seasons so he can go on his LDS mission.

2. UC Irvine eyes a repeat championship
Repeating as national champions is rare in college men’s volleyball. The defending NCAA champions UC Irvine will attempt to join UCLA and Pepperdine as the only schools to win back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since men’s volleyball became a sanctioned sport in 1970. In addition, a repeat championship has not happened college men’s volleyball in almost 20 years when the Bruins last achieved it in 1995-96. UC Irvine received the tournament’s only at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after losing in its conference tournament semifinals and will play the No. 3 seed Loyola in the semifinals. The at-large bid has won the NCAA championship once in the last 10 years — but the Anteaters were that one team, winning the national title in 2009.

3. Joseph Smalzer on the national stage
The best player in the Midwest will now be in the national spotlight as Loyola and its All-American outside attacker Joseph Smalzer will play UC Irvine in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Thursday. Smalzer was named the 2013 MIVA Player of the Year after leading the conference with a 3.81 kills per game average. In addition, the junior in the MIVA Tournament championship match against Lewis on Saturday had a match-high 20 kills as Loyola rallied from a one-game deficit to win the MIVA title and reach its first NCAA Tournament in program history. Along with his offensive performance, Smalzer had a nation-best 74 aces and was selected as the Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. National Server of the Year. Loyola coach Shane Davis also said earlier this week that Smalzer has continued to gain more confidence throughout the regular season and during the Ramblers’ postseason run.

4. Penn State’s experience advantage
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said earlier this week that his team may be the No. 4 seed but it has an advantage over its semifinal opponent and No. 1 seed BYU when it comes to NCAA Tournament experience. The Nittany Lions are making its 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while the Cougars have not been on the NCAA Tournament since 2004. In addition, Penn State returns four starters from last season’s team that lost in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, including outside attacker and the 2013 Co-EIVA Player of the Year Aaron Russell. The Nittany Lions have lost the last two seasons in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, but the program has not lost three consecutive semifinal matches in almost 10 years.

5. Possible NCAA Tournament attendance record
Days before the NCAA Tournament begins, reports have already come out that the entire lower bowl of the Pauley Pavilion is sold-out. The newly renovated and historic UCLA arena has a 13,800 seating capacity and there is a chance an attendance record could be set for the semifinals Thursday. The highest semifinal attendance in the last 10 years was set the last time UCLA hosted the NCAA Tournament when 5,125 people attended the UCLA-Penn State semifinal match in 2005. Despite the host institution not being in the NCAA Tournament this year, this attendance record has a chance to fall in part because of BYU and UC Irvine fans. Both fan bases have a history of traveling to its team’s road matches, including Anteater fans significantly contributing to the more than 10,000 people in attendance at last year’s NCAA championship match. In addition, Loyola and Penn State are playing across the country but had some of the best regular season attendance in the nation and will likely have strong fan support at the Final Four.