Dave Rubio's past two NCAA tournaments ended, it seemed, before they even began.

The Arizona Wildcats volleyball coach watched his team lose to Texas A&M in 2009 and to Northwestern last year, both times in the first round.

Neither match even went to a fifth set.

Today, the Wildcats face Michigan State at Gregory Gym in Austin, Texas, with a chance to win their first postseason match since reaching the Elite Eight in 2005.

"I feel like Lute Olson in that one span, when he lost a couple times in the first round," Rubio said. "Fortunately, no one's calling for me to get fired."

The 19-12 Wildcats exceeded expectations this season, reaching the postseason despite losing four starters and replacing them with freshmen.

Last year's tournament ended quickly.

"We went straight to the hotel, and we had a flight the next morning," All-Pac-12 middle blocker Cursty Jackson said. "Everyone was so disappointed.

"I never want to feel like that again."

The UA's seven freshmen were not part of last year's early exit, which Jackson called a good thing.

"Not a pleasant experience," she said. "It was very disappointing.

"At the same time, I think they're coming in, and they're just playing worry-free.

"They're excited to be here."

The UA will need its young players - led by Pac-12 all-freshman-team players Madi Kingdon and Chloe Mathis - to treat today's match like any other during the season.

"That first match is always so nerve-racking," Rubio said. "I think if you can get though that and get through the jitters and play at your best, then you're going to put yourself in a position to win the match.

"I've been doing this a long time. The teams that do the best are the teams that can handle the jitters and play with a calm mind-set."

The appearance, win or lose, is good news for the young team.

"The fact is, the freshmen getting an opportunity to go to postseason certainly lays a great foundation for the future," said Rubio, who has 501 career wins. "The bad news is that it's the first time for them, and you just never know what to expect when they get under the bright lights.

"We hope the conference prepared everybody for what we're going to face."

The Wildcats have already defeated UCLA, ranked No. 2, twice this season.

"Beating UCLA, that was incredible," Mathis said.

Rubio hopes that experience will aid against the 21-11 Spartans, who have beaten No. 7 Illinois and lost to No. 9 Penn State and No. 22 Michigan in the past two weeks.

Five of the Spartans' seven rotation players are seniors, including Kyndra Abron and Jenilee Rathje, who combine to average 7.67 kills per set.

"They're old, they play old, and they're physical," Rubio said. "Not a great combination for us."

Rubio couldn't find a theme for the previous two early exits, other than the fact the Wildcats were seeded in the middle of the bracket against similar teams.

"It's a flip of the coin right now, in terms of which team I think is going to come out on top," he said.

Today's winner will likely play the host Texas Longhorns, one of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds.

Rubio said the Wildcats have "another gear" that could propel them through the playoffs. To worry about Texas, however, they'll have to beat Michigan State for that elusive first-round win.

"We're mostly freshmen, they're mostly seniors," Rubio said. "Let's hope that youth wins out."

NCAA tournament

• Where: Gregory Gym in Austin, Texas


• Arizona vs. Michigan State, 3:30 p.m.

• No. 1 Texas vs. No. 16 Texas State, 6 p.m.