During a historic 2016 season, the Arizona Wildcats swept USC and UCLA for the first time in program history and beat seven ranked opponents.
Now, they’ll try to extend it for a while.
The UA will face Cleveland State on Friday in an NCAA Tournament first-round match in East Lansing, Michigan. The winner will advance to play either No. 9 Michigan State or Fairfield.
This is Dave Rubio’s 19th trip to the tournament in his 25 seasons as coach, and he still loves getting the invite to the Big Dance.
“It never gets old when you get selected to the tournament,” Rubio said. “It’s exciting for me personally and exciting for the team. There’s a lot of work that goes into trying to make the tournament, and when you’re selected, it’s an honor to be a part of that tournament.”
Cleveland State can’t be overlooked. The Vikings boast a 25-5 overall record and won the Horizon League with a 14-2 record. They’re also their reigning conference tournament champions.
Arizona (18-14) finished eighth in the Pac-12 with a 10-10 conference record. The Wildcats were inconsistent: They went 7-7 against the conference’s top seven teams, all of which made the NCAA Tournament, but they were only 3-3 against the conference’s bottom four teams.
“It’s really crazy: As a team we play our best when there’s emotions running, when we have something to play for,” outside hitter Kalei Mau said.
Mau, who finished second in the Pac-12 with 407 kills, is sure that emotion will be there against the Vikings.
“A win is always a good thing to have, but I think going into the tournament, we all have that kind of motivation in us, that fire in us to go out and play the best that we can,” she said.
Rubio will have to prepare for a scrappy, fast-paced style of play. The Cats are used to playing a more physical, athletic, powerful game in the Pac-12.
“They’re going to present a different look than we’re used to,” Rubio said. “They’re not as physical. These guys are smaller, quicker, they run a real fast offense. They win a lot for a reason.”
Though it’s easy to look forward to a potential matchup with Michigan State, Rubio does not want to overlook the Vikings.
“We’re not so big and physical where we can just stop people simply because of their size,” Rubio said. “We’re gonna have to be ready to play against a very good team. If you’re not on your game, you’re going to walk away pretty disappointed.”