By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Featuring the nation’s ten best teams—and 14 of the top 20—playing 32 matches in two pools over three days, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s (MPSF) Invitational is without a doubt the most prestigious non-conference men’s tournament of the season. Now in its second year as a replacement for the famed NorCal and SoCal Invitationals of years past, the Mountain Pacific Invitational offers a chance for NCAA title contenders to demonstrate their early season mettle—or have their at-large chances irrevocably harmed by blow-out losses to the country’s best.
Play at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center begins today at 1 p.m. PST; matches at Loyola Marymount’s Burns Recreation Center start at noon PST. The tournament schedule is available online.
A lone Eastern squad will make the trip West for the tournament. #12 Princeton will face #6 Long Beach State today at 4:45 p.m. PST. Other notable first day matches include: # 8 UC Davis vs. #9 Pepperdine; #7 UC Santa Barbara vs. #10 UC Irvine; and # 1 Cal vs. Air Force.
The elite of the MPSF—members of the famed Pac-12 Conference for all other sports including football, basketball and baseball—will of course be in attendance. In addition to the Golden Bears, defending NCAA champs, #2 USC will face San Jose State, #3 Stanford will take on #19 Pomona-Pitzer, and #4 UCLA, winner of last year’s Invitational, will play #20 Loyola Marymount.
One of the more intriguing teams in the bracket is #5 University of Pacific, which has a first day match with #16 UC San Diego. In recent comments referencing when his team was still a member of the MPSF, the Tigers’ James Graham spoke about the challenge of playing the nation’s very best while the season was still young.
“The Pac-12 had a very good thing going with the MPSF conference and the way the tournament schedule was built to favor them in the at-large bid process,” said Graham, in his 10th season as head coach for the Pacific men.
In 2015, with men’s polo on the horizon as part of the Golden Coast Conference (GCC), the Tigers decided to skip NorCal that September, perhaps irrevocably altering the format of the tournament and—ultimately—the MPSF. Last year five breakaway MPSF teams—Pacific, Long Beach State, Pepperdine, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine—began play in the GCC’s men’s bracket. For 2017 the conference will have its own automatic berth for the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament, decided at the GCC’s conference tournament in mid-November.
“We were one of the teams back in 2015 that chose not to go to the NorCal in September,” Graham explained. “Previously, all the MPSF team always went. But it’s an unfair playing field geared to eliminate non-Pac-12 teams from the at-large bid.”
Graham, the 2017 Golden Coast Conference Women’s Coach of the Year for his work leading Pacific’s women to their first-ever NCAA berth, believes the changed format—one three-day tournament rather than two 2-day events—has helped to create more competition at the top of men’s game, opening up a spot for the Tiger men in the discussions regarding the country’s top teams.
“I think there is going to be more parity,” he said about the 2017 men’s season, then—in reference to how Cal, Stanford, UCLA are often referred to in the press—Graham added: “I’d like to get rid of the ‘Big Four’ and make it a ‘Big Five’ or eliminate it all together. As much as they’ve been up there every year, we’ve been in the top four three of the past four years.”
Pacific’s likely opponent for Saturday’s second day is UCLA. The Tigers last beat the Bruins in 2013. Other prospective second day match-ups of note include: Stanford vs. the Princeton/Long Beach State winner; USC vs. the UC Santa Barbara/UC Irvine winner.
The Mountain Pacific Invitational concludes Sunday with a tournament final at 2:30pm at USC. The third-place match will take place at 1pm, also at USC.