Road to 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament; Defending Champs UCLA in Danger of Missing Out

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Avery Aquatic Center awaits the NCAA men's tournament. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

In what potentially will be a stunning turn of events, UCLA, defending national champions and the nation’s #2 ranked team, may not make the cut for the 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament.

The Bruins dropped a 9-7 decision to the Cardinal on Saturday in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament. The loss puts UCLA in a dogfight match today against arch-rival USC, which was also surprised in the other half of the MPSF tourney bracket. Cal—which with a loss would almost certainly would have fallen out of contention for an NCAA at-large berth—turned the table on the Trojans. After losing two previous meeting by a combined total of 13 goals, the Golden Bears upend the host Trojans 10-9 in Uytengsu Aquatics Center, snapping a USC 11-match winning streak that stretch back more than a month.

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The MPSF final (1 p.m. PST) will pit two Bay Area rivals—top-seeded Stanford and #3 seed Cal—that met as recently as last Saturday, when the Cardinal took a 12-11 overtime win in the annual Big Splash match. Today’s winner claims the conference’s automatic NCAA berth; the loser is almost virtually assured of getting one of two at-large berths for this year’s national tournament. Both matches will be streamed live on the Pac-12 Network.

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It’s a fact; Ben Hallock and Stanford are going to NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

The game to watch is the third-place match-up between LA denizens USC and UCLA; until yesterday the Trojans were the nation’s top-ranked team with the Bruins right behind. The fact that one of those two teams will not advance to NCAAs mirror’s last season outcome of MPSF Tournament play. Top-ranked Stanford lost to UCLA in the MPSF semifinal and was then stunned by Cal, dropping a 10-9 decision in overtime thanks to two late goals by Luca Cupido. The Cardinal then ended up on the outside looking in at NCAAs for the third straight year.

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In Golden Coast Conference tournament play Saturday, host Long Beach State continued a late-season run, beating second-seeded Pepperdine 5-4 to extend a five-match winning streak and vault into the GCC title match for the first time. Waiting for them at 1 p.m. (PST) today will be top-seed Pacific. The Tigers rallied from a three-goal halftime deficit on the strength a hat-trick from Luke Pavillard to advance to a third-straight GCC final. In seeking their first NCAA berth in 27 years (1991), the 49ers will be playing against both Pacific and history.

wwpa-logo-apr-17Both top-seeded UC San Diego and second seeded UC Davis won in convincing fashion on Saturday—the Tritons 15-3 over Air Force and the Aggies 17-8 over Loyola Marymount—setting up a four-peat of the Western Water Polo Association final between these two teams. UC Davis won the last two WWPA title matches, while UC San Diego won in 2014 and 2015. The two will again play to decide who represents their conference in NCAA tournament play starting at 1 p.m. (PST) today.

SCIAC

As already reported, top seed Pomona-Pitzer and #3 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps will meet at 11 a.m. (PST) on Sunday in Claremont, CA for the SCIAC title; this is a repeat of the 2016 final, won 7-4 by Pomona-Pitzer, which is seeking a third straight NCAA berth. All updates for SCIAC Tournament play are on the conference website.

cwpaSpeaking of three-peats, after never qualifying for an NCAA tournament in four decades, Harvard is on track to qualify for a third-straight trip to the national championship. A last-second goal by Bruno Snow gave the Crimson an 11-10 win yesterday over host Brown in the semifinals of the 2018 Northeast Water Polo Conference Tournament. In the day’s over semifinal, Princeton rallied from an early two-goal deficit behind three goals from Casey Conrad to surprise second-seeded St. Francis Brooklyn and advance to the NEWPC title match against Harvard for the second-straight year. With a win today at 12:30pm (EST), Princeton Head Coach Dustin Litvak will become the first rookie coach from the East to win an NCAA berth since the Terriers’ Srdjan Mihaljevic accomplished the feat in 2013.

In the Bronx, Bucknell got three goals each from Radé Joksimovic and Marko Djordjevic to knock off host Fordham 12-11 in one semifinal of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference. The Bison held a four-goal lead midway through the third period, but Jake Miller-Tolt scored five of his game-high six goals in the second-half to bring the Rams within two scores with a minute left—but the clock ran out on the Rams’ upset bid.

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Can Radé Joksimovic lead the Bison back to NCAAs? Photo Courtesy: Bucknell Athletics

In the MAWPC’s other semifinal, George Washington and Wagner slugged it out for 32 minutes, with the Colonials emerging on top by the score of 16-14, thanks to Andrew Mavis. The junior from Princeton was virtually unstoppable in the second half, scoring five times from in front of the Seahawk cage to deny Wagner a second straight trip to the finals. Instead it will be George Washington which will be seeking the program’s second-straight NCAA berth when they face Bucknell today at 1:30pm (EST).

9 comments

  1. avatar
    Brent Troop

    Who wrote this article? How is the loser of the MPSF final (now known to be Cal) “virtually assured” one of two at large bids? Cal has a 2-5 record against Big Four schools and UCLA has now a 3-4 record, being 1-1 against Cal, 1-2 against Stanford, 1-1 with USC. Cal has zero wins against Stanford and has lost twice to USC to the Bruins’ once, not following the logic of this at all.

    • avatar

      good call Brent, you are correct

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        John:

        Thanks for chiming in (or piling on!). I just responded to Brent (it’s a bit long…) with my thoughts / rationale. One thought that I didn’t squeeze in w/Brent is the issue of WHEN a team loses. Forgive me for being a college football watcher BUT isn’t it more devastating to lose a late-season contest to a lower-ranked opponent than earlier? By that logic, shouldn’t Saturday’s USC loss to Cal weigh more than the two previous blowout wins?

        I’m not saying it does in water polo BUT – for example – what if Alabama loses to Auburn this weekend? Won’t they drop out of consideration for the CFB Playoffs?

        Your Correspondent

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Brent:

      Thank you for your comments, and congrats to your Bruins for yet another NCAA berth!

      I wrote this piece, and am the primary water polo correspondent for Swimming World. I can appreciate your response, and – as you noted – Cal’s record against its major opponents is clearly sub-par. BUT, a couple of comments (if I may) that the idea that the MPSF tournament runner-up finish as a “virtual assurance” of an NCAA berth is (IMO) no so outlandish.

      In my six years following the NCAA polo, it’s only happened once previously that the second-place MPSF finisher did NOT advance to NCAA; coincidentally it was Cal losing to the Trojans 9-5 in 2012. UCLA and USC went (of course, only two MPSF teams went to the Final Four – that seems like a long time ago).

      Second, I was speculating (let’s face it, part of what I do is to make – hopefully! – educated guesses) and I got it wrong. No shame in that (I do hope you agree!). BUT, it didn’t look good for your Bruins on Sunday going up against the Trojans (who—if you count the September scrimmage—they had already lost twice to) in their home pool. I hope you agree that Adam Wright’s charges putting a second period five-spot on the USC defense (the Trojans’ single worst quarter of the season) was unexpected.

      Third, I will speculate (oh, that word again!) an important factors in Cal being shut out of NCAAs is NOT just their 2-5 record (though that obviously is a HUGE factor) against their Pac-12 brethren; it’s the Golden Bears’ almost inexplicable loss to Harvard in September (when Johnny Hooper was away w/the U.S. National Team). Stanford, UCLA and USC were 57-0 against non-conference opponents (the RPI listing is dated; it’s from Nov 11); Cal was 15-1.

      If you’ll bear with me, a rational is that UCLA loses to USC and a desperate Cal (okay, I’m stretching here!) finds its way past Stanford – WHICH is exactly what happened last year (BTW, don’t forget that Stanford went into 2017 MPSF as #1 in the CWPA poll, lost both tournament matches and did NOT get an at-large berth. One might wonder why USC is in…).

      I’m NOT gonna send this to your buddy John (kidding! he’s probably a Trojan!) BUT please feel free to take issue with this rationalization. My job is to present it the way I see it and take my lumps when I get it wrong (what you REALLY should criticize me for is my conference previews; I did a TERRIBLE job predicting winners…).

      Your Correspondent (Michael Randazzo)

      • avatar
        Brent Troop

        I understand where you are coming from Michael, it’s quite fun to speculate all the different scenarios you never know what will happen this time of year.

        Here is another scenario that still perplexes me. In 2013 UCLA had the best record in the nation before coming into the MPSF tournament and going 0-2, and failed to make the NCAA tournament. The exact same thing just happened with USC, who had the best record in the nation, but went 0-2 in the NCAA tournament.

        Granted, Cal was in a far less favorable position than USC being 2-4 (at best after the tournament ended 3-4 against big 4 teams although that would also mean they secured the automatic, another situation entirely) against big 4 teams at the time to the Trojans’ 4-2. But still, one could be forgiven for thinking the committee might be stacked in the Trojans’ favor? 2015 ring a bell as well with UoP being No. 2 in the country for quite some time only to miss out on an at large bid for the NCAA tournament after going 0-2 in the conference semis/3rd place game and the Trojans getting a bid to the tourney instead?

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Dear Brent:

        Thanks for responding / engaging in a bit of back-and-forth. I realize this was a trending topic on the Water Polo Planet message board (and there were some INTERESTING ideas about how things could have played out Sunday – including Stanford letting Cal win so that USC would be out).

        I agree that the question—how do the Trojans get favored despite two losses—is better than should Cal be in (though – as you rightly point out – Cal was NEVER getting in without winning the tournament). Could it be the colors? The “Fight On!” chants? Or, is it that they mostly just “Win Baby?!” (not lately…).

        I’d speculate that the MPSF getting THREE bids is perhaps one too many (not that I’m looking to go back to the Final Four days; the eight-team field is good, even if the old Easterns Championship has been diluted into two sites / separate weekends). A radical idea (I’m sure I’ll hear flack about THIS one!) would be to give an at-large bid to Harvard (okay, they were not as good as the Big Four BUT for a team from the East the Crimson had a good track record—but THEY don’t get a second shot after losing their tournament).

        A final thought; is having USC in the bracket better than Cal? I bet most observers will pick the Trojans to win it all, but you could look back to 2016 when the Golden Bears were a GREAT story (I suspect you won’t agree). Sometimes it’s helpful to mix it all up.

        All the best to your Bruins; I would NEVER bet against Adam Wright (at least not w/$$).

        Your correspondent

    • avatar
      Frank Manning

      Obviously someone who doesn’t understand water polo.

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Dear Frank:

        If I didn’t (in some ways) agree with you, I might take offense.

        In fact, my knowledge is pretty finite (you obviously missed my interview with Loren Bertocci!); which is why I am willing to engage (and admit when I’m wrong).

        So, is it unfair to ask about your opinion in this (or any polo matter)? I’m gonna assume you didn’t just come here to judge; the whole idea of comments is to speak… and be heard!

        Feel free to take me to task about anything; I got NO COMMENTS about attempts to ban the Israeli women’s water polo team in Barcelona.

        Your correspondent

  2. avatar
    Frank Manning

    Cal probably shouldn’t have sat hooper they were serious about making a run as a complete team this year. Hooper is a dynamic offensive talent and that Harvard game probably wouldn’t have been so dicey. Was just agreeing with the first comment about cal’s “Nearly assured” bid. You have to think his absence impacted the team’s overall chemistry this year. With usc I think it’s a mix a youth and high powered talent learning how to use each other’s strengths at the right times. I think it’s probably unlikely usc’s top guns go cold, but I think Stanford is going to be really fired up in their pool. It’s too bad the sport gets limited coverage compared to lacrosse which gets national tv time for their ncaa tournament.