An introduction to NCAA Men’s Volleyball

From this point, posting frequency should return to normal. I know you’re all thrilled 😉

I hope everyone had a very nice holiday season, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s over. Certainly, for a lot of folks, New Year’s Eve into Day is a fun night to celebrate. Me, I doubt I’ll even be awake to ring in the new year. I think it’ll manage without me.

The NCAA men’s volleyball season starts in earnest just after the turn of the new year (a few schools played tournaments in September and October, just as the women’s season was really getting going, but no one paid attention to those, myself included), so it’s important that we all get grounded in how the sport works and is organized.

First of all, throw out everything you know about NCAA women’s volleyball. Well, not how the game itself works. That’s unchanged. The court and ball are both a little bigger in the men’s game, and the net a little higher, but as far as how points are scored and matches won, it’s precisely the same. No, but throw out everything you know about the organization of NCAA women’s volleyball, because I’m telling you exactly none of it is present in the men’s game.

Men’s volleyball is, of course, far less robust at the NCAA level than women’s. To whit, while all 31 multi-sport NCAA Division I conferences sponsor women’s volleyball, not a one sponsors men’s volleyball. There are three major conferences in NCAA men’s volleyball — the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, and the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

If you’re a sports fan at all like I am (and by reading this blog, I’m going to guess that you are, if only just a little bit), take a moment and be thankful that the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation is a thing that exists. It was called into existence in 1992 to provide organization and top-level college competition in non-revenue producing Olympic sports, of which men’s volleyball is certainly one. The MPSF also sponsors men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse, as well as gymnastics, indoor track and field, water polo, and swimming and diving, all for both genders.

For too much of the population, “sports fan” means someone who paints their bare chest and sits in a 50,000 seat stadium to scream like an idiot at millionaires. I get so weary of hearing words like “salary arbitration,” “collective bargaining agreement,” and “signing bonus” in the context of sports. I’m not above screaming like an idiot at millionaires myself, don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of Major League Baseball — but I will always most greatly appreciate seeing people who play for absolutely nothing more than the love of the game. That alone has driven me to become interested and obtain casual knowledge in sports I never really would have considered before.

Even in women’s volleyball, robust as it is in the NCAA, no one’s ever gonna do more than make a living playing the game. No volleyball player will ever buy a private jet or a personal motorcade of cars. But for reasons I’ve explored before (without reaching much of a conclusion), men’s volleyball falls into that same pit of public non-attention in America as water polo and gymnastics, something the general public cares deeply about once every four years and then promptly forgets exists. That’s where the MPSF comes in. Its members span from Alaska and Hawaii to as far east in the lower 48 as Texas and Oklahoma. MPSF tournament champions in men’s soccer, water polo for both genders, and, yes, men’s volleyball, earn automatic bids to the respective NCAA tournaments in each sport.

Member institutions are not required to participate in the MPSF if their primary conference sponsors the sport in question. For example, every member of the Pac-12 except Oregon State is part of the MPSF in some sport, but the Pac-12 itself sponsors men’s soccer, so Pac-12 institutions don’t have to join the MPSF for that sport. They can remain as members of their respective sports (many of them in men’s volleyball, which I’m getting around to, trust me). I haven’t done any major in-depth research of this, but it doesn’t seem that membership in the MPSF is particularly hard to obtain, either. If you sponsor one of their sports, and your main conference doesn’t, you’re in if you want in. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, the MPSF is something of a godsend.

The EIVA and MIVA are single-sport conferences. There are actually quite a few of these in the NCAA. You see them most commonly in the Football Championship Subdivision, leagues like the Pioneer Football League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. They’re also pretty important to the ongoing existence of NCAA college hockey. The EIVA and MIVA only sponsor men’s volleyball.

Remember when I said throw out everything you know about the organization of NCAA women’s volleyball? Here’s where you see that most starkly. Penn State and Ohio State are two of the few men’s volleyball programs to have won national titles while existing east of the Rocky Mountains (or indeed, California). While they are big-time conference rivals in the Big Ten for just about every other sport they both sponsor, they’re not even in the same conference at all in men’s volleyball. Penn State are part of the EIVA, Ohio State the MIVA. They do play each other regularly, but it only counts as a non-conference matchup.

But oh my word how conference play matters little in men’s volleyball. The MIVA has 8 members, with the addition of Lindenwood University after their successful transition from NAIA status. It’s the only conference of the three bigs where all members qualify for the conference tournament, each match held at the home court of the higher-seeded team. The EIVA, likewise with 8 members, only includes the top four in their postseason tournament. The MPSF has 13 members for men’s volleyball, conducting their tournament among the top eight. Any even remotely deserving team makes the cut pretty easily, but then the conference tournament becomes of paramount importance.

That’s because these tournament winners comprise 75% of the NCAA tournament championship field.

Talk about having your whole season end up coming down to a single good or bad day. You falter in your conference tournament, there’s a good chance your season is over, no matter how well you did prior to that. We talk about teams getting an at-large bid in the women’s tournament, well, in the men’s tournament, there’s just the at-large bid. Singular. One. Uno. The tournament field is four teams, and all matches (all three of ’em) are held at a pre-determined site. This year that site is UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

The at-large bid just about always goes to an MPSF team (only once has it not). To look at the history of the NCAA men’s volleyball championship, you really need look no further than the state of California. In the 43-year history of the men’s championship (it’s been an NCAA-sanctioned sport longer than women’s volleyball, which seems impossible until we remember that Title IX had to be a thing), it’s only gone to a team outside the Golden State eight times. And three of those were MPSF rivals BYU and Hawaii.

Last year, the MPSF got the at-large bid with USC, and the Men of Troy were the #2 seed. MIVA champions Lewis were #3, and EIVA champions Penn State were #4. True to form, #2 USC faced #1 seeded UC Irvine for the championship, with the Anteaters coming up victorious (they’re again favored to win the national championship this year). So there isn’t much reason for bracketology in men’s volleyball.

If you’re really knowledgeable about NCAA universities and their athletics divisions, you’ve noticed that Division I and II schools are mixed together so far (Lewis are a Division II school, and Lindenwood’s NAIA transition landed them in Division II for most programs). There is no divisional distinction between D-I and D-II in men’s volleyball. There is in fact an all-sports D-II conference, Conference Carolinas, who sponsor men’s volleyball. Their members are, in theory, eligible for the at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but in practice it’ll never happen.

Furthermore, though, both the MPSF and MIVA have men’s volleyball members who are Division II in everything else. The MIVA in fact have 4 Division I schools and 4 Division II schools among their membership. There is really so little varsity-level sponsorship of men’s volleyball that any divisional distinction between D-I and D-II would be utterly pointless. MPSF member UC San Diego, who you may recall played in the same regional as my Western Washington Vikings in the D-II women’s tournament this past season, are the MPSF’s longstanding D-II member (this season, California Baptist join them). They play matches against Stanford, USC, UCLA, UC Irvine, all the usual suspects and heavy hitters. They pretty much have to.

Prior to this past season, there was no divisional distinction in men’s volleyball whatsoever. As of this past year, Division III schools have their own championship. The sport is actually a fair bit more robust at the D-III level, with more than 50 member institutions in Division III across 7 constituent conferences as well as an independent.The lone D-III member on the west coast is UC Santa Cruz, who I’m a little surprised are able to continually exist with the travel schedule they incur (and impose).

The seven champions and two at-large teams are seeded 1-9. #9 play #8 at 8’s home court (frankly, an idea the D-I tournament could do well to incorporate). The tournament then progresses normally with 8 teams playing down to one national champion, at a pre-determined site. The defending champions are the Springfield Pride, who claim 7 national championships on their website (prior to 2012, Division III did have their own national championship, held under the auspices of the North East Collegiate Volleyball Association, but it was not NCAA-sanctioned — at that point, D-III teams were still in the same fruitless boat as Conference Carolinas teams now with respect to the at-large bid in the NCAA tournament). A massively powerful hitting team, they notably used not a single bench player in their national championship match win last year — just six starters and a libero. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’m gonna pay any more attention to D-III men’s volleyball than I did women’s (which was basically none).

I’ve never actually tried to follow an NCAA men’s volleyball season while it was ongoing before, so I don’t know what if any tele- or webcast coverage there will be. But whatever’s there, you can be sure I’ll be there to eat it up. And always be hungry for more.

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