The Loyola men’s volleyball team is currently ranked 10th in the nation, but might not even make the NCAA Tournament. With a 19-7 record and comfortably in second place in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) conference, how could the Ramblers be at risk of missing out on competing for their third national championship in six years?
While the general format of NCAA volleyball is similar to the more well-known NCAA basketball, there are significant differences. The biggest is the number of teams competing at the Division I level. There are only 47 teams that compete for the volleyball NCAA Tournament, a fraction of the 351 teams vying for spots in the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament.
Those 47 teams are divided into five different conferences — one of which is MIVA — along with nine independent teams. Like college basketball, the winner of those conference tournaments all receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Both volleyball and basketball have “at-large” bids for teams that didn’t win their conference tournaments. An “at-large” bid is when the selection committee decides a team is worthy of playing in the NCAA Tournament despite not winning its conference tournament. But basketball has 36 at-large bids while volleyball only has two.
This brings the total amount of teams in the men’s volleyball NCAA Tournament to seven teams, drastically smaller than the 68 teams that qualify for the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament.
So, what is Loyola’s path to the NCAA Tournament?
The easiest way for Loyola to qualify would be to win the MIVA Tournament and earn an automatic bid. The Ramblers are currently second out of eight teams in the MIVA with a conference record of 12-2 — first-place Lewis University is responsible for both of those losses.
When the Ramblers won back-to-back national championships in 2014 and 2015, they won the MIVA Conference Tournament to secure the automatic bid. In both years, Loyola defeated Lewis in the MIVA Tournament championship game.
However, this year the Ramblers haven’t been able to beat Lewis, dropping both matches against their in-state rivals by a score of 3-1.
Loyola’s other option is to get one of the two at-large bids. But that is unlikely. All of the teams in the top-10 are part of the Big West, MIVA or the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). With only the conference tournament champions receiving automatic bids, this means that at least seven of the teams currently in the top-10 will be left fighting for the two at-large bids. As it stands, Loyola could have a slimmer chance at receiving one of the at-large spots since they are ranked 10th.
The Ramblers have struggled this season against elite competition. They are 1-5 against teams currently ranked in the top-10, with the lone victory coming against fourth-ranked Pepperdine University. Despite this, head coach Mark Hulse said he believes his team has improved throughout the season and is starting to play its best volleyball of the season.
“You certainly want to be playing your best volleyball in April so that you get a chance to play some volleyball in May,” Hulse said. “We’ve gotten a whole lot better just in terms of how we’re playing the game as a team.”
The Ramblers have rarely faltered against weaker competition with a record of 18-2 when facing teams outside of the top-10 this season. Both of those losses came on the road against Grand Canyon University in Phoenix March 8-9.
While the conference tournaments still have to be played and could change the standings, it appears as if Loyola wouldn’t not receive one of the two at-large bids as it stands right now.
After ending the season on a five-match winning streak, Loyola secured the No. 2 seed in the MIVA conference tournament. The Ramblers’ opening round match up is against No. 7 seed The Ohio State University Apr. 13. Loyola swept Ohio State twice this year. The NCAA Tournament is played from May 2-4 in Long Beach, California.