PROVO Tonight kicks off the toughest regular-season stretch in the history of BYU men's volleyball, as the Cougars face perennial powerhouses and longtime nemeses Pepperdine, UCLA and Long Beach twice each over the next 15 days.
And it all starts tonight and Saturday, as second-ranked and current Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings leader BYU (14-1 overall, 9-1 MPSF) plays host to fifth-ranked Pepperdine (8-5, 8-5 MPSF) in 7 p.m. matches at the Smith Fieldhouse.
Ever since 1999, the season the Cougars won the first of three NCAA championships, the threesome of the Waves, the Bruins and the 49ers have proved to be BYU's biggest stumbling blocks year in and year out. And while they've faced two of the three from one weekend to the next, the Cougars have never gone back-to-back-to-back against the trio.
But here it is tonight and Saturday against the Waves, then on to the Bruins' Pauley Pavilion for a pair of road matches next weekend and then a return trip to Southern California for March 20 and 21 matches at the Pyramid in Long Beach.
BYU is a collective 34-27 against its "Big Three" opponents in the past nine seasons 10-12 against Pepperdine (including 1-5 over the previous three seasons), 12-7 versus UCLA and 12-8 against The Beach.
The Cougars have never swept all three coming close in 1999 (5-1), 2001 (4-1) and 2003 (6-1). But they've had just as many seasons where they have managed just two wins total against the three.
BYU has also beaten each of the three in postseason play downing Long Beach in the 1999 and the 2004 NCAA championship matches and UCLA to claim the 2001 NCAA crown. And the Cougars beat Pepperdine in the MPSF playoffs in 2003 and '04.
Conversely, each of the three has eliminated BYU in Mountain Pacific tournament play once this decade.
Last year, the Cougars swept the Bruins and 49ers twice in regular-season home matches but lost the two road matches at Pepperdine.
Picked as the preseason favorite in the CSTV/AVCA coaches poll and holding the top spot in the Top 15 coaches rankings for all but the last couple of weeks, the Cougars will need to show strong against their three counterparts in order to sustain their standing and maintain course for the postseason.
Pepperdine is one of only two teams to have defeated one-time MPSF leader Long Beach State so far this season the other being upstart and current No. 3 Cal State Northridge, a team BYU beat twice earlier this season.
The No. 1 pick in the MPSF coaches preseason poll, the Waves have lost twice each to UCLA and UC Irvine and lost once to Long Beach. They've gone 3-0 since the return of junior All-American opposite hitter Paul Carroll.
Picked No. 3 in the preseason by the league coaches, UCLA (12-9, 7-6 MPSF) has dropped to an uncharacteristic No. 10 ranking after a pair of losses last week at No. 14 Ball State ran the Bruins' skid to four straight losses.
But UCLA rebounded with non-league victories over Lewis and Santa Cruz this week, and the Bruins can claim a 2-0 regular-season sweep of Pepperdine previously.Starting the season as the projected No. 7 team by the Mountain Pacific coaches, Long Beach State (14-2, 9-2 MPSF) stayed unbeaten the longest, outlasting BYU by a week before faltering first to Pepperdine and then last week to Northridge.