Sunday, February 4, 2018

Looking Back at the 2017 College Women's Season: Nebraska, Penn State, and Mick Haley

Three stories stand out to me, in looking back at the 2017 college women's season:
  • Nebraska's turnaround from a slow start (coinciding with the loss of three senior starters from the 2016 squad) to an eventual NCAA championship.
  • The Cornhuskers' recent domination of Penn State, in the form of a seven-match winning streak over the Nittany Lions from 2015-2017.
  • The messy "divorce" taking place being USC and its now-former coach Mick Haley.
When I visited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in mid-October on academic business, I stopped by Husker Headquarters near the end of my trip to pick up a souvenir. What I ended up purchasing was a Nebraska "School of Volleyball" shirt. Little did I know at the time that the numbers of NCAA championships and final appearances listed on the bottom line of the shirt (click on photo to enlarge) would have to be updated so quickly.

The Huskers started off the season with a 6-3 record, the losses coming to Oregon, Florida, and Northern Iowa (game-by-game log). However, by midseason, Nebraska had things rolling again, going 19-1 in B1G conference play (losing only at Wisconsin), en route to a 32-4 final record.

The Huskers' national championship, accomplished with a 3-1 (25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16) win over Florida in the title match, raised Nebraska's number of women's NCAA volleyball titles to five (including two of the last three) and finals appearances to eight in school history. The Gators faced a difficulty in the finals that I identified in connection with their win over USC in the Elite Eight, namely allowing extremely high side-out rates to their opponents, meaning that Florida could not string together points on its own serve. As shown in the Nebraska-Florida box score, the Huskers sided-out at 77% in Game 2 and 76% in Game 4.

Florida has much to be proud of from this season, including a three-match winning streak in the tournament over Pac-12 schools -- UCLA, USC, and Stanford -- to reach the NCAA championship match (Gators' season log).

In the other semifinal (besides Florida-Stanford), Nebraska overcame a Penn State match-point in Game 4 to prevail in five, 25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11.

With NCAA titles in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014, Penn State won the championship six times in eight years. Perhaps even more remarkable than the fact the Nittany Lions have not won a national title in the past three seasons is that, as documented in the following chart, Penn State has lost seven straight matches to Nebraska during the same time span.

Date (Box 
Score Link)
Neb H%
12/14/17 KC, Mo.*
9/22/17 PSU
12/9/16 Neb*
11/16/16 Neb
11/4/16 PSU
11/28/15 Neb
10/2/15 PSU
*NCAA tournament.

Whereas the Huskers' hitting percentages have varied widely (from .173-.347) in these seven matches vs. Penn State, the Nittany Lions' hitting percentages have hit a wall in the low .230's, never exceeding .234 vs. Nebraska. How unusual is it for Penn State to hit at such a low clip? I counted a total of 13 matches the Nittany Lions played in 2015, 2016, and 2017 against Top 10 opponents other than Nebraska (four each against Stanford and Minnesota, two each against Wisconsin and Michigan State, and one against Hawaii). In a majority (seven) of these matches against top-shelf opposition, Penn State's hitting exceeded .250 (four times from .250-.299 and three times exceeding .300). 

Our final topic is the controversial end to Mick Haley's 17-year run as coach at USC. Back in 2007, I looked at several top programs' NCAA tournament performance from 2003-2007, relative to what would have been expected from their seedings. For example, the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tourney would be expected to all six matches necessary for the title, the No. 2 seed would be expected to win five matches (before losing in the final), the No. 3 and 4 seeds would each be expected to win four matches, etc. I decided to repeat this analysis specifically for Haley over the past 10 seasons (2008-2017), the results of which appear in the following chart.

USC Seed
Expected Wins
Actual Wins
*In match-up of two unseeded teams, it is assumed each team has 50% chance of winning.

Totaling up the final column, Haley's USC teams won one more NCAA-tournament match over the 10-year period from 2008-2017 than would have been predicted from their seedings. In other words, Haley led his teams in the NCAA tourney about as far as they were expected to go, neither greatly exceeding nor greatly falling short of these benchmarks (one exception being 2015, in which the Trojans were the national No. 1 seed, but advanced only as far as the Elite Eight).

In Haley's favor, he led the Trojans to two NCAA titles (2002 and 2003) and, as recently as 2010 and 2011, his teams were making the Final Four. Also, his final (2017) 'SC squad was one point away from making the Final Four as a No. 10 seed.

On the negative side of the ledger, only once did a Haley-led Trojan squad attain better than a No. 6 NCAA-tournament seed in the last 10 years (2015). Further, USC's failure to make even a single Final Four from 2012-2015 with superstar Samantha Bricio on the team has to sting for Trojan fans.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 NCAA Women's Regional Finals Wrap

The NCAA women's Final Four, beginning tonight, will feature No. 1-seeded Penn State vs. No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 Stanford. The bracket has thus stuck pretty closely to the chalk, although we easily could have had No. 10-seed USC instead of Florida, the Trojans having held a match-point over the Gators in Game 4 of the teams' five-game contest. Florida's match-winning score was 25-23, 20-25, 18-25, 26-24, 15-11.

One of the key turnaround factors for Florida was the improved hitting of Carli Snyder as the match progressed. As shown in the box score, Snyder had only two kills in the first three games combined (both in Game 2), seven in Game 4, and two in Game 5. In the post-game quotes, USC coach Mick Haley explained the situation in terms of a shift in USC's lineup apparently geared at increasing the Trojans' offensive firepower at the cost of losing their most effective blocking match-up on Snyder:

“What happened is they got [Carli Snyder] away from [Brittany Abercrombie]. Abercrombie and Jordan Burns did a fantastic job on [Snyder]. [Snyder] has been unstoppable all year and if you look at the stats she has been the go-to for Florida. We virtually held her to a small roar until they rotated. We had an option to match up, but in the fifth game we went with the lineup that would score the most points, knowing that we might only get 9-12 rotations..."

Note that, although Haley pinpoints his team's lineup change for Game 5 as a turning point, Snyder began heating up in Game 4. Another issue was the collapse of USC's siding-out performance in Game 5 (35%, compared to values ranging from 65-77% in each of the first four games). By siding-out at such high levels in Games 1-4, the Trojans limited the Gators' ability to go on scoring runs on their own serve. However, in Game 5, Florida was able to rally from down 9-5.

Whereas none of the other Elite Eight showdowns matched Florida-USC for drama, Nebraska's four-game win over No. 4-seed Kentucky featured some tight games (25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22). As shown in the following graphic, Kentucky hit over .300 for the regular season as a whole and maintained that hitting percentage in five-game wins over Western Kentucky in the NCAA second round and BYU in the third round. However, the Wildcats fell to .252 vs Nebraska, which clocked in at .271 in Lexington.

Stanford's Elite Eight victory over No. 6-seed Texas was a lot less competitive than many expected, ending in a three-game sweep by identical scores of 25-21 in each game. And in the remaining match, Penn State swept Michigan State; the Nittany Lions had beaten the Spartans 3-1 in each of the teams' two B1G conference matches (PSU game log).

Tonight's Penn State-Nebraska national semifinal will be a rematch of a September 22 conference clash, in which Nebraska swept Penn State in State College, for the Nittany Lions' only loss of the year. The Huskers hit .347 in that match, which will be hard for them to duplicate vs. Penn State.

Florida and Stanford, the contestants in tonight's other semi, have not met this season. For what it's worth, the Gators will be playing their third straight Pac 12 opponent, having beaten UCLA 3-1 in the Sweet Sixteen, followed by USC in the match discussed above.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

2017 NCAA Women's Tourney: First Weekend Wrap

The first two rounds of this year's NCAA women's tourney were completed this weekend and there were several casualties among seeded teams. We lost No. 8 Washington (to Illinois), No. 9 Creighton (to Michigan State), No. 12 Baylor (to Colorado), No. 14 Iowa State (to Wisconsin), and No. 16 Wichita State (to Mizzou). In addition, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 10 USC were taken to five games before prevailing, vs. Western Kentucky  and San Diego, respectively.

One might be tempted to say there's increasing parity among top teams. However, three of the upsets were engineered by unseeded Big Ten (B1G) teams, so it's hardly the case that teams from mid-major conferences are displacing ones from the power leagues. In fact, the B1G has six teams remaining    (No. 1 Penn State, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 7 Minnesota, in addition to the unseeded teams listed above). The Pac 12 is close behind, with five remaining teams (No. 3 Stanford, No. 10 USC, No. 11 Utah, No. 15 UCLA, and unseeded Colorado). The SEC has three (No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Kentucky, and Mizzou). That's 14 of the final 16 coming from three major conferences! The other remaining teams are No. 6 Texas and No. 13 BYU.

Penn State raised a few eyebrows by dropping a game each to first-round opponent Howard and second-round opponent Pittsburgh. The spider-like pattern in the following graph (on which you can click to enlarge) shows some interesting hitting-percentage trends in these matches. Note that Penn State is shown in blue, the Nittany Lions' opponents are shown in red, the solid lines are from the PSU-Howard match, and the dashed lines are from the PSU-Pitt match. Teams' hitting percentages are shown for Games 1, 2, 3, and 4 of of the respective matches.

Penn State's game-specific hitting percentages in the two matches ranged from .265-415, except for a  .195 in Game 4 vs. Pitt. However, the Nittany Lions allowed Pitt to hit .324, .306, and .268 in the first three games (Game 2 being won by the Panthers), before Pitt slipped to .057 in Game 4. Howard's game-specific hitting percentages were quite interesting. In each of three games (1, 3, and 4), Howard hit .000 (recording an equal number of kills and errors). However, in Game 2, the Bison put up an excellent .355 (16 kills, 5 errors, on 31 attempts); Howard won this game. In short, Penn State's offense looked fine, but its defense was inconsistent.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

2017 NCAA Women's Tourney Preview

The bracket for this year's NCAA women's tournament was announced Sunday night and play begins Thursday. One aspect of the draw raising some eyebrows is the No. 4 national seed for Kentucky (behind Penn State, Florida, and Stanford). The Wildcats went 17-1 in the SEC, splitting two matches with Florida, and 26-3 overall (match-by-match log). UK's two nonconference losses were to Creighton (9th seed in the NCAA field) and Kansas, whereas the Wildcats' best nonconference wins were over USC (10th seed) and Utah (11th seed).

Using my Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) rating system (described here), I peg Kentucky as having the 13th-best chance to win the national title. The chart below (which you can click on to enlarge) shows the CACOD rating (under "adjratio") for each of the 16 seeded teams. A team's own hitting percentage during the season is one of the major components of the CACOD and the Wildcats' (.321) was one of the best in the nation. However, UK allowed its opponents to hit .207 in the aggregate (the other major component of the CACOD), a fairly high value for elite tournament teams.

Note that in the six years since I developed the CACOD, no team with a value below 1.91 has won the NCAA title. Kentucky (1.55) would thus have to break some major new ground to win the championship. 

The NCAA seedings and the CACOD agree in placing Penn State in the No. 1 slot. The Nittany Lions' top hitting percentage among the 16 seeds, combined with a reasonably good defense, yields a 2.60 CACOD for Penn State. Texas and Nebraska are similar defensively, each allowing its respective opposition to hit just a little above .150. However, the Longhorns' superior offensive hitting percentage (.314 vs. .282) gives them an edge in the CACOD over Nebraska.

Stay tuned for updates throughout the tournament!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Nebraska Wins with Stunning Ease at Penn State

No. 2 Penn State suffered its first loss of the season last night, as Nebraska came into State College and swept the Nittany Lions, 26-24, 25-19, 25-20. The number that caught my eye was the Huskers' hitting percentage of .347. This was the highest hitting percentage Penn State had allowed an opponent since Minnesota put up a .374 in sweeping the Nittany Lions on October 29, 2016 in Minneapolis.

Nebraska entered the match with three losses on the season, to highly ranked Oregon and Florida in an opening-weekend tournament, and to Northern Iowa on September 16. As noted, Penn State's ledger was perfect before last night and included a pair of wins over defending national champion Stanford.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Volleyball Magazine Daily Releases of Women's Conference Previews (2017)

Over at Volleyball Magazine, each day they're releasing a preview of the upcoming women's season in a different conference. There's a lot of good information on each team in a given conference, including returnees, losses, and newcomers. I'll link to each preview as it comes out:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Didn't We See This Movie Before? (2017 NCAA Men's Final)

A little over a week ago, for the second straight year, Ohio State swept BYU for the NCAA men's championship. Whereas last year's result was somewhat of a surprise, this year's was less so, as the Buckeyes were the host team for the Final Four.

As the following chart shows, similarity between the last two years' title matches went beyond the identities of the teams involved and the score. In particular, Ohio State's hitting percentage, as a team, was extremely similar in the 2016 and 2017 finals. BYU's spike attempts totaled 71 last year and 70 this year; each of these substantially trailed OSU's respective number of attempts, suggesting Cougar problems with serve-receipt, passing, and staying in-system.

2017 (Box Score)
2016 (Box Score)
OSU (25-19, 25-20, 25-22)
OSU (32-30, 25-23, 25-17)
OSU Hitting Pct.
.358 (42-13-81)
.374 (51-17-91)
Nicolas Szerszen .(OSU) H%
.480 (16-4-25)
.208 (10-5-24)
BYU Hitting Pct.
.243 (33-16-70)
.296 (34-13-71)
Ben Patch (BYU) H%
.333 (6 K-2 E-12 TA)
.091 (10-8-22)

The Buckeyes' Nicolas Szersen took virtually the same number of attack attempts in the two finals (24 last year, 25 this year), but hit much more efficiently this year. Maxime Hervoir, who has played for the French national team and attended two years of college in that country, added to the OSU attack this year, hitting .471 (10-2-17) in the final match. (He did not play in last year's final.)

BYU star Ben Patch, who battled injury most of the season, improved his hitting percentage from a year ago, but only had 12 attack attempts.