Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pre-Match Analysis of Penn State-Stanford Women's Final

With tonight's NCAA championship match between Penn State and Stanford just hours away, I wanted to provide some pregame statistical analysis. In the aftermath of Penn State's dramatic semifinal victory over Nebraska, one of the most frequent observations among discussants at the VolleyTalk site was how the Nittany Lions appeared to stray from attacking the middle against the Cornhuskers. In order to break things down scientifically, I created the following graph based on Penn State's NCAA tournament matches thus far this season.

Indeed, it appears that the Nittany Lions' three middle-hitters (Christa Harmotto, Blair Brown, and Arielle Wilson) have been getting a declining proportion of the team's hitting attempts in recent matches.

Meanwhile, outside-hitter Nicole Fawcett has, to an increasing extent, been getting the "lion's share" of the hit attempts. Penn State's other main outside-hitter, Megan Hodge, has consistently been getting between 25-35% of the team's hitting attempts in the tournament, thus the degree to which she was set against the Cornhuskers was well within normal range.

From Stanford's perspective, one of the main ways in which the Cardinal has succeeded this season is by limiting opponents' offensive prowess. When that fails, however, Stanford seems to be able to lift its own offense to a higher level. This game article from Stanford's semifinal victory over Texas notes that, "The Longhorns were the first team all year to hit above .300 against the Cardinal..."

In fact, even with the Longhorns hitting .438 and .381, respectively, in Games 4 and 5, the Cardinal was able to prevail in both games by hitting an astronomical .439 and .500 (box score). As discussed in the article, it was Stanford's "Big Three" doing the damage:

It took all that Stanford's three All-American hitters could muster, but in the end Alix Klineman, Cynthia Barboza and Foluke Akinradewo played one of the best matches of their careers. Klineman paced the team with 20 kills, while Akinradewo slammed 17 on .452 hitting and provided six critical blocks. It was Barboza, however, who stole the show in the improbable comeback, recording 15 of her 19 kills in the final three sets.

In conclusion, Stanford appears to have two options: slowing down Penn State's offensive attack or, failing that, prevailing in a slugfest. Neither seems too likely to me.

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