Monday, December 19, 2011

NCAA Women's Final Four Wrap-Up

Illinois entered this past weekend's NCAA Women's Final Four with an interesting proposition. To win the national championship, the Fighting Illini would most likely have to win the championship of Los Angeles. USC stood as the opponent in Thursday's semi-finals, with UCLA up next in Saturday's finals provided the Bruins could handle Florida State (which UCLA did, via sweep).

The Illini passed its first test, besting USC in a five-game classic. On the final point of the Illinois-USC match, shown here on YouTube, the ball crossed the net 20 times, before the Trojans hit it out to give the Illini a 15-10 win in the closing set.

Unfortunately for Illinois, its difficulty in putting the ball away on the final point vs. USC foreshadowed troubles it would have doing so two nights later against UCLA. The Bruins had the upper hand for most of the championship match and won in four, 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16.

Thanks to a pair of Illini spurts -- outscoring UCLA 12-3 to take Game 2 after trailing 20-13, and 5-1 to get two set-points in Game 3 -- the match could have gone in a different direction (see box score/play-by-play sheet). The Illini couldn't close out Game 3, however, as their spike attempts while leading 24-22 and 24-23 were dug by UCLA. The Bruins won both rallies to tie the score at 24-24 and then won the next two points as well (if you check the match video at the ESPN3.com archive, the final stages of Game 3 appear at the 1 hour, 50 minute point).

The two teams' final hitting percentages were very similar, .218 for UCLA and .215 for Illinois. Rather, the Bruin win seems mainly attributable to defense, with UCLA outblocking (15-11.5) and outdigging (87-76) Illinois. The serving game was also important, with the Illini committing 11 errors to none for the Bruins; despite Illinois's seemingly more aggressive serving approach, it racked up only two more aces than did UCLA (4-2).

The Illini's powerful offensive game was limited to a .215 hitting percentage by UCLA, in contrast to the .279 Illinois was able to generate vs. USC. The following graphic (on which you may click to enlarge) compares what happened on all of Illinois's total spike attempts (TA) vs. USC (left column) with what happened on all of the Illini's swings vs. UCLA (right column).


Whereas Illinois got kills on 39.1% of its hitting attempts vs. USC, the Illini succeeded only 32.6% of the time vs. UCLA. A team is officially credited with a block when the ball goes rocketing back to the floor on the hitting team's side of the net for a defensive point. UCLA scored via block on 8.3% of Illinois's swings,  whereas USC did so on only 4.6% of them (USC more frequently induced the Illini to commit the other type of hitting error, hitting the ball out of bounds, than did UCLA, 6.6% of the time compared to 2.8%). UCLA also dug 48.1% of Illinois's spike attempts, compared to the 44.2% of Illini hits that USC dug.

UCLA dropped only three sets in its six NCAA tourney matches, one each to San Diego, Texas, and Illinois. The Bruins are fortunate the championship match didn't go to five games, as the Illini's record this season in matches going the distance was 7-0...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

NCAA Women's Regional Round-Up & Final Four Preview

This year's tournament has to be right up there for the volume of upsets, near-upsets, and all-around strangeness. UCLA appeared to be floundering towards the end of the regular season, losing three of its last five matches. Florida State, playing in the relatively low-profile Atlantic Coast Conference, certainly didn't seem like Final Four caliber during the season. Yet, the Bruins and Seminoles will be playing each other this upcoming Thursday night in one national semi-final.

The other national semi will feature two teams that each looked dominant for most of the season, but also had some unexpected losses, USC and Illinois. The mighty Big 10 conference, which had six of its member teams advance to the Sweet 16 round, ended Friday night's regional semi-finals with the minimum number of surviving teams it could have, one (because Illinois played Ohio State and someone had to win!).

In the remainder of this entry, I summarize developments in the four regions and discuss what to look out for in the Final Four.

LEXINGTON, KY REGION

A night after sweeping four-time defending national champion Penn State out of the tournament, UCLA ousted the national No. 1 seed Texas, 19-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-21 (box score). Texas's decline after Game 1 is evident in many ways. As shown in the following graph, the Longhorns' hitting percentage fell from a torrid .517 in Game 1 to roughly .200 in each of the remaining games.


As perhaps a microcosm of the match, Texas's Haley Eckerman amassed 4 kills in Game 1, and 5 in Game 2, but only 1 more the rest of the contest (fairly late in Game 4 with UT down 15-12). Eckerman sat for the middle stages of the match, leading the ESPN-U announcers and other observers to wonder what might have been going on.

Texas outblocked UCLA 10-7 for the match, but the way the Longhorns' blocks were distributed among the four games shows why UT didn't gain a bigger advantage from its blocking.

The Longhorns recorded 5 blocks in Game 1 (including 3 straight to advance their lead from 17-15 to 20-15). However, UT had no blocks in the second set, 2 in the third, and none for most of the fourth. Only after the Longhorns had fallen behind 20-13, did they somehow put together 3 more blocks, but it was too little, too late. (These game-specific statistics come from looking at the play-by-play sheet on the archived CBS Sports gametracker.)

For UCLA, Rachael Kidder provided the offensive lift against Texas, hitting .417 from 26 kills and 6 errors on 48 swings. As seen in the graph above, the Bruins experienced what seems to be their customary Game-3 dip in hitting percentage, but still won the game.

MINNEAPOLIS REGION

Twelfth-seeded Florida State stunned No. 5 Purdue and No. 4 Iowa State, the latter in five sets, to advance to the Seminoles' first volleyball Final Four. Blocking appeared to play a large role in FSU's win over Iowa State. Florida State outblocked Iowa State 16-8, as well as outhitting the Cyclones .245-.204 (box score).

It was blocking that arguably turned around Game 5, as the Seminoles stuffed the Cyclones at four key points (to tie the game 8-8, and boost their leads to 10-8, 12-10, and 14-11). If, instead of being blocked, Iowa State could have made good on most of these spike attempts, the match could well have had a different outcome.

FSU junior middle-blocker Sareea Freeman personally played a large role in thwarting the Cyclones' attack, contributing 2 solo blocks and 8 block assists for the match, while hitting .500 (12-2-20). Jekaterina Stepanova also hit big for the Seminoles in a workhorse role (.378, 20-3-45).

GAINESVILLE REGION

In the regional final, Illinois withstood a Florida team that was hot and playing on its home court, 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20 (box score). Colleen Ward, who once played for Florida before transferring, led the Fighting Illini with a .500 hitting percentage against the Gators (23-2-42). The error-free hitting of middle blockers Anna Dorn, .600 (6-0-10), and Erin Johnson, .562 (9-0-16), also paced the Illini.

Illinois won the first game, in which both teams hit very poorly (UI .068, UF .024). The Illini then perked up to hit .455, .394, and .514 in the final three games, for a .338 night overall as a team. The Gators hit .405 in Game 2, below Illinois's average, but enough to win the set.

The Gators' overall hitting percentage against Illinois was .225, with team leader Kelly Murphy registering only a .205. In sweeping Michigan the night before, Florida hit a whopping .439. Betsy Smith (.700), Chloe Mann (.533), Murphy (.517), and Kristy Jaeckel (.435), led the Gators (all four of these hitters took at least 10 swings).

HONOLULU REGION

Just as Illinois had to contend with playing an opponent on its home floor, so did USC. In this regional, the Trojans faced host Hawai'i in the semi-final, winning in five, 19-25, 29-27, 19-25, 25-23, 15-12 (box score). The teams were very balanced in their overall hitting (UH .220, USC .211) and blocks recorded (UH 15, USC 14).

The Trojans managed to turn up their offensive intensive in the fifth set, when they needed to, hitting .400 (12-2-25) and siding out (winning points on the Rainbow Wahine's serve) 69% of the time. Seven of those kills were by Alex Jupiter. The fact that 'SC scored 12 of its 15 Game-5 points on kills (with the others on an ace and two blocks) is noteworthy in that Hawai'i wasn't exactly giving things away with errors.

Some may have expected a Trojan cakewalk over Pepperdine the next night (I did), but instead, USC was again extended to five games, 25-16, 26-28, 19-25, 25-19, 15-10 (box score). The Trojans outhit the Waves, although neither team hit that well in an absolute sense (.223-.175). USC's blocking advantage was much more one-sided, 14-6.5.

SUMMARY

The four teams that will be competing for the NCAA title all have shown great resiliency, overcoming deficits, hometown crowds for their opponents, and the pressures of fifth games. Interestingly, Florida State, the team I would give the least chance to win it all, may have the best balance between hitting and blocking. Illinois probably has the most consistently strong hitting, whereas USC can dominate with the block (which is not to say the Trojans don't have some fine hitters, when they're on). UCLA's problem this season has been closing out matches (squandering 2-set-to-1 leads at Pepperdine and Arizona, and a 2-0 lead at Oregon, to lose all three of these matches). Lately, however, the Bruins have shown no trouble closing the deal.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Round-Up of NCAA Women's Tourney Opening Weekend

The headlines from the first weekend of this year's NCAA Division I women's volleyball tournament would have to be upsets, in general, and the poor showing of the Pac 12 conference, in particular. In the following chart, I summarize the performances of teams from the three major conferences (Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12), other seeded teams, and any other teams that advanced to next weekend's Sweet 16. You may click on the graphic to enlarge it.


The highest-seeded upset victim was No. 2 Nebraska, which fell at home in Lincoln to former conference rival Kansas State in five games, 25-22, 22-25, 31-29, 22-25, 15-11, in the second round. The Cornhuskers' downfall appeared to be on defense. Offensively, Nebraska hit exactly at its regular-season percentage (.262) against the Wildcats. However, whereas the Huskers held their regular-season opponents to a collective .143 hitting percentage, K-State hit nearly .100 better, registering a .241 evening (box score). The Huskers still slightly outhit the Wildcats (.262-.241), so one must look further for possible explanations of Nebraska's loss. Leading candidates are blocking (where K-State held the edge, 13-10) and serving (where the Wildcats had 4 aces and 7 errors to the Huskers' 2 and 11, respectively).

The second-highest seeded team to lose was No. 6 Northern Iowa, to Florida, also in the second round. Despite the 33-1 record UNI brought into the match, its loss to the Gators would probably not be considered such a stunner by most observers, as the Panthers' schedule is not the nation's most challenging in the Missouri Valley Conference. Florida mainstay Kelly Murphy led the way with a spectacular .452 hitting night, on 15 kills and 1 error on 31 spike attempts. Fellow senior Kristy Jaeckel did Murphy one better on error-avoidance, hitting .333 (13-0-39).

Florida will next take on Michigan, which ousted 11-seed Stanford on the Cardinal's home court (the Wolverines did the same in 2009). The resurgence of Michigan's senior OH Alex Hunt, which I coined "The Hunt for Blue December," continues onward, as she hit .341 (17-3-41) vs. Stanford. Claire McElheny also took a lot of swings for the Wolverines and came up big (.410, 18-2-39). In addition, UM kept the Cardinal's recently hot Carly Wopat in check (.250, 10-5-20).

In another previous posting, I wrote about Michigan's "unfortunate penchant for failing to capitalize on game and match points during conference play..." What may have been the turning point for the Wolverines in NCAA tournament play came in Game 3 of their opener against Baylor. Having split the first two sets, Michigan and Baylor went "overtime" in the next game, which the Wolverines pulled out 29-27. UM then closed things out easily in Game 4, 25-17.

There were two other matches in which Big 10 teams defeated Pac 12 teams head-to-head. No. 13-seed Minnesota came back from two games down to oust Washington in a second-round match. The Huskies neutralized the Gophers' big hitter Tori Dixon (.048), but couldn't do the same to Ariana Filho (.357) or Katherine Harms (.356). For U-Dub, Krista Vansant (.327) and Bianca Rowland (.323) hit well in defeat. Also, in a first-round match, Michigan State knocked off Arizona, before getting swept by top-seeded Texas.

Another surprise advancer from the Big 10 is Ohio State, which scored a five-game victory over No. 14-seed Tennessee in Knoxville. In the 1990's, then-ESPN studio host Dan Patrick used to say of various athletes, "You can't stop [name of player], you can only hope to contain him!" (audio clip). Well, the Buckeyes' didn't exactly stop the Volunteers' high-powered offense -- Shealyn Kolosky (.391, 11-2-23) and DeeDee Harrison (.308, 12-4-26) put up some nice numbers for UT -- but OSU contained the rest of the team, leaving the Vols with a .171 hitting percentage for the match. OSU bested this with a .207.

Click here to see the official NCAA bracket and match-ups for the round of 16.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NCAA 2011 Women's Preview: Introducing the Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive Rating

With the NCAA Division I women's tournament starting Thursday and rampant displeasure at the tournament committee's seedings (believed to be based heavily on RPI ratings), the fans at VolleyTalk are awash in different alternative rating schemes for evaluating the teams.

The major known ranking systems -- the AVCA Coaches' Poll, RPI, Pablo Rankings, and Rich Kern Rankings -- all appear to take teams' win/loss records and strength of schedule into account. As anyone who has read my blog over the past five years knows, my focus has always been on hitting percentage. I think it's a great singular statistic for incorporating many aspects of the game.

If you hit well (not just keep the ball in play, but get kills), your (individual or team) hitting percentage goes up. An attack kept in play by the other team hurts, as does a hitting error (spiking the ball out of bounds or getting stuff-blocked for an opponent's point). In order to hit well, a team must pass and set well. If you block or dig your opponent's spike attempts, that drives down the opponent's hitting percentage.

What I've done, therefore, is create a national ranking metric based heavily on each team's ratio of its own overall season hitting percentage (offense) divided by the overall hitting percentage it has allowed the opposition (defense). A ratio is maximized when a large numerator is divided by a small denominator. For example, hitting .300 for the season and allowing one's opponents (in the aggregate) to hit .100 yields a ratio of 3. Hitting .250 and allowing one's opponents to hit .200 yields a ratio of 1.25.

But that's not all. Teams play in differentially tough conferences, so I wanted to adjust for that. I came up with a very simple adjustment system out of thin air. We'll see how well my rankings predict this year's tournament matches and I can modify my conference adjustments as needed. Here's my current adjustment system:
  • If a team plays in the Big 10, Big 12, or Pac 12, I multiplied its hitting percentage-to-opponent hitting percentage ratio by 1.25. This way, teams that faced what I (and others) consider the top opposition are rewarded for doing so.
  • Teams from the ACC, SEC, Big East, Atlantic 10, Mid America, Missouri Valley, West Coast, Big West, Mountain West, Western Athletic (WAC), or Conference USA had their ratios multiplied by 1.00 (i.e., leaving their ratios alone).
  • Teams from all remaining conferences, whose schools tend to have relatively low athletic budgets and little or no track record of national success in women's volleyball, had their ratios multiplied by 0.75. Teams dominating these smaller conferences could hit really well and keep their opponents' hitting low, so to account for this, I adjusted their ratios downward.
What follows now are my 1-through-64 rankings of the NCAA tournament teams, based on my Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive/Defensive (CACOD) rankings. You may click on the chart (which is divided into three panels) for an enlarged view.



Nebraska coming out top-ranked seems to give my system a little "face validity." Further, I have USC ranked higher than does the NCAA tournament committee! And if Dayton or Colorado State makes a big run in the tourney, you heard it here first. Like all other ranking systems, mine will stand or fall on how well it predicts tournament games. For any given match, we would predict the higher-ranked team to beat the lower-ranked one. We'll see how it works.

A note on sources:  I obtained all teams' (offensive) hitting percentages from the NCAA statistics page (see link in right-hand column). To glean teams' opponent (defensive) hitting percentages, I looked at a variety of conference and team-specific pages. When looking at conference and team pages, I checked whether the listed offensive hitting percentages matched those on the NCAA site, to verify that the statistics were from the same time-frame. As it happened, a few tiny discrepancies appeared between the NCAA and conference/team pages regarding teams' offensive hitting percentages (e.g., the NCAA page said Yale had hit .253, whereas the Ivy League page said the figure was .254).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cal Women Defeat Stanford Despite Wopat's Near Error-Free Hitting

Cal came into Stanford's Maples Pavilion last night and upset the Cardinal in a mostly tight match, 24-26, 29-27, 25-23, 25-14 (box score). Cal led 24-22 in the opening game, but Stanford ran off four straight points. Stanford had a couple of opportunities to go up two sets to none, having set points in Game 2 at 25-24 and 26-25. Cal had set points at 27-26 and 28-27, the latter of which the Golden Bears capitalized on.

The Golden Bears outhit the Cardinal, .306-.233. Leading Cal were Kat Brown, .500 (7 kills, 0 errors, 14 attempts); Correy Johnson, .500 (16-3-26); and Shannon Hawari, .375 (12-3-24). (I always confuse Kat Brown with Texas’s Khat Bell.)

Carly Wopat, Stanford's 6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker, continues to shine. She has committed only 13 hitting errors in her last 234 swings (over the team's last nine matches). With 118 kills during this time, she is hitting .449 during her hot stretch. Here are Wopat's hitting statistics for the second half of Pac 12 play...

Opponent
Kills
Errors
Attempts
Percentage
@Arizona
9
4
20
.250
@ASU
18
7
35
.314
USC
11
0
18
.611
UCLA
7
1
21
.286
@Colorado
14
4
26
.385
@Utah
10
1
18
.500
@Washington
11
1
33
.303
@WSU
13
1
22
.545
Oregon
18
0
26
.692
OSU
12
4
32
.250
Cal
22
1
38
.553

Elsewhere in Pac 12 play last night...

USC avenged its earlier defeat to UCLA, winning in Westwood 24-26, 26-24, 25-21, 25-20 (box score). Based on the teams' low hitting percentages -- USC's .208 and UCLA's .136 -- it looks like it was a grind-it-out kind of match, with long rallies and many hitting errors. The pattern I identified earlier this season of the Bruins' often experiencing a dip in hitting percentage after the post-Game 2 intermission was again evident: .196 in Game 1, .263 in Game 2, and -.086 in Game 3 (though rebounding back to .143 in Game 4).

Oregon avenged Tuesday night's loss to Oregon State, sweeping the Beavers (box score). OSU was very anemic offensively, illustrated by its .090 hitting percentage for the match (with many unforced errors, as UO had only 5 team blocks) and its never exceeding a 50% side-out percentage in any game.

Lastly, just as I was getting a little excited about my graduate-school alma mater Michigan's improved play of late, the Wolverines lost in four at home to Ohio State (box score). The Buckeyes, led by Kelli Barhorst at .444 (10-2-18), outhit the Wolverines 275-.222.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Post-Thanksgiving Round-Up (2011)

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. Here are a few tidbits from Tuesday and Wednesday nights' action to get caught up on recent developments.

No sooner did I write an entry about how well Oregon was doing than the Ducks got swept Tuesday night by Oregon State. The teams have a rematch tonight in Eugene.

A few weeks ago, the college-volleyball world marveled at the 34-32 game played by Penn State and Wisconsin. Wednesday night, Oklahoma took a 35-33 set over Texas Tech to close out a three-game sweep.

In another Wednesday match featuring overtime games, Tennessee held off Kentucky in Knoxville, 28-30, 25-20, 30-28, 25-18, to win the SEC title. The potent Lady Volunteer offense did not disappoint, racking up a .291 overall team hitting percentage (box score). Leading contributors were DeeDee Harrison, .444 (15 kills, 3 errors, 27 attempts); Shealyn Kolosky, .421 (8-0-19); and Leslie Cikra, .370 (14-4-27).  The Wildcats were led by Whitney Billings .367 (14-3-30); and Becky Pavan, .353 (13-1-34). The latter is the sister of former Nebraska great Sarah Pavan.

One additional Wednesday match I wanted to mention, as a Michigan alumnus, is the Wolverines' four-game win over Michigan State. UM's left-handed slugger Alex Hunt (shown in this video from last year) had her best conference hitting night of the season, registering a .361 percentage. Her previous bests had been .353 at Nebraska and .308 at home vs. Minnesota. She has missed (or had her action greatly limited in) five Big 10 matches due to injury, and in her remaining matches has had a lot of lackluster hitting percentages (e.g., -.021 at Northwestern, .000 at Purdue, .083 at Illinois, and .120 at home vs. Indiana).

I try to follow as many UM matches as possible via Internet video or audio broadcasts and I've heard a couple of schools' announcers make the point that Hunt hits the ball as hard as anyone, yet she is inconsistent in her hitting percentages. If she can continue the hot hitting she exhibited vs. MSU, then the Wolverines' journey in the NCAA tournament might be termed the "Hunt for Blue December." Michigan hosts Ohio State tonight to conclude the regular season.

Finally, national No. 4 UCLA hosts No. 1 USC tonight. The Trojans (19-2 in conference) have already wrapped up the Pac 12 championship, ahead of the second-place Bruins (17-4). However, UCLA routed USC in the teams' first match-up. The Trojans will be out for revenge, but perhaps there's something about the Bruins that matches them up well against 'SC.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nebraska's Slow Starts

The Lincoln Journal Star notes in this piece that Nebraska lately "has gotten off to slow starts, losing the first set in seven of its last nine matches. While Nebraska is 7-2 in those matches, it's something the Huskers hope to get a better handle on before the NCAA Tournament begins next week." (Thanks to "Red in Colorado" for posting the link on VolleyTalk.)

To probe the matter further, I created the following table based on Nebraska's schedule/results page, showing the Cornhuskers' opponents and lost sets/games (in yellow) in the matches alluded to above.

OpponentGame 1Game 2Game 3Game 4Game 5
Illinois
24-26
25-18
25-19
25-11
---
@Ohio St.
19-25
25-22
25-19
25-17
---
@Penn St.
17-25
15-25
25-17
17-25
---
Michigan
17-25
26-24
25-20
25-21
---
Mich. St.
25-11
25-18
25-23
---
---
@Indiana
25-19
25-19
25-20
---
---
@Purdue
19-25
19-25
16-25
---
---
Minnesota
17-25
25-18
25-15
25-16
---
Wisconsin
12-25
25-17
25-13
25-22
---

Here are a few things to note:
  • Most of Nebraska's Game-1 losses during this stretch were pretty decisive; in six of them, Nebraska didn't even get 20 points.
  • After five of the Game-1 losses, Nebraska bounced back to sweep the next three sets and take the match.
  • The two times the Huskers failed to turn things around after losing the opening set were both on the road and against very tough opponents -- Penn State and Purdue.
UPDATE: Tonight the Huskers beat Iowa -- without losing the first game or any game for that matter -- to win the Big 10 championship.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Oregon's Impressive Play Continues

The Oregon Ducks, who opened the season in August with a shocking win at Penn State, have been making a lot of noise of late. This past weekend, Oregon went down to the Bay Area and knocked off both the Stanford and Cal women. With these latest wins in Pac 12 play, the Ducks have now won 8 of their last 10 matches (game-by-game log).

One feature of the Oregon team -- if not the primary feature -- that appears to give it strength is the number of players who can hit for high percentages on a given night. Below, I've selected four major Duck wins and, for each, the following table displays players' hitting percentages (with number of spike attempts in parentheses). Hitting percentages of .300 or higher, based on at least 10 attempts, are highlighted.

Player
@PSU (8/26)
vs. UCLA (11/11)
@Stan (11/18)
@Cal (11/19)
Bergsma (OH)
.239 (46)
.290 (62)
.234 (47)
.220 (50)
Brenner (OH)
.579 (19)
-.257 (15)
.651 (43)
.043 (47)
Fischer (OH)
.317 (41)
.250 (32)
.143 (28)
.412 (34)
Krstojevic (MB)
.400 (5)
.571 (7)
---
.500 (2)
Paffen (MB)
-.500 (2)
.429 (14)
.100 (10)
.400 (10)
Williams (MB)
.118 (17)
.333 (21)
.194 (31)
.429 (21)

Junior Alaina Bergsma has been getting the most sets and has recorded respectable, if not spectacular, hitting percentages. Frosh Liz Brenner seems to be getting nearly as many sets as Bergsma lately; Brenner seems to be more of a hot and cold hitter. Junior Katherine Fischer gets fewer sets, but is capable of some big nights. Ariana Williams (Soph.) and Savannah Paffen (Fr.) are the main figures in the middle; they've had some strong matches, but aren't totally consistent. Junior Milica Krstojevic seems to record high hitting percentages whenever she plays, but doesn't get that many attempts per match. Orchestrating the Ducks' young offensive attack is sophomore setter Lauren Plum.

The Ducks have a busy Thanksgiving week, closing out the regular season with two matches against Oregon State, Tuesday in Corvallis and Friday in Eugene.

Other statistical notes from this past weekend...

Stanford soph MB Carly Wopat led her team in its five-game loss to Oregon with an error-free hitting night. With her 18 kills in 26 attempts, she hit .692.

Cal lost not only to Oregon this past weekend, but also to Oregon State. One apparent reason is that the Beavers outblocked the Golden Bears 15-8.

UCLA lost for the second time this season to Arizona, this time via a three-game sweep in Los Angeles. Both teams sided out well, but the Wildcats' percentages for the three games (65, 70, 75) exceeded the Bruins' (60, 66, 60).

Michigan State, which fell to then-No. 1 Illinois in five games in Champaign on October 15, won the return match in East Lansing last Friday, 3-1. The Spartans held the normally powerful Illini to a .165 hitting percentage.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Texas Nearly Flawless In Win Over Baylor

In sweeping Baylor tonight, Texas committed only one hitting error total in the final two games (box score). In Game 2, the Longhorns had 15 kills and 0 errors on 24 attempts, for a .625 hitting percentage. In Game 3, UT had 14 kills and 1 error in 28 swings, yielding a percentage of .464.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Top Women's College Teams Fall in Weekend of Upsets

The nation's top-ranked teams in last week's AVCA poll took it on the chin this weekend.

After taking the two opening games (sets) Friday night on the Oregon Ducks' home court, No. 1 UCLA dropped the final three and rather decisively at that, 25-15, 25-18, and 15-9 (box score).

Whichever team compiles a higher side-out rate (winning points on the opponents' serve) wins the game. Thus, it is not which team had the better side-out rate that is noteworthy, but rather the margin by which the higher team did so. Here's a graph I made of the UCLA and Oregon side-out rates by game.

By Game 2, UCLA's siding-out proficiency had begun to slide, and slide it did for the rest of the match. Siding out in the percentage range of the 40s to the low-50s is not going to win a team many matches.

Also, in a previous posting, I noted a tendency for UCLA to suffer a decline in hitting percentage after the post-Game 2 intermission. That's what happened against the Ducks. After hitting.286 and .226 in the first two games, the Bruins fell all the way to .000 (11 kills with 11 errors, on 43 swings) in Game 3, as Oregon climbed back into the match.

Alaina Bergsma carried the hitting load for the Ducks, taking 62 attempts and achieving 25 kills with only 7 errors, for a .290 evening. Milica Krstojevic (.571), Savannah Paffen (.429), and Ariana Williams (.333) also had strong hitting nights for Oregon, albeit on far fewer attempts. 

No. 2 Nebraska's loss at No. 10 Purdue was quick and decisive, 25-19, 25-19, and 25-16. What stood out to me from the box score was Purdue's microscopically low rate of hitting errors: only 6 miscues in 105 attempts (with 49 kills) for a team hitting percentage of .410 for the match. Nebraska recorded only 1 total team block. Three Boilermakers hit at clips of .500 or higher: Catherine Rebarchak (.625), Kierra Jones (.625), and Tiffany Fisher (.500). Cornhusker setter Lauren Cook, who had been suspended for her traffic-related legal problems, played in this match.

No. 11 Washington, which came into the weekend with five losses in its last eight matches, rose to the occasion Friday night with a five-set win over No. 3 Stanford (box score). Stanford outhit (.215-.193) and outblocked (16-8.5) Washington. However, the Huskies had two games, the fifth (.333) and the first (.326), in which their hitting percentages exceeded any game-specific percentage by Stanford. Another area is which U-Dub had the edge was its fewer service errors than Stanford (6 vs. 15). An error-free hitting night by Morgan Boukather (10-0-22, .455) led the Cardinal, whereas a near-error-free night from Bianca Rowland  (11-1-22, .455)  paced the Huskies.

No. 4 USC was the highest-ranked team to go unscathed this weekend, sweeping both of the Oregon schools. The Trojans have now won 17 of their last 18 matches.

No. 5 Cal swept the two Washington schools. Last year's star outside hitter Tarah Murrey has struggled for the Bears in some of their big matches this season; against the Huskies last night, she registered another lackluster hitting line (17-13-65, .062). Shannon Hawari (12-2-18. .556) and Correy Johnson (11-2-22, .409) were able to provide Cal with some firepower, however. The aforementioned Bianca Rowland capped off an outstanding weekend for the Huskies with a .435 hitting performance against Cal (12-2-23). 
     
No. 7 Illinois, which came into the weekend with three losses in its last five matches, swept No. 9 Penn State in a tight match Friday night, 25-21, 25-23, 28-26 (box score).With the win, the Illini have taken both matches from the Nittany Lions this season, the first time that has ever happened. Erin Johnson (9-0-14, .643) and Liz McMahon (10-1-16, .562) turned in monster hitting nights for Illinois, which finished with a .340 attack percentage as a team (on 42 kills and only 8 hitting errors, on 100 swings). Penn State's Deja McClendon had a big hitting night against Illinois (17-3-40, .350) and then added a .439 performance the next night in a three-game win over Northwestern.
  
Lastly, I wanted to discuss No. 24 Michigan, a team I follow closely as an alumnus (Ph.D., 1989) of the school. The Wolverines have continued to be ranked nationally, even though they lacked an impressive Big 10 conference win (with a 5-10 league mark) coming into this afternoon's contest at No. 16 Minnesota. Further, Michigan has exhibited an unfortunate penchant for failing to capitalize on game and match points during conference play (here, here, and here).

Somehow, today, the Wolverines managed to keep their focus and sweep the Gophers, 25-21, 25-21, 25-22 (box score). With only one hitting error between them, Claire McElheny (7-0-18, .389), Jennifer Cross (7-1-16, .375), and Molly Toon (9-0-27, .333) powered the Maize and Blue. Whenever the Gophers seemed to be digging themselves out of a hole, either Michigan came up with a timely block (8 total) or Minnesota committed a service error (11 total).

All was not perfect for the Wolverines, however. One problem was serve-receipt, with the Gophers recording 8 aces. Minnesota received strong hitting performances from two of its stalwarts, Tori Dixon (11-1-24, .417) and Ashley Wittman (14-3-28, .393). Michigan's Alex Hunt reportedly suffered an injury in warm-ups and was used very sparingly.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Texas Sweeps Texas Tech; Eckerman's Spike Attempts Increase Without Bell in Lineup


No. 8 Texas came here to Lubbock and made short work of Texas Tech, 25-16, 25-15, 25-18. Above is a shot I took of the Longhorns walking toward the net to shake hands with the Red Raiders at the conclusion of the match. The contest was the first for Texas without middle blocker Khat Bell, who injured her knee in a weekend match in the midst of an amazing three-match hitting stretch.

How did the Longhorns reallocate their spike attempts without Bell? The most direct comparison would be Texas's statistics in its two matches this season against Texas Tech, with Bell (Oct. 12 in Austin) and without her (tonight). Here are links to the box scores of the first and second matches. Looking at only two matches is not ideal, but it's a start. Additional matches can be examined as the Longhorns' season moves toward a close. Here are graphs of the Horns' hit allocations in their two matches against the Red Raiders (the first column doesn't add to 100%, due to rounding).

The Longhorns seemed to compensate for Bell's absence tonight by increasing their outside sets to Haley Eckerman. The move worked well, as Eckerman hit .595 on 23 kills with only 1 attack error, on 37 spike attempts (UT as a team took 106 swings, hitting .396). Rachael Adams also exceeded .500 tonight (.556), albeit on far fewer attempts (6-1-9). One reason Texas was able to hit so well tonight was that Tech had only 1 total team block for the match.

The Red Raiders hit only .126 tonight. A bright spot for them, however, was junior right-side hitter Miara Cave, who hit .471 for the evening (10-2-17). 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Khat Bell (Texas) Out for Season; Had Been on Spectacular Hitting Run

Texas frosh MB Khat Bell is out for the season with a knee injury, it was announced today. I was actually getting ready to do a posting on her recent error-free hitting. Bell's statistics lines (Kills, Errors, Total Attempts, Percentage) for hitting in her last three matches were:
I'm sure all VolleyMetrics readers will join me in wishing Ms. Bell a speedy and healthy recovery. I had been looking forward to seeing her (and her Longhorn teammates) play Wednesday night here at Texas Tech, but we'll just have to wait till next year.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Penn State-Wisconsin Marathon (2011)

For drama in a regular-season match, it would be hard to top today's Penn State-Wisconsin battle in Madison. In the end, it was the unranked Badgers pulling a five-game upset over the No. 6 Nittany Lions, 26-24, 25-19, 32-34, 14-25, 15-12.

The set score that probably jumps out at you is that for Game 3, won by Penn State 34-32 in preventing a Wisconsin sweep. As gleaned from this statistics sheet (which includes the box score and play-by-play) and shown in the following table, the Badgers had five game (and thus match) points in the third set, and the Lions also had five game points.

Held Game PointScoreHeld Game Point
Wisconsin
24-23
25-24
Penn State
26-25
Penn State
27-26
Penn State
Wisconsin
28-27
Wisconsin
29-28
Wisconsin
30-29
Wisconsin
31-30
32-31
Penn State
33-32
Penn State*
*Won game 34-32.

Penn State outhit Wisconsin for the match, .212-.173. One game about which the Nittany Lions are probably kicking themselves is the opener. Despite outhitting Wisconsin .250-.182, Penn State dropped Game 1 to the Badgers, 26-24, thanks in part to five Lion service errors.

For the match, total team blocks were essentially even, 15 for PSU to 14 for Wisconsin.

Side-out rates (i.e., winning points on the opponent's serve) are instructive. In any particular game (set), whichever team records the higher side-out percentage will win. As seen in the graph below, Wisconsin was the steadier team at siding out, registering in the .60s in four of the five games, whereas Penn State jumped around a bit more.


In the closing stages of the match, Wisconsin built a 14-10 lead in Game 5 (which is played only to 15). Fighting till the end, as always, Penn State held off two more match points, cutting the Badgers' lead to 14-12. At that point, Wisconsin finally got the game-winning kill from Bailey Reshel.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rematch Weekend (2011)

You could call it "Rematch Weekend," as several match-ups of the top teams in the top conferences took place Friday and Saturday for the second time this season. The following chart lists the match-ups, who won the first time, who won the second time, and some brief statistical notes on the rematch (CAPS = home team, lower-case = visitor).

).
Teams
Winner
Match 1
Winner
Match 2
Statistical Notes on Second Match
Nebraska-
Penn State
NEB
3-2 
PSU
3-1
PSU outhits (.194-.116) and outblocks (14-8) Neb.  Hancock (PSU) records 6 aces (box score).
USC-Stanford
USC
3-0
STAN
3-0
Stanford outhits (.339-.161) and outblocks (13-4) USC. Wopat (Stanford) hits .611 (11-0-18); 2 additional Cardinal players hit .290+ on 20+ attempts (box score).
USC-Cal
USC
3-0
usc
3-0
USC outhits (.319-.147) and outblocks (9-5) Cal. Trojan trio hit .368+ on 19+ attempts. Cal's Hawari hits .435, but Murrey held to .185 (box score).
UCLA-Stanford
UCLA
3-2
ucla
3-0
UCLA outhits Stanford, .226-.140, led by Aquino's .444 (10-2-18). Bruins side-out at 90% in Game 3 (box score). 
UCLA-Cal
UCLA
3-1
ucla
3-1
Sharp hitting by UCLA’s Nightingale (.421, 10-2-19), Aquino (.350, 7-0-20), and Love (.345, 14-4-29) . Cal’s Murrey held to .049 (box score). 
Illinois-Minnesota
illinois
3-2
minnesota
3-0
MN outhits IL .162-.087. MN 7 service aces, IL none; IL more service errors, 11-5 (box score).
Texas-Iowa St.
texas
3-2
TEXAS
3-0
UT outhits (.390-.179) and outblocks (9-4) ISU. Bell (UT) hits .812 (13-0-16); 4 additional Horns hit .300+ on 10+ attempts (box score).
HTML Tables

This weekend's results reinforce the idea that there's not one dominant team this year. One any given night, Nebraska, Penn State, Illinois, UCLA, USC, or Stanford might look like a good bet to win the NCAA championship. Many of these same teams, however, also have gone into a "funk" for part of the season.

USC had some early struggles, as epitomized by its 3-0 loss to Central Florida on September 2. Currently, two slumping teams are Illinois and Cal. The Illini's Michelle Bartsch is quoted as follows in this article about her team's three-game loss to visiting Minnesota:

"I think it reflects our whole week of practice.... It was kind of a weird vibe all week and we aren't playing together by any means. We're talking about it and trying to fix it but it's not there."

Minnesota hardly looked poised to go into Urbana-Champaign and sweep the Illini, after being swept itself the night before at Northwestern.

Cal coach Rich Feller said this about the intermission, after his team dropped the first two games to USC (article link):

"I threw down the gauntlet... I admitted to being unsure of who I should start in the third set because it didn't seem like anyone wanted to play hard enough to win..."

Cal played more competitively in the third game, but still lost, 25-22.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Team Hitting Percentage by Game (Set)

Even a casual reader of box scores would probably realize that the same team on the same night can record vastly different hitting percentages in different games (sets). I was curious if there were systematic differences, so I decided to conduct an analysis. Why might there be such differences?

As a match progresses, coaches may devise adjustments to take away a source of offensive success the opponent had been enjoying. Or coaches may come up with ways to overcome the opponent's defensive approach to increase their own team's spiking success. Some coaches may be able to implement adjustments between Games 1 and 2, but if not then, perhaps between Games 2 and 3, when there is a full-fledged intermission.

I looked at the Pac 12 conference, as it appeared to reach its halfway point of league play faster than other major conferences. The Pac 12 plays a full home-and-away round-robin, meaning that each member team plays 22 conference matches. I started compiling the statistics about a week ago, when every Pac 12 team had completed 11 or 10 conference matches (the latter is the result of the Arizona-ASU, Oregon-OSU, and Washington-WSU rivalries playing back-to-back matches at the end of the season, instead of once during the first half and once during the second half of the conference schedule).

Pac 12 matches before my cut-off date predominantly were three-game sweeps (43 out of 63 total matches; 68.3.%); 16 four-game (25.4%) and 4 five-game (6.3%) matches occurred. Note that, in any given match, both teams produce hitting statistics, so there were 126 three-game data sequences from the 63 matches. I used data from all matches, so if a contest went four or five games, I took hitting statistics from only the first three games.

Averaging over all teams in all matches, hitting percentages did not differ statistically between the first (.210), second (.228), and third (.198) games. (For those with some statistical training, I used repeated-measures Analysis of Variance.) To probe further, I plotted the results separately by team, as shown in the following graphs (the three panels were created for ease of viewing; you may click on the graphic to enlarge it).

As can be seen, there is no consistent pattern. Some teams -- particularly UCLA, Cal, and Arizona -- started fast and then declined in their hitting percentages. Others -- such as Stanford, Washington, and Arizona State -- started off relatively low and then increased their hitting prowess. Other teams appeared to peak in Game 2.

Because of the small sample sizes, it is hard to know if these are random fluctuations or substantive trends. If a given team experiences the same type of trend in the second half of the Pac 12 season as it did in the first half, then there really may be something going on. With UCLA, for example, the intermission after Game 2 conceivably could take the Bruins out of their offensive flow (more so than other teams, who also, of course, have the intermission) or perhaps allow opposing coaches to make defensive adjustments to the Bruins' attack.

On the other hand, the Stanford and Washington coaches look like they may be taking advantage of the intermission to find ways to take their respective teams' offensive attacks to higher levels. (ASU's improvement seemed to occur between Games 1 and 2.)

The larger the number of data points, the more reliable the statistical analysis. However, if a coach wanted to show his or her team how it was hitting by game in order to motivate improvements, the coach probably wouldn't want to wait too long to start doing so. Thus, in practice, most of the data compilations would end up being based on relatively few matches. The 11 or 10 matches on which the above averages for each team were based may therefore be a reasonable number.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nebraska Knocks Off Top-Ranked Illinois

We'll likely have a new No. 1 team in the national women's college rankings this week, as No. 4 Nebraska (17-1, 10-0) handled the previously top-ranked Illinois (20-1, 9-1) relatively easily, 24-26, 25-18, 25-19, 25-11, to mark the halfway point in Big 10 conference play.

The Illini came out on fire in Game 1, hitting .429 and siding out 72% of the time, but only won the opener 26-24, as the Cornhuskers weren't far behind in these two categories (.412,  68%). Illinois never hit better than .179 nor sided-out at better than 58% in any of the next three games, whereas Nebraska continued to side-out well in the final three games (78%, 63%, and 83%, respectively) and hit particularly well in Games 3 and 4 (.400 and .696). See box score here.

Individually, the Huskers had four players who exceeded hitting percentages of .300 on 22 or more spike attempts: Morgan Broekhuis, .444 (17 kills and only 1 error on 36 swings); Hannah Werth, .407; Brooke Delano, .318; and Gina Mancuso, .306. In addition, Hayley Thramer hit .300, on 10 attempts.

For Illinois, senior outside hitters Colleen Ward (17-5-39, .308) and Michelle Bartsch (22-5-58, .293) recorded solid percentages, but Nebraska stymied Illinois's middle-hitting attack.

Nebraska outblocked (11-5) and outdug (70-50) Illinois.

If there's one reservation about Nebraska at this point, it is that most of its best wins this season -- over Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, and Iowa State (non-conference) -- have been at home. The Huskers will play a return match at Penn State next Saturday, October 29, and at Purdue on November 12. However, last night's was the only Nebraska-Illinois match of the season, unless the teams meet again in the NCAA tournament.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Illinois at Nebraska Preview

Tonight, No. 1 Illinois (20-0, 9-0) visits No. 4 Nebraska (16-1, 9-0) in a key Big 10 match. As I've written previously, I feel the Cornhuskers are worthy of being ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, already. With Big 10 teams playing a 20-match conference schedule (where a completely balanced home-and-away schedule would require 22 matches), tonight's match will be the only one this season between the Illini and Cornhuskers, unless they meet in the NCAA tournament.

Based on Nebraska's and Illinois's pregame notes (plus the Illini's box score from its most recent win, over Northwestern), I've plotted the hitting percentages Nebraska and Illinois have achieved offensively, and allowed defensively, against their conference opponents so far this season.

Nebraska clearly seems to be the better hitting team. Having played eight common opponents in conference thus far (DNP = Did Not Play), the Huskers have outhit the Illini against six of them. The only exceptions are the teams' matches against Michigan and Ohio State, and the Illini edges are slight in both cases.

Defensively, the teams appear a bit more equal. In their respective matches gainst Michigan State (both five-game affairs), the Illini held the Spartans to a .200 hitting percentage, whereas the Huskers allowed them to hit .296. However, vs. most opponents, Nebraska has been slightly better than Illinois in keeping the other teams' hitting percentages down.

Some readers may consider my focus on hitting percentage to be overly narrow. However, hitting percentage appears to take other team skills into account indirectly. Good blocking and digging will contribute to keeping opponents' hitting percentages down. Blocks can lower hitting percentage by causing errors directly (i.e., a ball stuffed back down to the hitting team's floor for a defensive point) or indirectly (i.e., hitting a ball wide or long in an attempt to avoid the block). Blocking and digging also lower hitting percentage by keeping spiked balls in play. Tough serving can further depress opponents' hitting percentage by taking them out of their offensive system and possibly making them attempt less aggressive spikes than originally intended.

I don't usually make predictions. However, given that Nebraska appears to have somewhat of a statistical edge and is playing at home, I'd have to favor the Huskers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Under the Radar, Part II: Tyler Henderson (Tulsa)

As described in Part I of the "Under the Radar" series, these postings are an outgrowth of a VolleyTalk.net discussion of players from outside the power conferences who might nevertheless be worthy of national honors (e.g., All-America). Tonight, I present my analyses of Tyler Henderson, a 5-10 junior outside hitter for Tulsa.

Henderson has certainly put up some big numbers so far this season, recording hitting percentages of .457 vs Albany; .655 vs Texas-Arlington; .452 vs. North Dakota State; .593 vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff; .433 vs Cal-Davis; .435 vs. Middle Tennessee State; .500 vs. Rice; and .421 vs. UAB. She's also had some underwhelming matches, such as when she hit .167 vs UTEP and .154 vs. Houston.

My focus, however, is on four Tulsa matches -- vs. Illinois, Kentucky, Florida State, and Central Florida. These four opponents have achieved varying amounts of national prominence, plus each has played some top opponents this year, allowing us to compare Henderson's hitting percentages against these teams to those of other leading outside (or opposite side) hitters. This "common opponents" method thus holds constant quality of the opposition when comparing Henderson to her peers.

The September 10 match against current No. 1 and undefeated Illinois -- which Tulsa nearly won -- almost certainly would be Henderson's most impressive. She hit .377 in this match, on 61 swings. Two big-program players, Penn State's Nia Grant and Minnesota's Brianna Haugen, each hit for a higher percentage vs. the Illini, but based on far fewer attempts (see graphic to the right).

Henderson's .377 also comes off looking good when considering Illinois's ability to hold top hitters Ariel Turner (Purdue), Alex Hunt (Michigan), and Deja McClendon (Penn State) under .200.


The .441 hitting percentage Henderson achieved vs. Central Florida also stands out, especially considering UCF held Michigan State's Jenilee Rathje to .162 and USC's Alex Jupiter to .000.

As shown below, however, Henderson did not do well against a couple of teams that have shown a propensity to give up big hitting nights. Against Kentucky, a team that was torched by several outside and right-side (opposite) hitters from Florida State and Florida, Henderson hit only .188. Also, against Florida State, which had given up big hitting performances against Michigan and Florida, Henderson hit only .213.

On the whole, Henderson has had a nice season to date. However, there are a few matches in which I would have expected her to hit for higher percentages.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Illinois and Nebraska Each Win in Five, as Illini and Huskers Get Ready to Face Each Other

No. 1 Illinois (19-0, 8-0 in the Big 10) and No. 5 Nebraska (15-1, 8-0) each pulled off five-set wins last night to set the stage for a head-to-head showdown next Saturday night when the Illini visit the Cornhuskers.

In holding off Michigan State, the Illini were propelled by Colleen Ward's spectacular .538 hitting percentage (22 kills with only 1 hitting error, on 39 attempts). The usually steady Erin Johnson had an off-night hittng for the Orange and Blue (-.118; 2-4-17), but did contribute 9 block assists. Kyndra Abron (.367; 16-5-30) paced the Spartans (see box score).

Nebraska dropped the opening two games at Minnesota, before rallying for a 28-30, 19-25, 25-10, 25-12, 15-11 win. For the Cornhuskers, it was the balanced offensive attack we're accustomed to seeing from them, with four players registering solid, if unspectacular, hitting percentages against the Gophers: Brooke Delano, .294; Gina Mancuso, .283; Hannah Werth, .270; and Morgan Broekhuis, .256. Nebraska outhit (.243-.111), outblocked (17-8), and outdug (85-73) Minnesota (box score). Tori Dixon (.286; 12-4-28) led the Gophers in hitting; earlier this season, Dixon was hitting in the vicinity of .400 against some excellent competition, but .286 against Nebraska is quite respectable.

Other than an early-season road match in which Nebraska routed Colorado State 25-12 and 25-11 in the first two games only to see the Rams storm back to take the final three, the Huskers have passed every test placed in front of them. These have included matches against Iowa State (now a non-conference opponent), Penn State, Purdue, and Minnesota. I think Nebraska arguably deserves to be ranked as high as No. 2. A win over Illinois next Saturday would probably vault Nebraska to (or near) the No. 1 slot. An Illini win would obviously bolster its No. 1 status.

In the Pac 12, No. 2 Washington traveled to the northern California schools, but lost to both No. 4 Cal and No. 7 Stanford. Cal middle blocker Shannon Hawari had the offensive formula against Washington, hitting .409 (12-3-22), whereas the Golden Bears’ star outside hitter Tarah Murrey was held in check by the Huskies (.132; 21-12-68). U-Dub was led against Cal by the near error-free hitting of MB Bianca Rowland (.400; 11-1-25) and frosh OH Summer Ross (.333; 14-1-39). No Husky player hit above .182 vs. Stanford. The Cardinal was led against Washington by Carly Wopat (.500; 10-1-18)  and frosh OH Morgan Boukather (.400; 7-1-15).

One last note: Texas Tech OH Amanda Dowdy, who virtually always takes a large share of the team's spike attempts, took a whopping 42.6% of the Red Raiders' swings yesterday at Missouri (58/136). She produced quality as well as quantity, hitting .293, which is her best in conference play this year (this news release cites the last time she exceeded .293 as being during pre-conference play). The Red Raiders (14-7, 0-6) are still looking for their first conference win, however. They hung tight with the Tigers, before falling 25-22, 23-25, 25-22, 25-21.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Under the Radar, Part I: Lauren Wicinski

Last Friday, October 7, user "bucky415" launched a discussion topic on VolleyTalk regarding women's collegiate players who might be considered "under the radar" nationally. Specifically, readers were urged to nominate players "from programs outside of the top conferences that people here see being candidates for national honors this year." Bucky made his own suggestions, to which interested readers added names. Bucky's primary suggestion was:

Lauren Wicinski from Northern Illinois. She is a 6'1" sophomore outside hitter who plays all around and is just putting up ridiculous hitting numbers. The Huskies swept Western Michigan at home tonight, and she had 25 kills and hit .667, following up a four set win over Toledo where she had 39 kills and hit .484. For the season, she is averaging 5.77 kills per set and hitting .341 against some pretty solid competition.

Your VolleyMetrics analyst feels statistics can contribute to the discussion, so tonight we begin an ongoing series on "under the radar" players, starting with an in-depth look at Wicinski's offensive performances in key matches. Quality of the opposition is an important factor. If, for example, Toledo tends to get lit up by a lot of different hitters (which it does), then Wicinski's big numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. Following this logic, I selected several of Northern Illinois's more nationally noteworthy matches, recorded Wicinski's hitting percentage against a given opponent, and then compared it to other outside hitters' (or opposites') hitting percentages against the same opponents.

Let's start with Toledo as an opponent. As shown in the graphic to the right (and also noted above), Wicinski hit .484 against the Rockets. Two Michigan State players, Gina Lang and Jenilee Rathje, also hit above .450 against Toledo this season, and three Ohio State outsides hit in the .300s vs. the Rockets. Nothing in these comparisons should take away from Wicinski's performance against Toledo, but we now know that it's not unusual for the Rockets to give up big hitting nights. I wanted to do the same thing for Western Michigan as an opponent, but I didn't feel the Broncos had played enough quality teams.

Cincinnati, in addition to facing Northern Illinois and Wicinski, has played against what I would consider five nationally prominent teams, so let's next consider the Bearcats as an opponent (see graphic on left). Wicinski hit .550 in her match against Cincinnati, a figure exceeded (very slightly) only by Illinois's Liz McMahon when she faced the Bearcats. Several other hitters registered hitting percentages from the upper-.300s to low-.400s against Cincinnati. Thus, whereas the Bearcats may not be the greatest defensive team, I would argue that Wicinski still acquits herself well in this comparison.



Texas A&M is another common opponent against which Wicinski looks good relative to other leading spikers. Though the Aggies seem to have kept some pretty good hitters in check (or at least under .300) this season, Wicinski's .368 vs. A&M is second only to Texas's Bailey Webster (of the players studied), who torched A&M for a .421 evening on October 5.

As seen in these graphics, Wicinski rarely commits hitting errors (e.g., spiking the ball out of bounds or getting stuff blocked for an immediate point by the opponents).

Not all comparisons are so favorable to Wicinski. As seen at left, she hit only .209 vs Iowa State, a team against which other hitters have recorded much higher percentages this season. Granted these "other hitters" are among the nation's very best: the aforementioned Webster, Nebraska's Gina Mancuso and Morgan Broekhuis, and Florida's Tangerine Wiggs and Kelly Murphy. If the worst that can be said about Wicinski is that she's perhaps a cut below these players, that ain't bad. These analyses, of course, don't take into account other factors, such as setter quality and the presence of sharp-hitting teammates who can prevent other teams from focusing on one prominent spiker.


The remaining comparisons are based on sparser data. Northern Iowa is another team against which Wicinski struggled, hitting only .100. This was one of her most error-prone matches, but she also had 18 of her 40 spike attempts kept in play (40 minus her 13 kills and 9 errors). Northern Iowa seems adept at frustrating hitters in general, though. Of the outside hitters/opposites listed, only Iowa State's Kelsey Petersen enjoyed some success against the Panthers, albeit in a Cyclones' loss. Finally, we conclude our analysis with limited comparisons of Wicinski to other hitters against Creighton and Marquette.



Wicinski hit respectably in both matches. Her .302 against Creighton was exceeded by Broekhuis's .387 when Nebraska played the Blue Jays. Wicinski's .265 vs. Marquette was topped by a .333 registered by Minnesota's Ashley Wittman.
What should we conclude from this exercise? I think Wicinski deserves to be included among the nation's top outside (and opposite-side) hitters, but not quite at the very pinnacle. Being a sophomore, however, she has two more years to get there!