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.

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