The NCAA men's Final Four gets underway tonight in Los Angeles, with host USC (MPSF regular-season champion) taking on Lewis (Illinois) from the MIVA in one semifinal, and UC Irvine (MPSF tourney champion) taking on Penn State from the EIVA. USC's media notes are available here.
In anticipation of the action, I was reading some of Off the Block's unparalleled coverage of men's collegiate volleyball, where I came across a transcript from USC coach Bill Ferguson's press conference. The following quote jumped out at me:
Q: Can you talk about USCʼs rise from a slow start?
BF: Most of our rise, or the streak, that all came about when (Maddison) McKibbin became healthy again. We went into the season knowing weʼd have two opposites that would probably be fairly equal in ability with Maddison and Tanner (Jansen). With the added notion that McKibbin could pass and play on the left and that gave us some flexibility. Maddison sprained his ankle on the first day of practice after Christmas break and sprained it badly. The Pepperdine match at home toward the end of February [actually Feb. 10] was the first time he got back on the court with us...
It is true that the February win over Pepperdine launched the Trojans on an 18-match winning streak, which UCI snapped in the MPSF tournament. Here at VolleyMetrics, of course, our job is to break down the numbers and seek specific evidence of whether/how McKibbin may have lifted USC's performance. As longtime readers know, I use hitting percentage as my workhorse statistic for evaluating success, as it is well correlated with winning matches.
Baseball has the concept of "protection," namely that having many good hitters in the batting order "protects" a star hitter by not allowing opposing hurlers to "pitch around" him. If a pitcher doesn't throw any strikes to a star hitter, it will result in a walk and just give the other good hitters a baserunner potentially to drive in. (That's the idea of protection in theory; in practice, the phenomenon appears greatly overstated.)
Perhaps McKibbin's return, in his opposite/right-side hitter position, offered protection, in a sense, to the other hitters. Having one more good spiker available may limit other teams' ability to focus their blocking on other Trojan hitters. Ferguson also noted McKibbin's passing ability, which could help 'SC run its offense "in system" and thus lead to better overall hitting percentage.
As it turns out, the Trojans had six opponents whom they played once before and once after McKibbin's return, in MPSF regular-season play ('SC faced some opponents, such as BYU and Hawai'i, either twice before or twice after McKibbin's return). Playing against the six conference opponents before McKibbin's return, USC averaged a .285 team hitting percentage. Playing the same six opponents after his return, the Trojans hit an average .328. It's a small sample of matches, to be sure, but 'SC did appear to hit a little better after McKibbin's return. The following graphic breaks down USC's hitting percentage by match:
Against UCI, the men of Troy's hitting improved noticeably in the teams' second conference match to .287, compared to .234 in the first match. McKibbin himself was a major contributor in the second UCI match, registering a .625 percentage (5 kills and 0 errors on 8 swings). In the third Trojan-Anteater battle, in the MPSF tourney semifinals, UCI held USC to a .194 hitting percentage and McKibbin to a .000 night (2-2-14).
The Trojans' hitting improved most dramatically against UCLA. However, with USC's percentage being only .041 the first time, it probably would have risen with or without McKibbin in the second match (he hit .217 in USC's second encounter with the Bruins). There was only one other opponent, Cal State Northridge, against whom USC improved its team hitting percentage with McKibbin in the line-up (with him contributing a .312 evening).
As noted above, McKibbin also received praise from Coach Ferguson for his passing. Although statistical "digs" and passing are not identical (digs refer only to keeping the ball alive on an opponent's attack attempt), McKibbin did record three matches with 7 or more digs.
In conclusion, I think it's fair to say that McKibbin made some nice contributions to USC's success in the second half of the season. However, neither the team's nor McKibbin's statistics show a huge turnabout with his return