Saturday, May 5, 2012

UCI-USC Men's Final Preview

UC Irvine and USC will meet in tonight's NCAA men's final. During the teams' head-to-head match-ups in the regular conference season, each team won at home, UCI on January 27 and USC on April 7. The Anteaters defeated the Trojans in the teams' third match, a semifinal of the MPSF conference tournament.

With an eye toward identifying the key hitters in tonight's final and speculating on which players need to do well for their team to win, I've created the following chart (on which you can click to enlarge it). The chart lists each team's most frequently set attackers and their hitting percentages (along with number of spike attempts) in the head-to-head USC-UCI matches, plus each team's NCAA semifinal win (USC over Lewis; and UCI over Penn State).

The Trojans are led by 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, who was recently named the AVCA national men's player of the year. In the matches charted above, Ciarelli has led 'SC in spike attempts, sometimes by a huge margin. Almost like clockwork, Ciarelli gets about 10 attempts per game (set). Perhaps because of other teams focusing their block on Ciarelli, his hitting percentages have been inconsistent in the matches above. In addition to his hitting, Ciarelli's serve is also a major weapon.

USC's Robert Feathers led the MPSF in blocks per game this year. The 6-8 frosh player doesn't seem to get too many balls to hit, but does respectably when he is set. Teammate Steven Shandrick, a 6-7 senior, tied for eighth in blocks per game, but seems to be a bigger part of the Trojans' offensive attack.

Kevin Tillie, a 6-6 junior who made his way to Irvine via France and Canada, is clearly the Anteaters' offensive focal point. Other than the regular-season match at USC, Tillie has been dominant in the matches listed above. A key to tonight's final may be how well UCI's middle blockers, Dan McDonnell (6-6 senior) and Scott Kevorken (6-9 soph), attack. Each has done well recently.

UCI's Carson Clark was second in the conference to Ciarelli in aces per game and, as a team, the Anteaters (1.62/game, first in the MPSF) actually topped the Trojans in this category (1.19/game, third).

On the defensive side, 'SC led the conference in lowest opponents' hitting percentage (.185), whereas UCI was fifth at .265. The Trojans far outperformed the Anteaters in both blocking (second in the conference vs. ninth) and digging (fourth vs. eleventh).

I would slightly favor USC, based on the home-court advantage, although the Anteaters beat the Trojans on the latter's home court in the MPSF tourney. Can UCI do it again? Tonight's match is also a rematch of the 2009 final, won by Irvine, in which the Anteaters greatly increased their blocking performance.

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