Monday, August 27, 2012

Opening Weekend: Nebraska-UCLA Match Analysis

No. 4 Nebraska, playing at home, edged defending champion and preseason No. 1 UCLA in five games, as the women's college season opened this weekend. Both teams return most of their top players from a year ago, but each has some niches to fill.

I have proposed hitting allocation (the percentage of a team's spike attempts taken by each player) as one way to characterize a team's offense. Whether one player takes an enormous share of a team's attempts, or a team has two or three hitters who lead the team with roughly the same share of attempts, tells us something. So does the way a team changes from year to year in hitting allocation.

The Cornhuskers no longer have middle-blocker Brooke Delano, who was a senior in 2011. She led the team in hitting percentage a year ago, with a .331 mark. Among UCLA's seniors from last year were setter Lauren van Orden and MB Sara Sage, who hit .386 last season, albeit on only 184 attempts.

Let's look first at Nebraska's hitting last Saturday night vs. UCLA, which is shown in the bottom row of the following table. (You can click on the graphics to enlarge them.) For each player, the top number (with a % sign) shows the share of the team's spike attempts taken by that player, with the player's hitting percentage shown beneath in parentheses. Under the heading "TOTAL," we see that the Huskers, as a team, took 184 swings and hit .207 against the Bruins. For comparison purposes, I use Nebraska's match last year vs. Illinois (Oct. 22, 2011), which may have been the Huskers' finest performance of the season.

As can be seen in the table, the four Nebraska hitters who played in both last year's match against Illinois and this year's against UCLA (excluding those with very few spike attempts) were fairly consistent across both matches in their share of the Cornhuskers' swings. Gina Mancuso took nearly identical percentages of Nebraska's swings in the two matches (27.1% vs. Illinois and 28.8% vs. UCLA). No player diverged by more than 5.5 percentage points. Meghan Haggerty, who had a late (June 2012) change of heart in switching from Wisconsin to Nebraska, nicely filled Delano's niche of taking roughly 15% of Nebraska's spike attempts.

The next chart shows a similar comparison for UCLA. As some readers may have anticipated, one reason for choosing Illinois as Nebraska's 2011 comparison match is that the Bruins also played Illinois last year -- in the national championship match!

Though it's a little risky to generalize too much from only two matches, it looks like UCLA changed up its attack somewhat from last year's Illinois match to this weekend's showdown with Nebraska. I have highlighted in a darker shade of blue outside hitters Rachael Kidder and Tabi Love, who led last year's squad in hitting attempts (Kidder with 1,420 and Love with 940).

UCLA's game plan, as executed by frosh setter Becca Strehlow, apparently called for Kidder to relinquish some of her hitting attempts, down from 39.7% of Bruin swings vs. Illinois to 26.1% vs. Nebraska. Meanwhile, Love took on a heavier load, up from 19.0% of the team's attempts against the Illini to 29.0% against the Huskers. The extra work didn't hurt Love, either, as she upped her hitting percentage from slightly below .300 to slightly above it. OH Karsta Lowe also looked to be taking on a larger role in the Bruins' offense this year.

Not only do the Huskers appear to be steady in their hitting allocations. They were extremely consistent in their side-out percentages (winning points on the opponent's serve) in the five games vs. UCLA. As shown in the following graph, Nebraska's side-out rate never deviated more than 6 percentage points above or below 60% (no more than +/- 2 percentage points in the final three games). The Bruins, on the other hand, were all over the place in their side-out percentages.

Again, we shouldn't make too much out of one match, played during the first weekend of the season. It will be interesting, though, to see if UCLA and Nebraska continue to display the patterns discussed above further into the season.

1 comment:

Paul Franco said...

Since Kidder and Love play opposite each other, I don't think it was a measure of giving some of Kidder's attempts to Love. There was also the fact that Kidder wasn't playing well, hitting a lot of balls out, which I think is better reasoning for her lesser swings.