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NCAA Women's Final Four Wrap-Up: Powerful Texas Overcomes Grind-it-Out Michigan and Oregon

Looking back on this past weekend's NCAA women's Final Four, what stands out to me is the contrast in teams' strong suits. The champion Texas Longhorns set the ball high, hit over the block, and delivered surgical strikes to win points quickly. Michigan and Oregon, UT's opponents in the semifinals and finals, respectively, got as far as they did with more of a grind-it-out approach. Defensively, Michigan and Oregon persistently dug opponents' spike attempts, and when the Wolverines and Ducks went on offense, they sometimes would need multiple hitting attempts on a single rally to finally put the ball away.

The following graph conveys the Longhorns' devastating offensive prowess in their final three matches of the tournament (vs. USC in the Elite Eight, and the Michigan and Oregon matches). In addition to the conventional hitting-percentage statistic ([Kills - Errors]/Total Attempts), I have presented a slight variation, namely kill percentage (Kills/Total Attempts). You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.

Against USC, the Longhorns achieve a kill on half the swings they took (.505, 50/99), whereas the other three Final Four teams all had kill percentages in the high .30s in their Elite Eight matches. Then, in the final, a 25-11, 26-24, 25-19 Longhorn win over the Ducks (box score), UT nearly reached .500 in kill percentage again, clocking in at .483 (43/89).

If a team commits no hitting errors, then kill percentage and hitting percentage are equal to each other. That the black and orange bars for Texas against Oregon are nearly equally tall tells us that the Longhorns made very few attack errors in that match -- 4 to be exact, compared to 43 kills on 89 swings. As a further sign of how unstoppable Texas was offensively, Oregon came up with only 1 team block in the final, compared to the Longhorns' 15.

In the semifinal round, Michigan extended Texas to five games, with the Longhorns prevailing 25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11. For the match as a whole,Texas's hitting percentage of .316 was literally double Michigan's .158. However, when game-specific hitting percentages are examined, we can see that in the two sets the Wolverines won, they somehow managed to slow down the Horns' offense, while raising their own hitting percentages into the mid-high .200s.

Above, I characterized Michigan as having a "grind-it-out" style, for which being able to dig opposing spikes to keep setting up the offense is essential. As one possible measure of a team's grind-it-out propensity, I've simply taken that team's total number of attack attempts (TA) in a given match and divided it by the total number of points in the same match (to control for match length). Looking at all matches in the Sweet 16 and beyond (a total of 15 matches and thus 30 team-specific values), Michigan took first and second in grind-it-out propensity:

Mich (vs. Tex): 193 total points, Mich 196 TA (1.02)
Mich (vs. Stan): 180 total points, Mich 173 TA (.961)
IowaSt (vs Stan): 127 total points, ISU 121 TA (.953)
Stan (vs. IowaSt): 127 total points, Stan 118 TA (.929)
Ore (vs. PSU): 195 total points, Ore 176 TA (.903)
Min (vs. Pur): 192 total points, Minn 173 TA (.901)
Pur (vs. Min): 192 total points, Pur 173 TA (.901)
Neb (vs. Ore): 172 total points, Neb 155 (.901)
Ore (vs. BYU): 178 total points, Ore 159 TA (.893)
Ore (vs. Neb): 172 total points, Ore 151 TA (.878)
Ore (vs. Tex): 130 total points, Ore 114 TA (.877)

Oregon had four of the top 11 grind-it-out values. Grind-it-out teams will not always out-dig their opponents, as a lot of their own spikes are being dug. Indeed, Texas out-dug Michigan 76-71. However, Oregon did out-dig Penn State 80-67 in their national semifinal match (box score).

With the exception of the Michigan match, Texas didn't take that many swings in its final three matches, yielding relatively low grind-it-out ratios for the Longhorns: (vs. USC, 99 swings/130 points =.762; vs. Michigan 158/193 = .819; and vs. Oregon, 89/130 = .685).


My Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) ranking, which is based almost entirely on teams' regular-season hitting percentages and the hitting percentages they allowed their opponents, correctly predicted 47 of the 63 tournament matches this year. Thus, the CACOD placed right up there with other, more established ranking systems (screen capture from here):

For each of the 63 tournament matches (shown below), the team with the higher CACOD ranking (shown in parentheses) would be predicted to win. Matches in which the team with the higher CACOD lost are shown in red.

1st Round (26-6)

PSU (1) d Bing (63) 3-0
BGSU (51) d Yale (47) 3-2
Ohio St (28) d ND (34) 3-0
Ky (33) d ETS (59) 3-0
FSU (6) d Hof (61) 3-0
Pur (23) d ColSt (20) 3-0
Crei (14) d Marq (27) 3-0
Minn (13) d Lib (60) 3-0

Ore (9) d NCol (55) 3-0
Day (17) d Pepp (48) 3-2
Ok (37) d ASU (39) 3-2
BYU (4) d NMSU (38) 3-0
Wash (8) d CArk (49) 3-0
Haw (18) d SClara (54) 3-0
UNI (31) d KSt (21) 3-0
Neb (5) d MdES (53) 3-0

Tex (2) d Colg (64) 3-0
TAMU (29) d NCSU (41) 3-1
CofC (57) d Mia (22) 3-2
Fla (7) d Tulsa (43) 3-0
KU (10) d CleveSt (42) 3-1
WichSt (46) d Ark (36) 3-2
StM (52) d SDSU (35) 3-2
USC (12) d Fair (58) 3-0

UCLA (11) d LIU (45) 3-0
MichSt (15) d USD (40) 3-2
Mich (26) d Tenn (32) 3-2
Lou (16) d Bel (62) 3-1
IaSt (24) d IPFW (56) 3-2
NCar (25) d Cal (30) 3-1
WKy (19) d LMU (44) 3-0
Stan (3) d JxSt (50) 3-0

2nd Round (11-5)

PSU (1) d BGSU (51) 3-0
Ky (33) d OhioSt (28) 3-1
Pur (23) d FSU (6) 3-2
Minn (13) d Crei (14) 3-1

Ore (9) d Day (17) 3-0
BYU (4) d Ok (37) 3-0
Wash (8) d Haw (18) 3-2
Neb (5) d UNI (31) 3-0

Tex (2) d TAMU (29) 3-1
Fla (7) d CofC (57) 3-0
WichSt (46) d KU (10) 3-1
USC (12) d StM (52) 3-0

Mich St (15) d UCLA (11) 3-1
Mich (26) d Lou (16) 3-1
IaSt (24) d NCar (25) 3-2
Stan (3) d WKy (19) 3-0

3rd Round (6-2)

PSU (1) d Ky (33) 3-0
Minn (13) d Pur (23) 3-1

Ore (9) d BYU (4) 3-1
Neb (5) d Wash (8) 3-0

Tex (2) d Fla (7) 3-0
USC (12) d Wich St (46) 3-0

Mich (26) d MSU (15) 3-0
Stan (3) d Iowa St (24) 3-0

4th Round (2-2)

PSU (1) d Minn (13) 3-1
Ore (9) d Neb (5) 3-1
Tex (2) d USC (12) 3-0
Mich (26) d Stan (3) 3-1

Final Four (1-1)

Tex (2) d Mich (26) 3-2
Ore (9) d PSU (1) 3-1

Championship (1-0)

Tex (2) d Ore (9) 3-0

The CACOD also did well in predicting the 2011 tournament.


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