Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Statistical Notes Heading into Women's Final Four (2013)

With this year's NCAA women's Final Four getting underway Thursday night in Seattle, today's posting offers some statistical observations. The two semifinal match-ups feature defending champion Texas vs. upstart Wisconsin, and Penn State vs. hometown favorite Washington.

Wisconsin, a one-time power that had missed the NCAA tourney from 2008 through 2012, is now back in an ascendant mode under new coach Kelly Sheffield. Seeded 12th nationally, the Badgers benefited in their part of the bracket from the fact that SEC teams Missouri (No. 4 seed) and Florida (No. 5 seed) were Paper Tigers and Gators, respectively. Having said that, Wisconsin may be the kind of team that can give Texas a tough match (like Michigan in last year's semifinal).

A year ago, I developed a statistic that attempts to measure teams' "grind-it-out" tendencies. To me a grind-it-out team is one that lacks spikers with pulverizing power, but digs opponents' attacks well and avoids hitting errors of its own. A grind-it-out team may need two or more spike attempts within the same rally to finally win a point. The calculation of a team's grind-it-out statistic is quite simple: the number of spike attempts it takes in a match, divided by total points in the match (to control for match length). A power team, which puts away a lot of spikes immediately, will (usually) have few total swings in a match and thus a low grind-it-out score. Last year, Michigan scored highly on the grind-it-out measure.

This year's Badgers, who ranked sixth in the Big 10 in hitting percentage, but first in digs, seem to me to be a grind-it-out team. Below are my calculations of every team's match-specific grind-it-out statistics within the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Indeed, Wisconsin is the only team to exceed .90 in both of its matches (vs. Florida State; and Purdue). It must be noted that even a power team, such as Penn State, which led the Big 10 in hitting percentage, can find itself in grind-it-out matches, as the Nittany Lions did in their very tight regional final against Stanford. Similarly, Washington (vs. Kansas) and USC (vs. BYU) didn't need many swings in their respective regional semifinals, but sure did in their epic regional final. Wisconsin is the only team shown below to record high grind-it-out numbers while winning its matches relatively easily (each 3-1).

"GRIND-IT-OUT" PROPENSITIES

Neb (vs. Tex): 139 total points, Neb 142 TA (1.02)
PennSt (vs. Stan): 217 total points, PSU 219 TA (1.01)
Wash (vs. USC): 224 total points, Wash 217 TA (.97)
Min (vs. Stan): 149 total points, Min 142 TA (.95)
Wisc (vs. FlaSt): 175 total points, Wisc 165 TA (.94)
Wisc (vs. Pur): 184 total points, Wisc 172 TA (.93)
MichSt (vs. PennSt): 179 total points, MSU 167 TA (.93)
USC (vs. Wash): 224 total points, USC 209 TA (.93)
Amer (vs. Tex): 175 total points, Amer 159 TA (.91)

USD (vs. Neb):  140 total points, USD 125 TA (.89)
Tex (vs. Neb): 139 total points, Tex 124 TA (.89)
Stan (vs. Min): 149 total points, Stan 132 TA (.89)
BYU (vs. USC): 187 total points, BYU 166 TA (.89)
Pur (vs. Wis): 184 total points, Pur 162 TA (.88)
Tex (vs. Amer): 175 total points, Tex 148 TA (.85)
FlaSt (vs. Wisc): 175 total points, FSU 149 TA (.85)
PennSt (vs. MichSt): 179 total points, PSU 152 TA (.85)
Kan (vs. Wash): 131 total points, Kan 110 TA (.84)
USC (vs. BYU): 187 total points,  USC 155 TA (.83)
Stan (vs. PennSt): 217 total points, Stan 181 TA (.83)
Ill (vs. Pur): 143 total points, Ill 117 TA (.82)
Pur (vs. Ill): 143 total points, Pur 116 TA (.81)
Neb (vs. USD):  140 total points, Neb 114 TA (.81)

Wash (vs. Kan): 131 total points, Wash 96 TA (.73)

***

Serving may also play a large role in determining the next national champion. On Monday's broadcast of "The Net Live," a volleyball talk show on Internet radio, the coaches of the Final Four teams were each interviewed (archived broadcasts can be accessed via the link to Volleyball Magazine in the right-hand column of this page). Penn State's Russ Rose, a noted statistical guru, pointed out that Washington, his team's Thursday night opponent, achieved an unusually strong ratio this year of aces to service errors. Serving aggressively will usually drive up both a team's ace and error numbers, but the Huskies managed to keep their miscues relatively in check. Here are the ratios, as I calculated them for each Final Four team.

Team................Aces..........Service Errors...............Ratio

Washington.......201........................221....................... .91

Penn State........152........................243....................... .63

Texas...............117........................226....................... .52

Wisconsin.........162........................355....................... .46

Volleyblog Seattle has a more elaborate look at the Final Four teams' serving prospects.

***

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge the amazing performance of USC frosh right-side hitter Ebony Nwanebu against Washington. Nwanebu recorded 30 kills and no errors on 53 spike attempts, for a .566 hitting percentage (box score). She took 53 swings and never once hit the ball out of bounds or into the net, or had the Huskies block the ball back onto the Trojan side of the floor for a point. Each time Nwanebu was set, she either got a kill or the ball was kept in play by U-Dub. Such a high hitting percentage on that many swings is quite unusual.

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