Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Volleyball Mag Reviews First Weekend of 2016 Women's College Play

Volleyball Magazine has an excellent overview of the first weekend of women's collegiate play, including who's hot and who's off to a surprisingly slow start. This article will serve as a foundation for the statistical analyses I conduct during the season.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

2016 Olympic Wrap-Up

The 2016 Summer Olympics concluded a week ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I would like to offer some statistics and closing thoughts on the women's and men's indoor competitions. The U.S. captured bronze medals in both, but could have, and perhaps should have, won a pair of gold medals.

WOMEN'S PLAY

For women's and men's play alike, there was a 12-team field, with teams divided into two pools (A and B). The U.S. women finished atop Pool B, with a 5-0 record. The top four teams in each pool advanced to an elimination tournament to determine the medal-winners. Accompanying the U.S. from Pool B were the Netherlands (4-1), Serbia (3-2), and China (2-3).

The four teams to come out of Pool A were host Brazil (5-0), Russia (4-1), Korea (3-2), and Japan (2-3). Presumably, the teams were seeded to even out the strength of the two pools as much as possible. However, when the elimination round began -- with the fourth-place team in one pool playing the first-place squad from the other pool, and the second-place team from one pool facing the third-placer from the other -- the pools were shown to have been anything but balanced!

China (fourth-place in Pool B) stunned Brazil (first in Pool A) in five games. Brazil took the opener 25-15, after which China began to play at a level NBC television announcers Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett said was "unrecognizable" from how it had played previously in the competition. Outside-hitter Zhu Ting, 6-foot-6 and only 21 years old, took an amazing 58 swings for China against Brazil, amassing 26 kills (with only 6 errors) for a .345 hitting percentage (box score; see this FIVB glossary for differences in terminology with U.S. statisticians).

In fact, all four teams to advance from the quarterfinal round were from Pool B, with all four teams from Pool A losing. After a quarterfinal sweep over Japan, the U.S. women faced a rematch with Serbia, whom the Americans had bested in four games in pool play. Game 1 of the U.S.-Serbia medal-round semifinal started off in much the same fashion, with the U.S. prevailing 25-20. However, U.S. middle Foluke Akinradewo early on was showing signs of injury, only being able to limp around on the court. She left for good midway through the second game.

With Akinradewo out, Serbia took the next two games fairly easily, 25-17 and 25-21, before the U.S. seemed to turn things around with a 25-16 win in Game 4. The U.S. seemed in control for most of Game 5, leading 11-8. Serbia rallied, however. A Serbian service ace gave the team a 13-12 lead, but Serbia committed a service error on the next play, evening things at 13-all. The U.S. then served into the net, giving Serbia match point at 14-13. Serbia won a rally on the next serve to win 15-13.

China, meanwhile, knocked off the Netherlands in four in the semifinals, with Zhu Ting outdoing her performance vs. Brazil with a .443 hitting percentage (31-4-61).

China defeated Serbia in four for the gold medal (Zhu Ting putting together a .386, 24-7-44 night), with the U.S. doing likewise against the Netherlands for the bronze. Unsurprisingly, Zhu Ting captured the MVP award.

The China-Serbia-U.S. order of finish in women's Olympic play replicated exactly the results of last year's World Cup tournament. Brazil wasn't in the 2015 World Cup, as the tournament served as an Olympic qualifier and Brazil was already in as host country. One wonders whether Brazil's absence from the World Cup denied the team some added sharpness heading into 2016.

Fans of a non-championship team -- especially one expected to win  -- often conduct post-mortem discussions on why the team lost. The U.S. bronze finish was naturally a prominent topic on the VolleyTalk boards. One common argument was that the U.S. lacked a consistent terminator on the right and left sides. Below is a graph I created of the hitting percentages of U.S. attackers with at least 10 spike-attempts in a given match, against the team's top opponents. You may click on the graphic to enlarge it (thumbnail pictures from here and here).


Right-side hitter (opposite the setter) Kelly Murphy started strong with a .355 hitting performance against the Netherlands in pool play, but declined in other key matches, until facing the Netherlands again in the bronze-medal match. The other right-side/opposite, Karsta Lowe, came up big in the semifinal vs. Serbia (.429), but not in other matches. The two main outside (left-side) hitters, Kim Hill and Jordan Larson-Burbach, had some strong matches, but not consistently. Kelsey Robinson, in limited action as a front-row OH, went to town against China (.454) in pool play.

Middle-hitters typically record higher attack-percentages than those hitting on the sides, as teams in desperation often send a high set to the outside. The aforementioned Akinradewo and Rachael Adams indeed hit for high percentages. Akinradewo was stellar throughout, including in a comeback effort against the Netherlands for the bronze. Adams appeared to be more effective in pool play than in the medal round.

MEN'S PLAY

Things went very differently for the U.S. men than for their female counterparts. The men lost their first two matches of pool play, to Canada in three and Italy in four. Many of the individual games were close -- two lost games against Canada and all three lost games against Italy being "deuce games" (lost by two points) -- but they were losses, nonetheless.

One probably would not have expected the U.S. to get its first win over world No. 1 Brazil, on the latter's home court, but that's exactly what happened, in four games. The U.S. rode the wave it was on, dropping only one game in its next three matches against France (3-1, pool), Mexico (3-0, pool), and Poland (3-0, quarterfinal).

The U.S. faced a rematch with Italy in the semis. After the teams split a pair of deuce games (30-28 Italy and 28-26 U.S.), Italy came unglued in a 25-9 Game-3 loss. The Americans had a good chance to close things out in Game 4, leading 22-19. However, Italy scored the final six points of the game. Unfortunately for the U.S., it experienced a near-total meltdown in Game 5, losing 15-9. A key play near the end that symbolized the American collapse involved an Italian overpass close to the sideline that the U.S. decided to let drop -- and it landed in!

In the bronze-medal match against Russia, 38 year-old Reid Priddy led the U.S. back from two games to none to get the Americans on the medal stand. Priddy hit a remarkable .615 percentage (17-1-26). In the final match, Brazil swept Italy in a trio of tight games, 25-22, 28-26, 26-24, for the gold.

Because the U.S. men seemed to derive much of their success from the block, I examined the team's blocking success rate throughout the tournament. Specifically, I divided the total number of U.S. "kill blocks" (blocks for a point) in a match by the opposing team's spike attempts (minus number of balls hit out of bounds, as there would be no reason to try to block a ball headed out). As an example, the U.S. recorded 7 kill blocks against Canada. The Canadians had 71 spike attempts, including 12 "faults." We know, therefore, that Canada hit 5 balls out of bounds (12 total faults - 7 faults from being blocked). Canada's spike attempts in play thus number 66 (71 total - 5 out of bounds). U.S. blocking effectiveness in this match was thus 7/66 = .106. The next chart shows U.S. blocking effectiveness in all of its matches.


The trend does not track exactly with wins and losses as, for example, one of the better U.S. blocking matches occurred in the loss to Canada. Conversely, U.S. blocking effectiveness was not that high in a win over Poland. Having said this, one can see an upward trajectory in blocking effectiveness, starting with the pool-play loss to Italy and increasing steadily in the wins over Brazil, France, and Mexico.

A FINAL NOTE

I didn't examine the statistics of Olympic beach volleyball this year. However, I wanted to recognize the efforts of Kerri Walsh who, after winning three straight gold medals with Misty May (who retired after 2012), stuck around to test her outer limits in trying for a fourth straight gold (this time with April Ross). As readers of this blog would know, Walsh and Ross took the bronze. I did manage to find this one article, which looked into some of the women's beach stats. According to the article, Walsh and Ross were among the women's leaders in attacking (defined as kills/attempts with no accounting for hitting errors), blocks, and digs. They were not among the leaders in aces, however.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Off The Block" Previews Men's Olympic Volleyball

Vinnie Lopes over at "Off The Block" previews the Olympic men's (indoor) volleyball field, with an in-depth look at U.S. players and others with collegiate-volleyball ties.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

U.S. Women's Olympic Team for Rio

With the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just one day away, there is much anticipation among volleyball fans regarding the various competitions within the sport. Kerri Walsh will be seeking her fourth straight gold medal in women's beach volleyball (this time partnered with April Ross, rather than longtime partner Misty May), but we'll save that topic for another day.

The present entry is about the U.S. women's indoor team, which is seeking its first Olympic gold medal in program history. After a shocking setback to Brazil in the final of the 2012 London Olympics, the U.S. women won their first major international title at the 2014 World Championships. The Americans then took third at the 2015 World Cup.

There appear to be several top contenders on the Rio hardwood, besides the U.S., including home-team Brazil, China, Serbia, and Russia. Don't be surprised to see semifinal and final matches coming down to decisive fifth games!

The following chart presents the U.S. women's roster (obtained here), with a focus on the players' collegiate success in making American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-America teams.

Player (Position) College All-America Teams (AVCA)
Rachael Adams (Middle) Texas 1st, 2011; 1st, 2010
Foluke Akinradewo (Middle) Stanford 1st, 2008; 1st, 2007; 1st, 2006; 2nd, 2005
Kayla Banwarth (Libero) Nebraska ---
Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen (Middle) Penn State 1st, 2008; 1st, 2007; 2nd, 2006; HM, 2005
Alisha Glass (Setter) Penn State 1st, 2009; 1st, 2008; 2nd, 2007
Kim Hill (Outside Hitter/left) Pepperdine 1st, 2011; HM, 2010; HM, 2009
Jordan Larson (Outside Hitter/left) Nebraska 1st, 2008; 3rd, 2007; 1st, 2006
Carli Lloyd (Setter) Cal 1st, 2010; 2nd, 2009; 2nd, 2008
Karsta Lowe (Opposite/right) UCLA 1st, 2014; HM, 2013
Kelly Murphy (Opposite/right) Florida 1st, 2011; 1st, 2010; 2nd, 2009; 3rd, 2008
Kelsey Robinson (Outside Hitter/left) Nebraska 1st, 2013; HM, 2012*; 2nd, 2011*
Courtney Thompson (Setter) Washington 1st, 2006; 1st, 2005; 1st, 2004
*While playing for Tennessee, before transferring to Nebraska.

Foluke Akinradewo is the leading hitter in the middle, in my view, based partly on the 2015 World Cup. Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Tori Dixon, with whom I've long been impressed, might have been among the team's middle corps, but suffered an ACL injury earlier in the year.

I'm least familiar with the outside (left-side) hitters. Kim Hill played for Pepperdine, which is not in a conference I concentrate on. Jordan Larson's career goes back a ways, only partially overlapping with my time operating this blog. Kelsey Robinson, in her one year at Nebraska (2013) after transferring from Tennessee, hit .318 while taking a very high 29.2 percent (1206/4132) of the Cornhuskers' swings that year.

This Volleyball Magazine article from back in February details the intense competition between Kelly Murphy, Karsta Lowe and Nicole Fawcett for what was anticipated (and indeed turned out) to be two openings for opposite/right-side hitters on the roster. (The term "opposite" comes from being opposite the setter in the rotation.)

Lowe did not perform that well in the 2015 World Cup, but improved dramatically in the January 2016 NORCECA regional qualifying tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska. Quoting from the above-linked Volleyball Magazine article:

"Teamed with [setter Courtney] Thompson in Lincoln, Lowe tallied a combined 22 kills and not a single hitting error in 34 attempts (.647) over less than 10 serving rotations."

Fawcett was named MVP of the NORCECA tournament, but ended up being the odd-woman-out for the Olympic team.

Joining Thompson in the setting ranks are Alisha Glass, key to one of Penn State's run of national titles, and Carli Lloyd (not to be confused with the U.S. soccer player of the same name). In 2010, Lloyd led Cal to the national final and was voted national Player of the Year. I once wrote of Lloyd that "during her senior campaign [in 2010, she] not only ran the high-powered Golden Bear offense, but also hit a respectable .265 on 283 tries (7% of the team's attempts) and contributed 1.08 blocks/set. (... I've come to regard an average of 1.00 or greater blocks/set as a marker for excellence in blocking.)"

All players on the U.S. roster, except former Nebraska libero Kayla Banwarth, earned at least one AVCA first-team accolade, with seven players receiving first-team honors in multiple-years.** Nor did Banwarth play extensively in overseas professional leagues. Her college coach John Cook was quoted as follows in the Des Moines Register:

“What’s really amazing, though, is she stayed with it, without really having much of a pro career," Cook said. "She’s just continued to hone her skills, training in Anaheim (Calif.), training with (U.S. coach) Karch Kiraly and training some days by herself.”

As I reported here, Kiraly gave a forum at Texas Tech University in March 2015, where he revealed many aspects of his philosophical approach to coaching.

We'll continue to track the U.S. women, as they progress through the competition in Rio.

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**For each of the last several seasons, AVCA has been bestowing first-team honors to 14 players, so being placed on the first team is more like being on a hypothetical "best roster" rather than "best starting unit."