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.

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