Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 NCAA Women's Regional Finals Wrap

The NCAA women's Final Four, beginning tonight, will feature No. 1-seeded Penn State vs. No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 Stanford. The bracket has thus stuck pretty closely to the chalk, although we easily could have had No. 10-seed USC instead of Florida, the Trojans having held a match-point over the Gators in Game 4 of the teams' five-game contest. Florida's match-winning score was 25-23, 20-25, 18-25, 26-24, 15-11.

One of the key turnaround factors for Florida was the improved hitting of Carli Snyder as the match progressed. As shown in the box score, Snyder had only two kills in the first three games combined (both in Game 2), seven in Game 4, and two in Game 5. In the post-game quotes, USC coach Mick Haley explained the situation in terms of a shift in USC's lineup apparently geared at increasing the Trojans' offensive firepower at the cost of losing their most effective blocking match-up on Snyder:

“What happened is they got [Carli Snyder] away from [Brittany Abercrombie]. Abercrombie and Jordan Burns did a fantastic job on [Snyder]. [Snyder] has been unstoppable all year and if you look at the stats she has been the go-to for Florida. We virtually held her to a small roar until they rotated. We had an option to match up, but in the fifth game we went with the lineup that would score the most points, knowing that we might only get 9-12 rotations..."

Note that, although Haley pinpoints his team's lineup change for Game 5 as a turning point, Snyder began heating up in Game 4. Another issue was the collapse of USC's siding-out performance in Game 5 (35%, compared to values ranging from 65-77% in each of the first four games). By siding-out at such high levels in Games 1-4, the Trojans limited the Gators' ability to go on scoring runs on their own serve. However, in Game 5, Florida was able to rally from down 9-5.

Whereas none of the other Elite Eight showdowns matched Florida-USC for drama, Nebraska's four-game win over No. 4-seed Kentucky featured some tight games (25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22). As shown in the following graphic, Kentucky hit over .300 for the regular season as a whole and maintained that hitting percentage in five-game wins over Western Kentucky in the NCAA second round and BYU in the third round. However, the Wildcats fell to .252 vs Nebraska, which clocked in at .271 in Lexington.

Stanford's Elite Eight victory over No. 6-seed Texas was a lot less competitive than many expected, ending in a three-game sweep by identical scores of 25-21 in each game. And in the remaining match, Penn State swept Michigan State; the Nittany Lions had beaten the Spartans 3-1 in each of the teams' two B1G conference matches (PSU game log).

Tonight's Penn State-Nebraska national semifinal will be a rematch of a September 22 conference clash, in which Nebraska swept Penn State in State College, for the Nittany Lions' only loss of the year. The Huskers hit .347 in that match, which will be hard for them to duplicate vs. Penn State.

Florida and Stanford, the contestants in tonight's other semi, have not met this season. For what it's worth, the Gators will be playing their third straight Pac 12 opponent, having beaten UCLA 3-1 in the Sweet Sixteen, followed by USC in the match discussed above.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

2017 NCAA Women's Tourney: First Weekend Wrap

The first two rounds of this year's NCAA women's tourney were completed this weekend and there were several casualties among seeded teams. We lost No. 8 Washington (to Illinois), No. 9 Creighton (to Michigan State), No. 12 Baylor (to Colorado), No. 14 Iowa State (to Wisconsin), and No. 16 Wichita State (to Mizzou). In addition, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 10 USC were taken to five games before prevailing, vs. Western Kentucky  and San Diego, respectively.

One might be tempted to say there's increasing parity among top teams. However, three of the upsets were engineered by unseeded Big Ten (B1G) teams, so it's hardly the case that teams from mid-major conferences are displacing ones from the power leagues. In fact, the B1G has six teams remaining    (No. 1 Penn State, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 7 Minnesota, in addition to the unseeded teams listed above). The Pac 12 is close behind, with five remaining teams (No. 3 Stanford, No. 10 USC, No. 11 Utah, No. 15 UCLA, and unseeded Colorado). The SEC has three (No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Kentucky, and Mizzou). That's 14 of the final 16 coming from three major conferences! The other remaining teams are No. 6 Texas and No. 13 BYU.

Penn State raised a few eyebrows by dropping a game each to first-round opponent Howard and second-round opponent Pittsburgh. The spider-like pattern in the following graph (on which you can click to enlarge) shows some interesting hitting-percentage trends in these matches. Note that Penn State is shown in blue, the Nittany Lions' opponents are shown in red, the solid lines are from the PSU-Howard match, and the dashed lines are from the PSU-Pitt match. Teams' hitting percentages are shown for Games 1, 2, 3, and 4 of of the respective matches.

Penn State's game-specific hitting percentages in the two matches ranged from .265-415, except for a  .195 in Game 4 vs. Pitt. However, the Nittany Lions allowed Pitt to hit .324, .306, and .268 in the first three games (Game 2 being won by the Panthers), before Pitt slipped to .057 in Game 4. Howard's game-specific hitting percentages were quite interesting. In each of three games (1, 3, and 4), Howard hit .000 (recording an equal number of kills and errors). However, in Game 2, the Bison put up an excellent .355 (16 kills, 5 errors, on 31 attempts); Howard won this game. In short, Penn State's offense looked fine, but its defense was inconsistent.