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Long Beach State's DeFalco Double-Trouble (Hitting and Digging) For UCLA in NCAA Men's Final

In reflecting on Long Beach State's five-game win (25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-12) over UCLA back in May for the NCAA men's championship, there seemed to be a few possible angles to pursue.

One was the re-emergence of California schools -- which had been completely absent from the last three NCAA title matches and had last hoisted the trophy in 2013 (UC Irvine) -- as championship combatants.   

A second possible angle was UCLA's aggressive serving, which led to four straight service errors at a crucial point in Game 4 (at 20-20, 21-21, 22-22, and 23-23). I wrote about the Bruins' serving dilemma back in 2016 and it evidently is not something they have yet solved.

To me, however, it was the two-way performance of 49ers' outside-hitter TJ DeFalco, whose hitting and digging were indispensable to his team's success. DeFalco hit .419 (18 kills and 5 errors on 31 hitting attempts) and led his team with 12 digs.

A method for putting a player's dig total into perspective, which I previously discussed here, is to examine digs as a percentage of the opposing team's dig-able hitting attempts. UCLA delivered 97 attacks that were potentially dig-able: 62 that were not dug and ended up as kills, and 35 that were dug by LBSU (this formula excludes UCLA's hitting errors and balls Long Beach State immediately blocked back to the Bruins' side of the court and which were kept in play, neither of which the 49ers could be expected to dig). Thus, of all the dig-able spike attempts made by UCLA, DeFalco personally dug 12.4 percent of them (12 digs/97 dig-able spikes).

DeFalco's digging performance seems pretty good (especially for someone who also hit over .400 in the same match), but we must ask the eternal question: Compared to what? To address this question, I looked at box scores from all NCAA men's championship matches for the past 10 years. I then identified all players who hit .400 or higher (with a minimum of 15 attempts in a three-game match, 20 attempts in a four-game match, and 25 in a five-gamer). I then looked at the digging performances of the selected players, which are shown in the following table (ODA = Opponent's Dig-able Attacks).

Player (Team)
Nicolas Szerszen (Ohio St.)
W 3-0
TJ DeFalco (LBSU)
W 3-2
Cody Caldwell (Loyola-Chicago)
W 3-1
Carson Clark (UC Irvine)
W 3-0
Tanner Jansen (USC)
L 3-0
Brad Lawson (Stanford)
W 3-0
Zackia Cavera (UC Irvine)
W 3-0
Brenden Sander (BYU)
L 0-3
Max Lipsitz (Penn St.)
L 0-3
Jeff Jendryk (Loyola-Chicago)
W 3-2

I also have an honorable mention for a player who fell slightly short of the .400 hitting percentage needed for inclusion in this analysis. In Ohio State's 2011 five-game win over UC Santa Barbara, the Buckeyes' Shawn Sangrey hit .389 (30-9-54) and recorded 7 digs. The Gauchos delivered 85 dig-able attacks (45 kills and 40 balls dug by the Buckeyes) and Sangrey dug a healthy 8.2% of these.

Based on the above statistics, it looks like Ohio State's Nicolas Szerszen had a better championship match in 2017 than DeFalco did in 2018, holding advantages in both hitting and digging percentage. However, one could argue on DeFalco's behalf that his performance came in a much tougher match (a five-gamer vs. UCLA on the Bruins' home court) than Szerszen's (a three-game win on his home floor at Ohio State).


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