Thursday, December 19, 2019

Preview of NCAA Women's Final Four (2019)

This year's NCAA women's Final Four, which begins shortly, features the Bears of Baylor, two of the B1G's three burrowing animals -- the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Gophers* -- and a color, the Stanford Cardinal.

By most accounts, Minnesota would probably be the team considered least likely to win the national title. Anecdotally, in watching some Gopher matches this season, my sense was that blocking was the team's strength.

I therefore decided to compare the Final Four teams on their blocks per opportunity. The number of opportunities a team has to score points via a stuff block is the number of hit attempts by opponents, removing the number of spikes hit out of bounds or into the net. Such attempts gone awry can be calculated by taking opponents' aggregate hitting errors and subtracting those errors due to your own aggregate blocks.

These calculations revealed all of the Final Four teams to be extremely similar in the proportion of blockable (i.e., not out of bounds) balls they actually blocked. These proportions showed that each team blocked 8% of their aggregate opponents' spike attempts they could have blocked (ranging from .080-.087).

Where the teams differed more dramatically is in the number of opposition spike attempts they allowed: Minnesota 4453, Wisconsin 3834, Baylor 3428, and Stanford 4070. At first glance, at least, even when Baylor and Wisconsin (relative to Minnesota and Stanford) don't score kills, they appear to pressure their opponents enough to take them out of system and prevent them from mounting attacks.

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*The other being the Michigan Wolverines.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Brief Observations on NCAA Women's Elite Eight Day

Baylor and Washington are tied at one game apiece (Baylor 25-20, U-Dub 25-21). Baylor has hit well in Games 1 (.538, 16 kills, only 2 errors, on 26 attempts) and 2 (.355, 15-4-31).  Washington had only three hitting errors in Game 2 (.367, 14-3-30). The Huskies' Samantha Drechsel is hitting .625 after two games (12-2-16)... Bears take Game 3, 25-19, on continued torrid hitting (.615, 17- 1-26 in Game 3)... Baylor closes out match 25-18 to take program's first trip to Final Four. Bears hit .444 in Game 4 (16-4-27), .479 for match (67-11-117)...

Wisconsin records a 3-0 sweep of Nebraska (25-18, 25-22, 25-19) for the third time this season to advance... No suspense in the last two matches of the day, either -- not even any deuce games -- as Minnesota sweeps Louisville (25-21, 25-14, 25-16) and Stanford does the same to Penn State (25-22, 25-15, 25-17). Stanford's Kathryn Plummer records another high hitting percentage on a high volume of attempts (.512, 24-2-43).

Friday, December 13, 2019

Brief Observations on NCAA Women's Sweet Sixteen Day (2019)

It was a day of upsets and near-upsets and the NCAA women's field winnowed from 16 to eight teams. No. 2 seed Texas dropped the first two games to Louisville, won the next two to even things up, and then fell to the Cardinals in Game 5, 15-12. Three other matches went the distance, with the higher-seeded team prevailing in each case.

Utah had given Stanford trouble in the regular season, never winning a match from the Cardinal, but going five games on October 20 and four on November 22. Friday's NCAA match-up was no different, as Stanford and Utah battled five games, the Cardinal prevailing 15-11 in the decider. Here at VolleyMetrics, we've been keeping an eye on Kathryn Plummer's heavy swing volume for Stanford. Friday night, she registered one of best performances of the season, hitting .389 on 29 kills and 8 attack errors in 54 attempts.

Two other five-game survivors were No. 7 Minnesota over No. 10 Florida, and No. 11 Penn State over unseeded Cincinnati.

Top-seeded Baylor has eliminated No. 16-seed Purdue in today's opening match, 25-12, 23-25, 25-15, 25-17 (stat sheet). To me, the big story was Baylor's offensive depth. With junior outside-hitter Yossiana Pressley, this season's Big 12 Player of the Year, hitting a subpar .194 on 15 kills and 8 errors in 36 attack attempts (she hit .275 on the season), the Bears more than made up for it with strong hitting performances by Gia Milana (.500, 13-3-20), Marieke van der Mark (.464, 16-3-28), and Shelly Stafford (.421, 9-1-19).

Saturday's match-ups, with trips to the Final Four on the line, include: Baylor-Washington, Wisconsin-Nebraska, Stanford-Penn State, and Minnesota-Louisville.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

2019 NCAA Women's Tourney Preview

This year's NCAA women's tournament, which gets underway Friday, features some of the "usual suspects" among the leading teams, but also some newcomers (click here for bracket). The usual suspects include No. 2 national seed Texas, No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Wisconsin, and No. 5 Nebraska, whereas the upstarts include No. 1 Baylor and No. 6 Pittsburgh.

Baylor and Texas, the top two seeds, are both in the Big 12 conference, and they split their two matches this season. Baylor's October 23 loss in Austin was, in fact, the 25-1 Bears' only defeat of the season. Along with Baylor's November 20 win over Texas in Waco, the Bears also own an impressive victory over Wisconsin in Madison, although it was a long time ago (September 6).

On my longtime Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD)metric, Baylor clocks in at 2.16 (.281 team hitting percentage divided by .156 hitting percentage allowed, with this ratio multiplied by 1.20, the adjustment factor for the Big 12). In the eight years I've calculated the CACOD, all the teams that won an NCAA title had at least a value of 1.91. Hence, Baylor's CACOD is consistent with a possible championship, but far from definitive in that regard.

Texas, 21-3 with losses at Stanford, at Rice, and at Baylor (all in five games), has a CACOD slightly below Baylor's at 2.12 (.319/.180, times 1.20).

Stanford, the defending national champion and runaway pick to repeat, suffered some surprising early-season losses, but finished well in Pac 12 conference play and ended up 24-4. The Cardinal's CACOD is 2.05 (.289/.176, times the Pac 12's adjustment factor of 1.25).

A towering figure for Stanford is 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, named by multiple sources the national player of the year in 2017 and 2018. Plummer has had an interesting 2019 season, interrupted by 10 missed matches (11 if you count one in which she had no hitting attempts and only served) due to what was consistently reported as an "undisclosed injury." The following graphic (on which you can click to enlarge) shows Plummer's total number of hitting attempts and hitting percentages in each of her matches.

Plummer started out the season on fire, hitting above .400 in several matches, sometimes with huge numbers of hitting attempts. The Texas match epitomizes this trend, as she took a whopping 57 swings while still maintaining a .474 hitting percentage. Following the Texas match, she continued to take roughly 50 hitting attempts per match, but her hitting percentages went down (all the way to .067 on 45 attempts). At that point, she began her injury leave. I have no insider information on her injury, but one cannot help wonder if her high volume of hitting attempts had something to do with it. Upon Plummer's return, she recorded some of her best hitting percentages when her swings were reduced (e.g., .636 on 22 attempts at Arizona). It will be interesting to see what Plummer's workload will be in the tournament.

No. 4 Wisconsin also had an interesting season. After suffering four non-conference losses (one each to Marquette and Baylor, and two to Washington), the Badgers began steamrolling through the B1G. Wisconsin went into State College, Pennsylvania on November 29 with only a single blemish on its conference record (a bit of a shocker at Ohio State) and a chance to complete the impressive feat of sweeping two matches each from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Penn State. And it looked like the Badgers would do it, easily winning the first two games from the Nittany Lions, while hitting .640 and .395 as a team. However Wisconsin's hitting percentage plummeted to .000 (i.e., having as many hitting errors as kills) in each of Games 3 and 4, and rising only to .107 in Game 5. The result was a five-game loss to Penn State. The Badgers, with a CACOD of 1.85 (.294/.198, times the B1G adjustment of 1.25), still finished first in the conference with an 18-2 record.

No. 5 seed Nebraska has the highest CACOD among the top seeds, with a 2.26 (.269/.149, times 1.25).

No. 6 Pitt finished 29-1, the Panthers' only loss coming in five games to Penn State in the Steel City. Two days earlier, however, Pitt swept Penn State in State College. The Panthers' CACOD is 2.11 (.276/.144, times the ACC's adjustment of 1.10).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

FiveThirtyEight Tackles Women's College Volleyball

The website FiveThirtyEight, which offers quantitative analyses of politics*, sports, and culture, today turns its attention to women's college volleyball. The article is not as statistically laden as a lot of other FiveThirtyEight pieces, but has some numerical analysis. Mainly, the article looks at leading teams' returning talent, presenting the percentage of each team's total kills, assists, digs, blocks, and aces from last year that are accounted for by players returning this year. For example, of the 1,791 total kills Cardinal hitters recorded last year, 85.1% were collected by players returning this year.

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*The website's name comes from the number of electoral votes in U.S. presidential elections.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Previewing the 2019 NCAA Women's Season

ESPN-W previews what it considers the top women's college volleyball teams and players in this upcoming season... Meanwhile, here is the AVCA pre-season national poll. Defending NCAA champion Stanford is a near-unanimous pick to repeat, while five B1G teams make the top eight (Nebraska 2, Minnesota 3, Wisconsin 5, Illinois 6, and Penn State 8). Texas (4) and Kentucky (7) complete the top eight.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Long Beach State Repeats as NCAA Men's Champ

Having taken three months to digest this year's NCAA men's title match between Hawai'i and Long Beach State, I'm ready to provide my statistical analysis. These teams were ranked as the top two squads entering the national final and they were extremely evenly matched.

Long Beach State* and Hawai'i  played three late-season matches leading into the NCAA tourney -- the final two matches (here and here) of the Big West conference season (played in Long Beach) and in the final of the conference tournament (in Honolulu). All three matches went five games and all three were won by the home team.

The Beach hosted the NCAA final round and the home-court advantage held true to form. The final went four games instead of five, but each game was close. Ultimately, Long Beach State successfully defended its national title, 23-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-23 (box score).

For the second straight year, it was the T. J. DeFalco show for The Beach, as the 6-4 senior hitter was unstoppable. Last year, it was DeFalco's combination of hitting and digging that was crucial to Long Beach State's championship-match win over UCLA. This year, DeFalco's dig total in the title match was a modest 5. However, his hitting line in the box score, 20-4-31 (K-E-TA) for a .516 percentage, was scintillating.

As Vinnie Lopes noted over at Off the Block, DeFalco "became the second pin-hitter to have back-to-back NCAA Tournament matches with at least a .500 attack percentage during the 25-point rally scoring era."

As (or more) impressive to me than DeFalco's statistical line was the variety of locations from which he was scoring all those kills. I studied the video of the match** and attempted to note via diagrams of a volleyball court the physical locations of all of DeFalco's attack attempts (where he took off on his jump and the ball's trajectory and where it landed) .

The first graphic below shows the diagram for Games 1 and 2, and the second graphic, for Games 3 and 4. You can click on them to enlarge them. Before looking at the diagrams, however, here are some explanations of the symbols and notation:

  • In all cases, "black" represents the Long Beach State side of the court, from which DeFalco launched his attacks and "green" depicts the Hawai'i side, on which the kills were landing or being deflected out-of-bounds. 
  • Kills originating from DeFalco's conventional (front-row) attacks appear in yellow, whereas those coming from back-row attacks appear in light-blue. Three slashes "///" over the yellow or light-blue lines signify balls going off the block. A Game-3 Hawai'i net violation that was credited as a kill to DeFalco appears in grey. Finally, his four hitting errors appear in pink (one that might be hard to discern is a DeFalco net-violation in Game 3 that is treated as a hitting error, shown as a small pink rectangle). 
  • The trajectories are very much approximations. Even viewing multiple replays of some hits, I wasn't always sure of the precise locations of his jump and where the ball landed. Also, I sometimes moved things around a bit to fit all the trajectories on the diagrams.



As you can see, DeFalco hit successfully from the left, the right, and the center; from the net and from behind the 3-meter (~10-foot) attack line. He drilled kills straight to the floor, and engineered deflections out of bounds to the side, to deep areas beyond the reach of the Warriors' back-row defenders, and back high over his own head, out of bounds beyond The Beach's baseline. He came up with a few off-speed "roll" shots (depicted with dashed lines) for a change of pace.

Hawai'i stuff-blocked DeFalco twice in Game 2 (half of the Rainbow Warriors' four blocks overall on the day), but couldn't shut down any more of his attacks the rest of the way. Via Off the Block, "Hawai’i in the loss had four blocks to tie the record for the fewest blocks in a NCAA Tournament finals during the 25-point rally scoring era."

The Warriors' Rado Parapunov started off looking like he might be able to match DeFalco kill for kill, putting up points on the first eight balls set to him. However, as shown in the following plot, Parapunov could not sustain this pace.


Beyond the spikes and kills, the match was notable in at least two other ways, in my view. One was both teams' inability to hold onto leads and close out games. The Warriors led 21-13 in Game 1, only to have The Beach go on a 9-2 run to close within 23-22. A Hawai'i kill made it 24-22 and the Warriors held on to win 25-23. In Game 2, Long Beach State held a 19-14 lead, but Hawai'i closed within 22-21 and 23-22. Warrior service errors (discussed below) gave The Beach its 23rd and 24th points, however, and a Beach stuff-block ended the game, 25-22.

Hawai'i darted to a 5-0 lead in Game 3. but gave up a 7-2 Beach run to even the score. No team held any larger than a two-point lead for the rest of the game, with Long Beach State scoring the final three points after a 22-all tie -- culminating in a DeFalco left-side kill off the block -- to go up two games to one.

Game 4, finally, was close throughout. After Beach setter Josh Tuaniga recorded an ace serve to put his team up 20-18, the final 10 points of the match were all scored via side-out, leaving The Beach the winner of the game and match, 25-23. Down the stretch, the Tuaniga-to-DeFalco connection was running on all cylinders, with Long Beach State's final two points coming on kills by the latter.

The final match theme (previewed above) involved service errors. Again, per Off the Block, "This was the first time that both teams had at least 20 service errors in a NCAA Tournament finals during the 25-point rally scoring era." Note that, even though several previous NCAA men's finals went five games (2018, 2015, 2011, 2009, to name a few), no teams committed as many service errors as did Hawai'i and The Beach in four games.

With Hawai'i unable to block Long Beach State much at all, it makes sense for the Rainbow Warriors to have served aggressively in an attempt to derail The Beach's offense. However, The Beach had 12 blocks (triple the Warriors' total), so its service-error total is a little harder to understand.

This year's Long Beach State squad was a senior-laden outfit, including DeFalco, Tuaniga, and Kyle Ensing (who put up a 13-4-27, .333 hitting line). These players will be a tough act to follow. Hawai'i also loses some seniors, most notably setter Joe Worsley and hitter Stijn Van Tilburg. Whether one or both of these teams can return to the NCAA final in 2020 remains to be seen, but neither would enjoy a home-court advantage. Next year's host is George Mason University, in Virginia near Washington, DC.

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*Typically, I would vary my usage between school name and nickname. However, in the case of Long Beach State, at the time of the NCAA volleyball final the school was in the process of dropping its long-time nickname of "49ers" and selecting the new one of "Sharks." I will not use either of these nicknames in the above posting, but will occasionally say "The Beach," a common reference to Long Beach State athletics.

**If you want to have a view to these kills without having to watch the entire two-hour-plus match, here are the approximate time-points in this YouTube video to see all of DeFalco's hitting attempts: Game 1 (10:20, 17:06, 18:20, 20:25, 25:07); Game 2 (40:14, 42:13, 48:53, 51:30, 52:15, 52:34, 54:50); Game 3 (1:05:42, 1:06:30, 1:16:50, 1:22:20, 1:30:48, 1:33:36); and Game 4 (1:50:25, 1:57:06, 1:59:05, 2:01:10, 2:14:17, 2:15:12). You're welcome!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Stanford Tops Nebraska in First Five-Game Championship Final in Nine Years

This year's NCAA women's championship match, completed in mid-December, featured a five-game thriller in which Stanford defeated Nebraska, 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 (box score). It was the first time an NCAA women's final went five since the classic 2009 tussle in which Penn State came back from two games down vs. Texas to win its third straight national title.

Stanford was the No. 1 seed in the tourney and No. 2 in my own Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) metric. Interesting, Nebraska, though only the No. 7 seed in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, finished first in the CACOD. The final thus presented an attractive match-up, indeed!

Not everything went according to plan. Stanford junior Kathryn Plummer, the 2017 and 2018 AVCA and ESPN-W national player of the year, was kept in check in the final, hitting only .153 (19 kills, 10 errors, 59 total attempts). Frosh middle-blocker Holly Campbell paced the Cardinal attack, hitting .483 (15-1-29).

It was one of those "swing until your arm falls off" nights for Nebraska senior outside-hitter Mikaela Foecke, as she had 71 attack attempts (39.2% of the Huskers' total of 181 attempts). This volume of attempts was reminiscent of Destinee Hooker (Texas) and Megan Hodge (Penn State) in 2009. Foecke hit a solid .296 (26 kills, 6 errors) on these attempts. No Husker was close to Foecke's number of swings, but three had between 26-33 attempts. Among them, the most effective was sophomore middle-blocker Lauren Stivrins (19-3-26, .615).

The rest of this posting focuses on Game 5 of the final (video replay). The Lincoln Journal-Star published an excellent game-by-game review of the match, in which it identified Campbell's clutch kills as the key to Game 5. My take was a little different, namely that Nebraska errors prevented it from opening up some early daylight, which would have been difficult for Stanford to overcome.

With Nebraska up 3-1 in the fifth, Stanford scored four straight points, the last three on Husker hitting errors (Jazz Sweet wide, Sweet blocked, and Foecke long). Nebraska thus trailed 5-3, when it very well could have led by a similar margin. Then, after the Huskers fought back to a 6-6 tie, they missed two straight serves (Foecke at 6-6, Hayley Densberger at 7-7). Nebraska looked a little deflated at that point, falling behind 14-10.

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Taking a longer-term perspective, three programs are now dominating the sport: Stanford, which won its nation-leading eighth NCAA title; Penn State, which has seven NCAA titles (the most recent in 2014); and Nebraska, with five (including 2015 and 2017). The last six national championships have been captured by one of these three schools.

Next down the list are UCLA (four titles), and USC, Hawaii, and Long Beach State (each with three). One of these teams could rebound back into national contention (USC arguably being the most likely), but it is unlikely any of them will displace the Big Three anytime soon.

This year's two other Final Four squads, BYU and Illinois, are showing some promise. Finally, schools such as Texas (the 2012 winner), Minnesota, Florida, Wisconsin, and Washington often contend each December, but none has gotten it done lately. 

Kentucky Wins 2020 (held in 2021) NCAA Women's Title; Hawai'i Takes 2021 Men's

It was an unusual spring for U.S. collegiate volleyball, thanks to COVID-19-related adjustments, with the women's championship (typicall...