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).

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