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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 (typically decided in December) and the men's championship (typically being decided five months later) being held only two weeks apart. The women's final was played on Saturday, April 24, 2021, with the men's on May 8. Having nearly three months to digest these matches, I present my analyses of the championships below.

WOMEN'S

For starters, here's a sentence I never expected to write in my lifetime (I'm 58): The Kentucky Wildcats are the new NCAA women's volleyball champions.* UK stopped Texas in four games, 20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22, to claim what really is the 2020 championship (the 2021 title will be determined this coming November).

True, Kentucky was the No. 2 seed. However, previous high seeds from outside the power conferences (Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12) have rarely lived up to their placements**, so I remained skeptical. In the end, however, Kentucky proved to be a more reliable pick than even No. 1 seed Wisconsin, which entered the tournament undefeated, but bowed out in three to No. 4 Texas in the national semifinals.

Kentucky led the nation in team hitting percentage during the regular season (.361) and, to a large extent, rode that hitting to the national championship. Wisconsin came out better than Kentucky on my Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) measure, which is based on each team's own regular-season hitting percentage (HP) divided by the aggregate hitting percentage a team allowed its opponents (with this ratio multiplied by a strength-of-conference adjustment factor). Wisconsin hit .342 in the regular season (a bit below Kentucky's .361), but the Badgers allowed their opponents to hit a combined .128 (compared to .144 for the Wildcats' opponents). The Big 10's higher conference strength (1.25) than the SEC's (1.00) also made Wisconsin look better:

Wisconsin: .342 own HP/.128 opponents' HP = 2.67, which when multiplied by the Big 10's 1.25 conference adjustment factor = 3.34. 

Kentucky: .361 own HP/.144 opponents' HP = 2.51, which when multiplied by the SEC's 1.00 conference adjustment factor = 2.51.

At no time was Kentucky's kill-production more effective than when the Wildcats had the opportunity to close out the championship match against Texas in Game 4. Looking at a portion of the Game-4 play-by-play, once the Wildcats had overcome the Longhorns' early 6-1 edge to take a 15-13 lead, Kentucky successfully kept Texas at arm's length. A trailing team cannot afford merely to trade side-outs, but must put together scoring runs on its own serve to catch up. Yet, as shown in the following screenshots, five of Texas's seven final serving stints consisted of one serve only (the other two consisting of two serves). And, nearly always, it was Kentucky kills (highlighted in yellow) that kept Texas from gaining any ground. 


Another way to examine Kentucky's hitting attack is through usage/success graphs. In the two graphs shown below (the top one for the championship match vs. Texas and the bottom one for the Wildcats' four-game semifinal victory over Washington), each of Kentucky's five most active hitters (Madi Skinner, Avery Skinner, Elise Goetzinger, Azhani Tealer, and Alli Stumler) is depicted by a rectangle. The width of each rectangle represents the percentage of the team's hitting attempts taken by a player. For example, against Texas, Stumler took 34% (.34) of Kentucky's total number of swings (51/152), the most of any Wildcat, so her rectangle is widest. The height of each rectangle denotes the player's hitting percentage in the match, which was .471 for Stumler in the title match. Rectangles with the largest area convey great productivity by the hitter: a large number of kills on a large number of hitting attempts.


Looking at Kentucky's graphs against Texas and Washington one atop the other allows us to discern at a glance any changes in the Wildcats' allocation strategy between the two matches. For example, Kentucky set Stumler considerably more often (34% of the team's hitting attempts) in the final match than in the semifinal (23%). Changes in players' hitting percentages, such as Madi Skinner's improvement from .360 in the semifinal to .455 in the final, are also evident.

Before leaving the women's tournament, I wanted to revisit Wisconsin's concluding matches. Due to COVID, Big 10 teams played only conference matches during the regular season. The Badgers went 15-0 in this perennially strong conference, sweeping every match with the exception of three that went 3-1 (vs. Illinois, Michigan State, and Minnesota). However, both matches with Nebraska (ranked No. 5 nationally at the time), both matches with Penn State (No. 9 at the time), and one match with Minnesota (No. 5 at the time) were cancelled. It seems, in retrospect at least, that the missed opportunity to play these matches likely cost Wisconsin in terms of tournament sharpness.

The Badgers breezed through their first two NCAA tourney matches against Weber State and BYU, before hanging on 15-12 in the fifth game vs. No. 8-seed Florida in the round of eight.*** Now, Florida is an excellent team, in fact the only team all year to beat Kentucky (the Gators and Wildcats split their two SEC matches). Still, the decline in hitting percentage vs. Florida (relative to Big 10 play) among three leading Wisconsin hitters (6-foot-8 middle Dana Rettke, 6-2 middle/right Devyn Robinson, and 6-4 middle Danielle Hart) was considerable.
Interestingly, Robinson and Hart recovered nicely in their hitting vs. Texas, but it was not enough. As a team, the Longhorns outhit the Badgers, .301-.220.

MEN'S

Due to the COVID-related cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men's season, 2019 runner-up Hawai'i had to wait two years for another shot at the title. This time, the Rainbow Warriors made good on the opportunity, sweeping BYU, 25-21, 25-19, 25-16.

As this match wore on, Hawai'i looked more and more like it could attack the ball unchallenged. BYU recorded a healthy 5.5 blocks in Game 1 (really 5, as the extra half-block comes from awarding .5 credit to three blockers who went up together). However, the Cougars had zero blocks in Game 2 and two in Game 3 (7.5 total). Hawai'i hit .381 for the match (.400, .333, and .400, respectively, in Games 1, 2, and 3). Also, the Rainbow Warriors had only nine hitting errors on the night; we know seven of these are from BYU's "7.5" blocks, so that means UH spiked only two balls out of bounds. 

The Bows' Rado Parapunov, who started off hot in the 2019 final before cooling off, hit .357 this time vs. BYU on 13 kills (with three errors) on 28 swings (one-third of Hawai's overall 84 spike attempts). Several of Parapunov's teammates had even higher hitting percentages, albeit in far fewer attempts (Patrick Gasman, .545, 7-1-11; and Chaz Galloway and Guilherme Voss, each .667, 6-0-9).

Before I go, I wanted to mention that the Hawai'i athletic website's box score from this match is a very elaborate one, containing far more than the usual statistics. As shown in the following screenshot, the extended box score breaks down hitting attempts into first-ball attacks (immediately upon serve-receipt), transition attacks (once a rally has started), and first transition attacks. Hawai'i hit better on first-ball attacks (.524) than it did on transition attacks (.238).

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*Any more than I expected to write about a post-1908 World Series win by the Chicago Cubs or an NBA title by the Toronto Raptors (2019) or Milwaukee Bucks (2021).

**Examples include the 2019 Pitt squad that was seeded No. 6 and lost in the second round, and Kentucky itself, which as the No. 4 seed in 2017, lost in the Elite Eight to Nebraska.

***In the usual 64-team field, a team must win four matches to reach the Final Four. However, due to COVID, this spring's NCAA tourney consisted of only 48 teams.

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