I googled “Texas vs. Michigan” to try to find an image and all it would give me is stuff from a football game eight years ago. Internet, I hate you.
Anyhoo. I must first issue a correction. Michigan are not the first unseeded team to make the Final Four. They are the second, after Santa Clara in 2005. I’m not sure how I missed that when doing my initial fact-checking, but I did. It’s a thing that happened. Let’s move on.
Texas of course are the heavy favorite in tomorrow’s first semifinal, though you could make the case they haven’t had the strongest of schedules this season. They faced three tournament teams in their non-conference, two of them in a span of two days at Penn State’s Big 4 Tournament and then an unusual two-night series against Minnesota. They split the four matches, beating Minnesota once as well as Florida, while falling to Penn State and dropping the other match with Minnesota. They were dominant in the Big 12 season, losing only their final match, a five-setter against Iowa State when they legitimately had nothing left to play for.
It doesn’t make much sense to look back on Michigan’s season. They’re playing their best volleyball right now, so two separate three-match losing streaks and then back-to-back losses to Big Ten also-rans Illinois and Northwestern don’t mean so much right now. They’ve beaten four very good teams to get (back) to Louisville. That’s all that matters right now.
Despite both being high-profile national schools in important conferences, these two have met in volleyball just twice before. Texas won both, the most recent coming in the 2004 NCAA tournament. Texas are in the Final Four for the fourth time in the last five years. It’s Michigan’s first appearance in the national semifinals in program history. Michigan have made the tournament every year since 2005, and were even seeded (#13) in 2009, but this is a David vs. Goliath matchup if ever there was one.
How Texas win
Bailey and Haley. It’s really that simple. Add in Sha’Dare MacNeal as a senior leader if you like. But Bailey Webster and Haley Eckerman are the stars of the show for the Longhorns. Texas are statistically the best blocking team of the Final Four, marginally better than Penn State. They have talented underclassmen in the middle (in fact, MacNeal is the only senior on the roster, which is just scary) in Khat Bell and Molly McCage. There’s no obvious weak points on this team, even if we use the widest possible definition of ‘weak point.’
And the reason why I didn’t pick out a specific match or two to analyze is that it really just boils down to stifling front-line play. Texas are just 234th in the nation in digs per set, but this doesn’t always mean a team is bad at defense. It can also simply mean they play short rallies – because they get a kill on their first swing really often.
How Texas lose
Texas enter tomorrow’s national semifinal with a record of 27-4. I’m discounting that Iowa State match — they had literally nothing to play for, and while they did not sit their starters (indeed, Webster led all scorers in the match with 28 kills), you could not blame them for looking past the match.
The worst loss of Texas’ season was a five-set defeat at the hands of Illinois at their home invitational. Illinois took a fairly close (18-25, 25-21, 25-21, 19-25, 15-13) encounter. Sure seems like a lot of these matches that went the full five were 15-13 in the fifth. And honestly, it’s not altogether clear from the stat sheet why they lost this match. The only thing that jumps out at me is team hitting percentages by set – Texas had peaks and valleys, going from .414 in the first to .074 in the third, while Illinois were between .162 and .291 in the first four and somehow won the fifth by hitting just .048. Eckerman and Webster both struggled, at 17/10/56 and 14/7/41 respectively, but not to the extent that victory was unattainable. They did allow an eye-popping .706 hitting percentage to Illini middle Anna Dorn, but it was on just 17 swings. 12 kills aren’t gonna be the difference in a 5-set match. All told, Illinois was just ever so slightly better than Texas that night across most statistical categories.
Having already looked a little at the regular-season Penn State/Texas match in the last post, let’s look a little at Texas’ loss to Minnesota. The final score was (25-22, 25-13, 27-29, 29-27). I see that linescore and I mentally sing the Sesame Street song – “one of these thing is not like the others…” Three tight sets, two to extra points, and one at 25-13. In that gruesome second set, the Longhorns hit 6/9/28 for negative .103. That’s as bad as it can possibly get for a team this talented. It was a difficult match altogether for Eckerman, at 13/9/50 for .080, but Webster did fine at 17/3/38 for .368. You’ll take that from Webster any day of the week. But Texas’ defense failed them miserably in this match. The Golden Gophers out-dug them 67 to 46, and outhit them .327 to .170, which are both significant margins. They had four different players in double-digit kills, all of them hitting above .270. Giving up a .500 first set and then a 23-kill fourth set are never going to be the recipes for success. But aside from Eckerman’s difficult night, it doesn’t seem that there was a lot of beating themselves going on here. Just a lack of execution on defense.
How Michigan win
Michigan come into tomorrow night’s semifinal with a record of 27-11. Their top scorer in their Cinderella run to Louisville has been junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin. Erwin recorded 26 kills against Tennessee, 24 against Louisville, 17 against Michigan State, and 23 against Stanford, for an average of 5.62 kills per set. If she kept that rate up over an entire season, it would be best in the nation, and by a substantial margin. So Michigan will look to feed Erwin early and often.
Each match as seen Erwin have at least one major counterpart on the offense as well. Fellow junior outside Molly Toon was the hitting star of the Louisville pod, with 20 kills against Tennessee and 19 against Louisville. She sputtered against Michigan State and was just okay against Stanford, but there were others to pick up the pace in those matches. 6-foot-4 junior middle Jennifer Cross checked in with 12 kills and a .500 attack percentage against the Spartans, while she and Claire McElheny both had big matches against Stanford.
Michigan may also be the best defensive team left. Their libero Tiffany Morales is just a freshman, but she’s showed poise and skill in this tournament, with 77 digs to her name so far. A 4.81 digs per set figure doesn’t itself turn heads, but it’s more than a dig per set better than the mark she had in the regular season (3.80) and it’s coming under the bright lights of the postseason. She will have her work cut out for her with Texas’ big hitters.
How Michigan lose
Michigan’s very worst loss of the season was a three-set sweep to Wisconsin, a team that barely finished above .500 on the season, to cap off a three-match losing streak. And in that match they quite simply failed in all aspects of the game. Erwin hit .080, Toon hit negative, and they were out-dug, out-blocked, out-killed, out-scored, and had a difficult night on service reception.
But as I said above, this isn’t the same Michigan team who lost 11 regular-season matches. This is a team that’s playing fearless, solid volleyball, and a team that will have the confidence that comes with delivering when no one but themselves (and maybe not even themselves) expected them to do so. They’ve got no business in the Final Four. So whatever they do is a bonus. The pressure will be on Texas.
Michigan’s path to victory exists. But, oh boy, Texas are such a good team. Recognizing that victory is possible and actually expecting it are two vastly different things. Michigan sure didn’t get this far with me believing in them, and that won’t change now – Texas are massive favorites in this match. But that doesn’t mean Michigan can’t win. To use a tired truism, that’s why they play the games.
National statistical rankings
Kills Per Set – Michigan 13.88 (53rd) Texas 14.27 (24th)
Attack Percentage – Michigan .245 (45th) Texas .320 (1st)
Digs Per Set – Michigan 15.05 (168th) Texas 14.19 (234th)
Blocks Per Set – Michigan 2.23 (108th) Texas 2.99 (9th)
Assists Per Set – Michigan 12.99 (50th) Texas 13.18 (33rd)
Aces Per Set – Michigan 1.14 (197th) Texas 1.27 (109th)