I used the word ‘entitlement’ in my last post, and it must have felt that way for Penn State for some time now. This year marks 15 straight appearances in the 4-team NCAA tournament by the EIVA’s dominant Nittany Lions. They’ve claimed one national title during that span (they also have one from before that streak), with a 2008 championship triumph over Pepperdine. For the second year in a row, though, they enter the tournament with the #4 seed, and have to take on the squad that has looked by far like the best in the nation most of the year. BYU have officially never lost in the NCAA tournament. They did lose the 2003 final to Lewis, but the Flyers were later found to have played an ineligible player and vacated the victory.
How Penn State win
I am not one to bang this drum, but inferior competition has a great deal to do with it. From January 18 on, the Nittany Lions played just four matches against teams that ended the season ranked in the coaches’ poll (the more inclusive of the two national polls, going to 15 where the media poll stops at 10), and lost all four by a combined 12-1 set score. Their best win of the season was probably against Big Ten brothers Ohio State at Hawaii’s home invitational, but that was so long ago (just the third match of the season for the Lions) that I’m not sure it makes any sense to examine it. I appreciate that the Nittany Lions are in a no-win situation, week-in week-out, with respect to polls and national acclaim, but that doesn’t make matches against Rutgers-Newark and NJIT any more relevant to examine.
Three Nittany Lions have started every match this year — redshirt freshman setter Taylor Hammond, sophomore middle blocker Aaron Russell, and redshirt freshman middle blocker Matt Seifert. Aaron’s brother Peter has missed just one match, and likewise senior middle Nick Turko. It seems likely that they’ll form the core of the Penn State attack tomorrow night.
How Penn State lose
They’ve had a few bad ones this season. This is sometimes also explained away by the inferior competition angle (e.g. conference play is so meaningless, sometimes it just slips their mind to show up), but that doesn’t really work for a non-conference loss to IPFW. The Nittany Lions were manhandled at the net in this match, losing the blocking battle 14 to 6. That was probably a big difference on a night when, oddly enough, the two sides had precisely the same attack efficiency. This was another case of a team winning despite being outscored, as the Nittany Lions held the advantage in total offensive points 77 to 69, but came up short in a 15-11 deciding set. Aaron Russell had good attacking numbers, but was a ghost at the net, with just 1 block in 5 sets, and for someone his size, you really expect more than that day-in day-out. Same story for Seifert and Nick Goodell, the latter of whom played all 5 sets and took 43 swings — so plenty of front-row rotations — but didn’t have even a single block to his name.
The very lowest point of the season for Penn State was their three-set loss at Harvard, their first EIVA loss this decade (no, really). Penn State had just two total team blocks in that match, and the Crimson hit out of their minds at 47/10/81. Ultimately it was a closer match than the headlines might have led you to believe — linescore of (25-23, 25-17, 25-23) — but it’s still the biggest loss Penn State have suffered in a long time, and it briefly had us wondering if the Nittany Lions would even make it to Pauley for the Final Four.
How BYU win
How don’t they win. MPSF and national Freshman of the Year Ben Patch has been everything the Cougars could have asked for and then some. The confirmation from about a week ago that he will indeed leave the team for two years to fulfill his Mormon mission adds a little bit of urgency to this national championship run. Fellow first-team All-American Taylor Sander hasn’t been brilliant every night, such that I’d like to see someone else win national Player of the Year (maybe even Patch), but he hasn’t had to be with such a supporting cast around him. I covered BYU as much as I covered anyone this year, so I don’t really feel the need to go into great depth analysing past matches of theirs here. Suffice it to say, they’ve had a great deal of terrific wins this year, and it’s been a long time since there was even a hint of doubt that they deserved to be the nation’s top-ranked team. And the amazing thing is they’ve done it without being truly dominant in any individual category. Exactly one Cougar is in the national top-five in any category — Sander is fifth in Kills Per Set. Even if you expand it to top ten, that only adds Ryan Boyce as tenth in the nation in Assists Per Set.
How BYU lose
We’ve got exactly one example of a BYU loss since the middle of February, and it’s a match I wasn’t able to see, being without a computer at the time. BYU lost three straight sets to UCLA on April 6, but they had little to play for in that match (if indeed they had anything to play for in that match). Patch and Sander both reached 10 kills, which is okay for 3 sets, but they allowed the Bruins a .481 hitting percentage, which isn’t okay ever. The Cougars actually had fewer attacking errors than the Bruins in this match, 9 versus 11, but UCLA had far more terminating swings, BYU coming up with just 13 digs on the match. UCLA setter Connor Bannan nearly equalled that total on his own. While I would never accuse any team of doing this consciously, it seems like BYU might have been resting on their laurels a bit in this one.
Earlier in the year, in a match I wrote up, BYU blew a two sets to nil lead at home against the Lewis Flyers. Besides being early in the season, I wouldn’t read too much into this match because it took a career night for it to happen. Lewis’ Geoff Powell made a name for himself on this night with his 24/1/30 hitting performance, more than making up for Jay Petty hitting negative and Eric Fitterer hitting triple-zeroes. And that’s really all it amounted to. As the match went on, every time Powell touched the ball it hit the floor. Sometimes you just have one of those days. BYU also lost in five at home against Long Beach State, another match I wrote up here. I’d say that one would bear more examination, if it weren’t for the fact that the Cougars easily beat those same Long Beach 49ers in three straight sets (close sets, but still straight) to earn the MPSF crown just days ago.
I said I had 80-90 percent confidence in favouring UC Irvine over Loyola. I’m much more confident in picking BYU to beat Penn State. A Penn State win wouldn’t exactly be historic — as I noted, they’ve made the final and even won it before — but it may just as well be, for how big a favourite BYU are. In that classic hypothetical, the 10-match series, BYU might win all 10. A 100-match series, maybe 92 or 93. I will be shocked to see Penn State advance. Aaron Russell has already seen the Lions’ seed as a bit of bulletin board material, and a couple of members of the team are TNS twitter followers, so this could very well be some more. Use it, boys. I don’t dislike it when volleyball shocks me ;)
Season statistical rankings
Aces Per Set – Penn State 1.45 (4th), BYU .94 (27th)
Assists Per Set -Penn State 11.98 (6th), BYU 11.90 (8th)
Blocks Per Set – Penn State 2.06 (29th), BYU 2.95 (2nd)
Digs Per Set – Penn State 8.66 (22nd), BYU not in the national top 30 (that’s as far as NCAA.com goes)
Attack Percentage – Penn State .292 (8th), BYU .328 (1st)
Kills Per Set – Penn State 12.88 (3rd), BYU 12.63 (10th)