I’d like to have a deep, incisive, meaningful couple of posts here, but I’m not sure I’ve got it in me. And as I mentioned in my previous post about the tournament, I haven’t yet seen a single Oregon match this season. None of their matchups prior to the Elite 8 were all that interesting to me, and I wasn’t able to see the Elite 8 match. But we’ll see how this goes.
This will actually be the second semifinal tomorrow, but I feel like discussing it first. Penn State are the well-deserved top seed of the tournament, and have to be viewed as the favorite. They’ve slain some major giants this season — of the seven other Elite 8 teams, Penn State played five of them in the regular season (Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan, and Stanford) and beat them all. Oregon, for their part, played three tournament teams in their non-conference (Kentucky, Ohio State, and St. Mary’s), and won all three matches by a 9-1 combined score. Against the other four bigs in the Pac-12, they lost twice to Stanford, split two matches with Washington, and won sweeps in their only matches with the respective Los Angeles schools.
How Penn State win
Take your pick, really, since they’ve got so many of them to choose from. In looking at the score sheets from arguably their two best wins of the season, a five-setter over Stanford and a sweep against possible national championship opponent Texas, both involved heavy, constant doses of Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon. You didn’t really need me to tell you that. But particularly in the first of those matches, the Stanford five-setter, they needed more production than just what those two provided. Against Stanford, Scott hit a prolific (but not very efficient) 26/12/85, for .165, and McClendon was 16/5/55 for .200. The answer came from the emerging Katie Slay and a name with which you may not be too familiar (I certainly wasn’t), sophomore outside hitter Nia Grant. In the Stanford match, they combined to go 19/0/34 for a staggering .559
Now, the script was almost exactly flipped the next day against Texas, as Grant hit negative, Slay just barely positive, and Scott and McClendon both in the .260’s (which is fine for how many swings they take). But against elite competition, it looks like it helps for the Nittany Lions to have multiple offensive options. It bears mentioning that those matches were months ago (Penn State’s fourth and fifth of the season), and in the interim Grant’s role in the offense has been reduced. But it’s been reduced because Penn State have perhaps an even better option as an offensive support player, that being Megan Courtney.
How Penn State lose
We’ve got far fewer options to look at here. The Nittany Lions carry just two losses on the season, five-setters to Oregon State and Nebraska. Nothing at all wrong with losing a five-setter to the Huskers on their home court — after all, Nebraska were very nearly Penn State’s opponents in this match. Oregon State, however, didn’t end up being a very good team at all this season. I don’t think it would be too controversial to say their win over Penn State was the biggest upset of the season. And while it, too, was early in the Nittany Lions’ 2012 campaign (as their seventh match), it bears examination.
The linescore of the match was (17-25, 25-17, 11-25, 25-17, 15-12). Penn State hit .345 in the first set to the Beavers’ .036, and it must have looked like it was bound to go the way everyone would have expected. But the Nittany Lions went in the tank in the second set, hitting just .056 (at 10/8/36) and with only a 50% sideout percentage. Then the script was flipped again in the third (as the linescore hints), with the Beavers hitting zero and the Nittany Lions .371. Then Penn State fell apart again, going just 19/12/56, for .125, combined in the fourth and fifth and Oregon State were out of their minds at 20/1/47 for .404 over that stretch. Penn State are by no means a dominant defensive team (really, the only of the Elite 8 I’d have called particularly strong defensively were USC and Stanford), but to go 11/0/22 for a set against them says they were beating themselves. Not to mention that 11 kills were enough to win the fourth set.
Scott and McClendon both had one of their respective worst matches of the season in this tilt, going 14/7/45 (remember, these are 5 set totals) and 13/7/45 respectively. Every Nittany Lion who had an attack attempt had at least one hitting error, and every Nittany Lion who had more than one attempt had at least two errors. This is uncharacteristic of such a dominant offensive team.
The hard part, though, is saying what of that is on them and what of it is on the defense. The numbers suggest it was on Penn State themselves rather than the defense. For that match, they actually out-dug the Beavers 65-59, and had more attack errors, too (26-18). Blocks were basically a wash. In this instance, I think we can say Penn State beat themselves.
Then in Lincoln about two months later, the Huskers won a (12-25, 32-30, 19-25, 25-23, 15-10) decision from the Nittany Lions. After a dreadful first set (6/10/39 for a negative .103…YOWCH!) the Huskers were no worse than solid the rest of the way (and perhaps brilliant in set 2). They ended the match with four different players in double-digits in kills (in their win over Penn State, Oregon State had just one player in double figures). As a team, Penn State hit an acceptable 74/24/211 in this match, with Scott and Grant both having straight-up good nights at the office. Part of their troubles came from the service line, as Micha Hancock herself had almost as many service errors (5) as Nebraska did as a team (8). But there’s far less of a sense of Penn State beating themselves in this match. Every statistical category is either very close to tied, or it’s actually in Penn State’s favor. It seems that Nebraska prospered by spreading out their options on offense, even though (or maybe because) none of their top scorers had particularly outstanding nights individually.
How Oregon win
It’s not quite so obvious identifying the Ducks’ best wins and losses. They knocked off USC and Washington when both were ranked #2 in the nation, though in hindsight it doesn’t seem that either really should have been ranked that high. Oregon’s win over USC, off the heels of USC’s win over UCLA that would otherwise have made them #1 in the next poll, was a matchup of unbeatens at the time. And I don’t think any of us quite believed Oregon were the real deal at that point.
But they served notice that night, winning (25-19, 25-15, 25-23). The Trojans had what had to be one of the worst defensive showings of the year for them, getting out-dug by Oregon (who rank just 182nd in the nation in digs per set) by 20 digs and surrendering a .357 attack percentage. Pac-12 Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma and Liz Brenner both had absolutely scintillating nights hitting, combining to go 34/5/58 for an even .500. On 58 swings. In three sets. Yeah. That’s pretty stifling. As a team the Ducks hit .453 in the first two sets before a less effective (but still victorious) third set dropped them to “just” .357 for the match.
And it was pretty much the same against Washington (save for a second-set lull of 12/10/43 that made the match go four sets), only that time it was Bergsma and Ariana Williams, from the middle, getting it done most effectively. I’m not too sure Oregon can expect much from Williams against Penn State, though. As you’ll see, Penn State are a massively better blocking team.
How Oregon lose
Every match Oregon lost this season was to an NCAA tournament team. Their “worst loss,” therefore, was probably against Cal.
On November 2, the Golden Bears handed the Ducks their second loss of the season by a (25-17, 25-21, 22-25, 19-25, 15-13) count. And if the Ducks beat themselves in this match, it sure wasn’t in terms of ineffective offense. Bergsma and Brenner both hit over .400 and the team hit .319 for the match, figures you wouldn’t expect to associate with a loss. They actually out-scored the Golden Bears, both in terms of total points (85 to 81) and in kills (77 to 65).
What jumps out from the stat sheet is how incredibly efficient Cal were offensively. Four players took more than 20 swings, and the lowest any of those four hit was .283. The other attack percentages were .519, .375, and .400. The Golden Bears had just 10 attack errors, total, in the (five-set) match. So it kind of doesn’t matter that the Ducks had more kills.
The other big figure that jumps out, and what may very well prove Oregon’s undoing against Penn State, is blocks. Cal out-blocked Oregon 13-3 in this match. That’s not a small discrepancy. Cal are a reasonably good blocking team (19th in the nation), and Penn State are even better (10th). Of course, Oregon did manage to defeat Washington (top team in the nation in blocks) despite being out-blocked 19 to 5, so it can still be done. It’ll just take a huge effort from the middles. This on top of the huge output necessary from the outsides, but I think that’s a much safer bet to see them score prolifically tomorrow night.
These are two high-octane offensive teams, though different in style. I think Penn State are just a little too much for Oregon. I don’t doubt the match will be fiercely competitive. But it’s tough to envision a scenario where the Ducks advance. They would need to capitalize on every possible miniscule advantage (like Minnesota did for about half the Elite 8 match with Penn State but then faltered toward the end), or just have the Nittany Lions fall flat on their faces. Both are tough rows to hoe, and neither are something you can expect or rely upon.
National statistical rankings
Kills Per Set – Oregon 15.94 (1st – and by a sizable margin) Penn State 14.36 (17th)
Attack Percentage – Oregon .295 (9th) Penn State .310 (3rd)
Digs Per Set – Oregon 14.85 (182nd) Penn State 14.08 (245th)
Blocks Per Set – Oregon 1.77 (240th) Penn State 2.95 (10th)
Assists Per Set – Oregon 14.89 (1st) Penn State 13.08 (44th)
Aces Per Set – Oregon 1.38 (59th) Penn State 1.58 (17th)