Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pac-12 | What we learned about Washington’s win at Washington State

#5 Washington 3, Washington State 0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-22)
next: NCAA Tournament bracket announcement | November 25 | 1PM | ESPNU

The Cougars were clawing back.

Washington's Kylin Munoz
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Washington State’s Rachel Todorovich reached above and over the net, deflecting the ball for what seemed to be her third consecutive kill, and apparently pulling WSU within one of Washington, 15-16 in the first set.

But the whistle blew. Referee Rusty Wellman ruled that Todorovich had come across the net to interfere with the Huskies’ second attempt. Cougar coach Jen Greeny protested, to no avail. Her team would now have to face what can be Washington’s deadliest rotation.

In the women’s college game, teams rarely play without a setter. But for most of this season, that’s exactly what the Huskies do in serving rotation 4. Right-side hitter Kaleigh Nelson enters the match for setter Katy Beals and joins middle Amanda Gil and outside hitter Gabbi Parker (or Krista Vansant, once she’s healed) on the front line. Opposite hitter Kylin Muñoz drops back to serve, joining libero Jenna Orlandini and hitter Cassie Strickland in the back row.

It’s a formidable lineup.
  • At 17-14, Parker hit a cross-court kill from the left side
  • At 18-14, Muñoz served an ace, and WSU called timeout
  • At 19-14, another Muñoz ace
  • At 20-14, a great Muñoz serve led to a Gil/Nelson stuff block
  • At 21-14, a great Muñoz serve led to a Nelson kill off an overpass
  • At 22-14, a great Muñoz serve led to a triple block, anchored by Gil
  • At 23-14, a great Muñoz serve led to a Gil/Parker stuff block

As you can see, it all starts with Muñoz. Her serving struggles against Stanford may have been the key to that close loss. But her runs like the one against WSU are exactly what coach Jim McLaughlin has been trying to put in place now that the NCAA tournament is here. When two good teams meet, just one dominant service rotation usually spells the difference between victory and defeat.

Muñoz has a killer serve. She hits her jump float as close to the center of the ball as possible, with the palm of her hand. She aims for a point just barely above the net, and drives the ball just hard enough to reach the opponent’s back line. Because the ball travels with little arc, and because the grooves on a volleyball cause it to knuckle and dip when it doesn’t spin, passers struggle to detect the speed and direction.

Sometimes, a great jump float produces an ace—Muñoz had two for the match. Other times, it simply forces passers to send their setters a difficult ball, reducing the setter’s options. Washington’s blockers instantly see that the opposing middle and right side are probably not going to get set; on a really poor pass, they are all but certain they can bunch block against the outside hitter or form a wall against a back row attack.

In their sweep of the Cougars, the Huskies totaled 10 aces, including 3 by Parker and 4 by Wade. Wade—who also uses a jump float—had several service runs that also included a number of UW termination blocks. For the match, the Huskies out-blocked WSU 14.5-7.5. For the season, Washington ended up with the best blocking and serving stats in the conference, and will certainly end up the best blocking team in the nation (328 D1 teams) once all the final matches are played this weekend.

All that great serving added up to one of UW’s overall best defensive efforts of the season: they held the Cougars to 22 kills and 22 errors—a .000 hitting percentage.

“Washington is the best serving team and the best blocking team in the Pac-12 this year,” said former UCLA men’s coach Al Scates during his commentary last night for the Pac-12 Network.

Muñoz, by the way, is not just serving well. After recording 15 kills against Arizona State Wednesday, she added 13 last night. The right side suits her perfectly: She hits with power, mixing cross and line, and has become deadly tooling the block. And, not incidentally, she added 8 block assists against WSU.

“Muñoz might be the best outside blocker in the conference,” said Scates.

  • For the second straight match, Krista Vansant was not in uniform. Scates reported that McLaughlin wants her ankle healed for the tournament, indicating that she might have been able to play last night if necessary.
  • Wade and Gil were the only two middles used last night. Both were effective blockers—Gil had 9 block assists, and wins the Pac-12 blocking crown with 1.79 blocks/set (Muñoz finishes ninth overall, with 1.19/set—and is the highest-rated non-middle). Wade had 5 kills, 0 errors on 10 attempts.
  • Muñoz ended up third in the Pac-12 with 0.32 aces/set; Strickland was seventh at 0.28/set. USC freshman Samantha Bricio won the category with a 0.34/set average.
  • Vansant finished fourth in conference with 4.11 kills/set. Oregon’s Alaina Bergsma (4.91) was the leader.
  • In Pac-12 team categories, Washington finished first—by a mile—in blocking with 3.33 blocks/set. The Huskies also won the service ace category, with 1.58/set. UW was second (to Stanford) in team defense, holding opponents to a .174 hitting average. Washington was fifth in offense (.253—UCLA was first at .294).
  • The Pac-12’s Big Five were consistently ranked among the top seven all season, and the NCAA selection committee is going to have some serious ‘splainin’ to do if all five are not given top-16 seeds tomorrow, and thus allowed to host the first two rounds. Consider that, in just the past three weeks: Washington defeated Oregon, Oregon defeated UCLA, UCLA defeated USC, USC defeated Stanford, and Stanford defeated Washington. If one is seeded, all should be seeded.
  • This year’s Final Four is in Louisville. The four regionals are in Berkeley, Austin, Omaha and West Lafayette, IN. You can be sure that Stanford will be the top seed in the Berkeley regional; ditto Texas in Austin. Penn State will be number one (and tops overall, we imagine) in either the West Lafayette or Omaha regional; where Nebraska will likely be a second-seed. With Washington’s loss to ASU (a team that also upset USC and nearly upset Oregon), look for the Huskies to be a third seed, probably not in the Berkeley regional.
  • Is the NCAA serious about reforming its much-maligned over-reliance on the RPI? You’ll be able to tell soon enough when you see how the committee seeds Louisville and Kansas. Both play in mediocre conferences; neither has a signature win over a power team, yet both have very high RPIs (Louisville is 4, Kansas is 6). Both lost to Notre Dame (RPI 36); Kansas lost to Arkansas (27). Louisville’s biggest win was against Kentucky (ridiculously overrated RPI of 24 despite an  18-10 record); Kansas’ top victory was against Iowa State (23). Washington—with an RPI last week of 12—has just one bad loss (to ASU, who will surely climb from last week’s RPI of 45), plus wins against three teams—UCLA, USC and Oregon—in the top 11, plus #26 Purdue.
  • Of the Pac-12 schools on the bubble, ASU is a lock and Cal is likely. With losses this week to ASU and WSU, Arizona (16-15) is simply not deserving of a bid.
  • Want further proof of the RPI’s silliness? Illinois is #38, despite a losing record. That sub-.500 total, however, means last year’s national runner-up is ineligible for this year’s tournament. Big-10 schools that will be in the tournament include Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. Northwestern is eligible, but would be a stretch, despite the Wildcats’ #47 RPI.
  • If the Huskies do get a top-16 seed and get to host, one of the teams in Seattle might be Idaho State. The Bengals play Northern Colorado today in Greeley for the Big Sky Championship. Northern Colorado upset Portland State last night 3-0, a bitter loss for the Big Sky Tournament favorites.

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