Chad Gordon | Volleydork.com
This has shaped up to be one of the best offensive NCAA Tournament brackets in recent memory. The top six teams are all hitting north of .300 with UCLA and Hawai’i atop the podium.
Balanced across the board and boasting efficiencies in the .370s, these two offenses would look good even if all their attacks came off of freeballs, let alone the full gauntlet of tough serving and elite blocking that permeates the game.
But how impressive are these offenses actually and those of the rest of the field? How do the teams play in-system? Do they struggle out of system? How well do their individual attackers handle these situations? Are the household names all they’re cracked up to be? And is there undervalued hiding in plain sight?
To thoroughly answer these questions we must look beyond the box score and dive into the world of expected value.
For those unfamiliar with the term, expected value is the concept of putting a value on each “state” within a rally. You may have heard of expected sideout – the idea that each reception quality carries with it a percentage likelihood that your team will win the rally. Perfect pass? Maybe you’re expected to win at 70 percent. Poor pass, maybe expected sideout drops down to 53 percent.
The concept being that we can ascribe value to each touch in the rally, whether that touch is terminal or not, based on how it either helps or hurts your team’s ability to win the point. In attacking, this means proper valuing an attack which isn’t a kill, but forces an OOS swing from the defense – or an attack that is recycled into the block and covered for another in-system swing for your team – or a situation where your hitter has an open net on an overpass – these all have different values and we need to leverage concepts like expected value to properly account for them.
The numbers you see in the charts are relative to how an average player would attack in these situations and are adjusted based on the quality of the opponent you’re facing.
Above you’ll see how each team stacks up. “Eff Expected” means that given the situations that team saw, this was what an average team would hit. “Eff Result” is the value that the attacking team actually achieved, factoring in the value of terminal and non-terminal attacks (this is why Eff Results doesn’t equal the team’s Attack Eff). UCLA, Hawai’i, and Grand Canyon all shine in-system. This isn’t a shock, they’re led respectively by some of the best setters in the game with Rowan, Thelle, and Slight. While UCLA and Grand Canyon play crazy fast to the pins, Hawai’i plays a little more traditionally, giving their hitters more range and time to make decisions. Both equally effective strategies in this case.
But let’s take a quick look at each team individually.
Ido David has been a great boost for them after losing Kobrine to their neighbors at USC. He’s hitting almost 200 points above expectation in-system for them and can be counted on for a quick sideout. JR Norris often starts the game to get a quick kill and go back to the service line – and you can see why from his stat line, the guy is hitting for some stupid numbers. But it’s really Merrick McHenry who has come into full swing in the back half of the season. Anyone watching UCLA will be quick to point out his physicality, basically hitting a 2-ball from around 11 feet and picking whichever angle around / over the blocker he chooses. Finally, the stability of this offenses comes via Knight and Champlin – both guys I have on my First Team list. They’re not flashy in the way McHenry is, but they make good decisions, almost without fault. Hitting around the +200 mark over expectation on out of system swings, their toolkit as attackers is always on display. They blast hands when they need to, they recycle and create for their team when they should, they can slice and dice off and around hands as required. It’s impressive. UCLA is so balanced it’s tough to pick a focus, but if McHenry can continue his hot steak, there aren’t many who can slow him down – and even if you get UCLA off the net, both lefts excel in OOS situations…what a tough problem for Speraw to have. But enough about the No. 1 seed.
Charlie Wade’s No. 2 seeded team has a familiar look to them. Headlined by Mouchlias and Chakas this high-powered offense is quarterbacked by last year’s First Team All-American lefty setter, Jakob Thelle. A trademark of Charlie / Milan Zarkovic coached teams seems to be their consistent play and unfailing fundamentals. This shows in their chart above, literally green across the board. While the middle duo of Voss and Hogland are ridiculously efficient on their limited attempts, it’s the three pin hitters whose consistent play throughout the chaos really shines. Of the three, Mouchlias shines the brightest, hitting +.234 over expectation on out of system attempts. That means that if Hawai’i is expected to hit .075 on an OOS swing, Mouchlias is hitting over .300 – that is insane. That’s higher than most people hit off perfect passes. For our friends from Hawai’i, I expect Thelle to find Voss and Hogland in a handful of good situations (especially in transition), but look for Mouchlias on high balls to make or break their chances at taking home the trophy.
Mark Pavlik’s No. 3 seeded Penn State is having quite a year with some major wins and a tough non-conference schedule. Led by opposite, Cal Fisher, Penn State’s offense isn’t quite as prolific as our top two seeds. They’re hitting .342 as a team, just under 100 points above expected (the lowest margin of the top four seeds). Penn State is strong in-system – and thanks to their passing unit captained by Ryan Merk, they’re in-system a lot. But they’re not nearly as strong out of system as the other top seeds and this could be the achilles heel for the Nittany Lions. Cal Fisher has been unbelievable and registers as the top opposite by my calculations (yes, above David, Mouchlias and Jasper), but if Ezeonu cannot return in time to hold down the middle of the court, Penn State will need others to take on heavier workloads. Brett Wildman, a First Team All-American last year, hasn’t been able to duplicate his 2022 success, but can certainly fill the offensive vacuum if Ezeonu can’t go. Either way, I’m optimistic, as this feels like Penn State’s year. Watch for Kowal and Wildman to turn it on in big moments. They’re been a little streakier than Fisher, but can definitely catch fire against the right matchup.
Long Beach State
It’s funny, the structure of Alan Knipe’s offense is super similar to UCLA’s combination of talent. Strong outside hitting buoyed by creativity in decision making, one crazy offensive middle, one strong blocking middle and an opposite who consistently does his job. That said, Spencer Olivier is the absolute real deal. He’s hitting nearly 300 points ABOVE expectation on OOS balls. That’s absurd – again just to clarify, that means if he’s facing a high ball, triple block situation, maybe he’s expected to hit around .050, but he manages to hit .350. Mind blown. In the middle Torwie is certainly the stronger blocker, but Holdaway makes his living being crazy effective, hitting +.239 over expectation in-system – making him the second strongest attacking middle, statistically, in the nation. Godbold is the last piece of the puzzle. Known more for his prowess as a great blocker, his ability to clean up the OOS junk for The Beach is always key. As the tournament progresses, watch for Olivier out of system and Holdaway in-system to be keys to their success.
Making their first NCAA tournament appearance, Matt Werle’s Lopes are the only offense in the tournament to match UCLA’s speed. Setter Nic Slight has Grand Canyon ranked third offensively of our seven-team field. The pins of Hickman, Janke and Gianni carry a big load for the Lopes, with Jackson Hickman leading the way through his balanced attacking in and out of system. The other standout is Wardlow in the middle, hitting for huge numbers this season, north of +200 points over expected per swing. While Grand Canyon can match UCLA’s speed and danger in-system, they’re good, but not great once the ball is off the net. Look for Grand Canyon’s first contact to the key for them throughout the tournament – if they can handle the first touch, we’ve all seen them be deadly.
No stranger to winning these tournaments, Kevin Burch tweaked his lineup and has hasn’t lost since mid-March. Headlined by Jacob Pasteur, an outside attacker who is just solid across the board, OSU’s offense has been finding their stride in the second half of the season with Pasteur hitting over +100 points above expectation. Wetzel has replaced Clark at opposite in recent matches and has been lighting it up lately, especially OOS, going +160 points better than expected. The final piece is Cole Young in the middle. He’s not as twitchy as some of the other middles on display – but the 6’10” middle attacker is a problem for defenses as his size allows Ohio State to find him from a variety of locations. Overall, while a little more dependent on their stars, the Buckeyes offense will need to continue to trend up as they have the longest road to the finals. Watch for Wetzel out of system, Pasteur in general and Young to match up well against the physicality of other middle attackers. If those three can keep it going, it’ll be a fun week for Ohio State.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I haven’t watched King at any point this season. From listening to Lincoln Memorial’s John Cash, I hear that King hangs their hat on scrappy defense. Their stats aren’t mindblowing, in fact they’re the only team to hit below their expectations. That being said, they do have a pair of attackers in Davis on the outside and Kennedy in the middle who are actually quite productive in-system – putting them in the top half of attackers in their positions nationally. Out of system unfortunately, there’s much to be desired. King may be on a heater though, coming in as an underdog and winning the Conference Carolinas tournament for the autobid. Clearly they have tapped into something and if they can keep it rolling maybe they can pounce on a Buckeye team whose gaze is further down the road. Either way, it’s a good men’s volleyball team coming out of Tennessee. I love it. It’s awesome for the game and for men’s volleyball.
Editor’s Note: In addition to writing at Volleydork.com, Chad Gordon is a head coach at Bay to Bay Volleyball Club and a Data Analyst at Nutanix. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of Off the Block.