Nebraska vs Illinois… could it be any closer?
Today we’re going to dive deeper into one of the best matches of this year’s NCAA tournament: the Semifinal between Nebraska and Illinois. The teams met twice during the regular season, and each came away with a 3-1 victory (oddly, Nebraska won at Illinois and Illinois won at Nebraska) and the third matchup between them would determine who would advance to the National Championship. With so much on the line, fans expecting a close match would not be a disappointed!
We’ll be using the new GMS Stats app (available now in the iOS App Store!) to break down these matches. Right away, you can see how close the match was:
Not only was the margin of difference only 1 point between the two teams, Nebraska was actually outscored by Illinois, yet still won the match! As coaches, we love when this works out in our favor, but it’s heartbreaking for Illinois.
Illinois outscored Nebraska by 1 point, but the margin was actually a bit greater than that in Sideout % terms. Illinois was a full 1% better than Nebraska over 207 serves, because (due to coin flips and how the end of the games worked out), Nebraska actually had 105 chances to side out, while Illinois only had 102. At Gold Medal Squared we talk about how there are, “no little things,” because we can see how razor-thin the margins are.
When matches are very close, one of the things to look at is end-of-game play. What’s interesting about the end of games is that they mirror the beginnings. The reason the starting rotation is so important is not because points scored at the end of the game matter more than points scored in the middle, or that it’s important to get off to a, “good start.” They don’t, and it’s not- at least not any more than it is important to be good every other time of the game. No, the reason the starting rotation is so important is that teams will usually rotate around two full times, serving and receiving in each rotation twice. However, the first rotation will almost always get a third turn. (In a game where both teams are siding out a lot, the teams will rotate around faster and in a game where both teams are going on long runs, they will rotate slower.)
This third turn is critical because it means that the rotational matchup you start the game with will come up at the end of the game, where you either have the chance to win the game with a run, or lose it by giving one up.
In game 2, Illinois had the serve to start and they opted to start, as they usually do, with their setter, Jordyn Poulter, as the first server. Nebraska matched up against this by receiving with their setter in 1. This can be a tough rotation for many teams, because the outside attacker is on the right side of the court, and the opposite is on the left side. In this case, Nebraska had their outside, Lexi Sun, passing in the middle of the court and attempting to hit in the middle.
Poulter attacked the seam between Sun and libero Kenzie Maloney and gave Nebraska all sorts of trouble. The first serve was an ace between Sun and Maloney. Maloney passed the second serve well, but Illinois blocked Sun in the middle. The third serve was another ace between Sun and Maloney. On the next play, Nebraska then tried to pull Sun over to the left side and stack their attackers over on that side. They got a good pass, but Sun hit out. At this point, Illinois was up 4-0. On the next play, Illinois won a rally after picking up Sun’s tip and then digging a big swing by Nebraska opposite Capri Davis and scoring in transition. Nebraska shuffled Sun back to the middle of the serve receive and Poulter served another ace into some confusion on the Nebraska side. Finally, Nebraska shifted Sun over to the right side and had Maloney and Mikaela Foecke pass in a 2-person sideout, and they got the sideout.
By then, the damage was done, and Illinois cruised to a win in the second set.
After Nebraska won the third set, Illinois would start the fourth set with the serve. Since Illinois almost always elects to start with Poulter as their first server when they serve first, Nebraska could decide whether they wanted to change their rotation to create new matchups or stick with the matchup they had in game 2, and try to execute better.
As coaches, we face this dilemma all the time! Nebraska obviously planned to receive in rotation 1 because it’s a strong rotation for them. They aren’t dumb; they have the statistics about how their rotations have performed previously. Yet as coaches, we see the matches evolve in front of our eyes and we have to decide, “do we stick with what has worked in the past, or am I seeing something that needs to be adapted to in the present?”
Nebraska opted to make a change; they backed up one rotation, so that instead of Poulter serving at rotation 1, she served at Nebraska’s “Setter-2” rotation, with Nebraska setter in zone 2, and Lexi Sun and middle Callie Schwarzenbach in the front row. This was a bold move by Nebraska, because this had not been their strongest rotation; in fact, for the match as a whole, it ended up being their weakest sideout rotation!
But in game 4, it worked out just fine. With the change in rotation, Nebraska had an additional defensive specialist in the game, as well as Maloney and Foecke, two strong passers. Sun was also freed up to be out of serve receive and on the left side of the court, to do what she does best: hammer on the left side of the court. Nebraska passed the first serve well, Sun got a good swing and Illinois was only able to bring back a freeball, which Schwarzenbach killed on the slide. For bonus points, notice how Schwarzenbach stayed in front of the setter on the first ball (possibly because the pass came off the net a little), but then went on a wide slide on the freeball. Illinois OH Beth Prince was pulled in a little tight, possibly expecting Schwarzenbach to run a quick in front or worried about Foecke attacking out of the backrow. This subtle change helped get Schwarzenbach an open net and an easy kill.
Game 4 was off to a better start for Nebraska than game 2, but they still needed to close it out. At 21-19, both teams had rotated all the way around twice and now entered the critical “third turn” that is created by the rotation order. Poulter went back to serve and Nebraska was again in their Setter-2 rotation. Nebraska was unable to sideout on the first ball. They tried Schwarzenbach on the slide, but the Illinois block was ready for her this time and slowed her down enough for an easy dig, which Illinois turned into a kill out of the middle to cut the lead to 21-20. Poulter missed the next serve and Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames ran 3 points in a row to close out game 4 and send it to a 5th and deciding set.
5th sets present some new challenges for coaches. First, the dynamics of rotations are different. Instead of rotation all the way around twice and having 1 or 2 rotations come up for a third turn, you will generally rotate all the way around once and have 1 or 2 rotations NOT come up for a second turn. So, it may be less about maximizing a good rotation and more about minimizing a bad rotation. Additionally, many coaches like to start with the rotation that puts their best attacker in zone 4, wanting to maximize the number of sets they can get her in the critical 5th game. And some coaches like to stick with what they’ve been doing and start game 5 in the rotations that have been strongest all year or in that match.
Chris Tamas of Illinois had an option that could do two of these things at once. He opted to start with the Setter-6 rotation, which put his All-American OH Jacqueline Quade in zone 4 and was also a very strong rotation overall.
Nebraska, possibly expecting Illinois to start with Poulter serving and wanting the same matchup as game 4, started receiving with their setter in 2. The change by Illinois created matchups that had not played out earlier in the game, which causes both teams to adjust on the fly. And because a 15-point 5th-set doesn’t create the same “third turn” as 25-point games do, this meant there was less predictability in how the end of the game would play out.
Both teams traded points throughout the whole set. At 11-11, Illinois was back to serve with their Setter-4 rotation, which was good news for them. Throughout the match, they had been strong defensively in this rotation. With defensive specialist Taylor Kuper serving, they held Nebraska to under 50% sideout. Illinois fans could reasonably expect to score at least one point and gain a critical lead late in the game.
Unfortunately for Illinois, it was not to be. Nebraska was receiving in their Setter-6 rotation, and you can see in Nebraska’s rotation screen that this was a very strong rotation for them as well. National Semifinal matchup, coming down two of each team’s strongest rotations. It doesn’t get any better!
Nebraska sided out on their first chance on a big swing by opposite Jazz Sweet to go up 12-11. On the next rally, Nebraska dug a big swing by Quade, but Foecke appeared to hit out in transition. On replay, the smallest of touches was shown, reversing the call and giving Nebraska the point. So close! Kenzie Maloney served an ace for Nebraska to put them up 14-11, and on the final point, after some fantastic defense by both teams, Foecke found the Illinois end line to give Nebraska the match and send them to the National Championship.
What a match!
There’s lots of lessons coaches can take away from a high-level match like this. For me, the biggest lesson is:
Know your strongest rotations, but be prepared to adapt to what you see. Setter-2 rotation was not especially strong statistically for Nebraska, but coach John Cook saw a passing rotation that could handle Poulter’s serve better and give them a better shot to handle the matchup that the game presented as it played out. And sometimes the margins are thinner than you can imagine, two great teams playing dead even, with a fraction of a touch on replay making the difference.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis. If you want to do your own rotation analysis, check out the GMS Stats app on the iOS App Store!