Hrothgar, in spite of your claiming to be a "volleyball novice," your thoughts are actually pretty insightful (and echo others comments on this blog), such as ...Thanks, these are VERY good analyses, which really help a VB novice like me. I search the web all over for incisive analysis of VB games but find hardly any. You're right: the 3rd set was scary. Just when it looked like MN had worn Iowa down, MN seemed to start just pushing the ball over the net, like Gophers were the tired team and they were praying Iowa would miss (which Iowa finally did on that late service error). While there's much to admire about the Gophers, their modus operandi seems to be, get ahead and then let up, just when a touch of killer instinct would put the match out of reach.
> While there's much to admire about the Gophers, their modus operandi seems to be, get ahead and then let up, just when a touch of killer instinct would put the match out of reach.
Or, as others have stated, there seems to be a tendency for the Gophers to play down to the level of their opponent. I agree with the specifics you mention, summarizing by saying that it often seems like the Gophers get ahead and then reduce their level of aggression in the hopes that the other team will make mistakes and the Gophers can back into a win.
To a certain extent (in the exactly right context) that is a good strategy, and I'm guessing that Hugh actually teaches it, but perhaps he needs to give more specific instructions to the team as to exactly when to play the tactic of "let the other team mistake themselves into a set-win for us." For instance, were the Gophers to be ahead by a score of (say) 25 - X to 25 - 2*X, where X = 5 or more, it's a good idea to just let the other team mistake their way into a win for us. That's just because of the mathematics and the nature of volleyball. The "natural" course of a volleyball set among fairly evenly matched teams is to mostly trade points (with a few runs thrown in), so that in the above scenario the (statistically) "expected" outcome is that by the time our team scores X more points (and gets to 25), the other team will likely get to 25 - X. That's the "mean" result, but the devil is in (a) the potentially long tails of the statistical distribution, along with (b) the heightened effort and heightened aggression and never-give-up attitude of the other team that is in danger of losing the set. So, by the math, if you're expecting the "average" result, it pays for the leader that is an order-of-magnitude closer to 25, to just play "better than average" and don't take shots at-risk of going out of bounds, i.e., play a bit conservatively and hope for the "average" result that will happen if they two teams just trade points.
But as an example of the "long tail," namely that that tactic can backfire. Iowa was up 23-18 towards the end of regulation in set 4, and it's extremely difficult for a team (i.e., the Gophers in this case) to score 6 points before the opposing team scores 2 points. The Gophers needed to get those 6 points to get to 24, which (so as to win by 2) meant that Iowa actually needed 3 points, not just 2 points to win the set outright. That was a huge challenge, yet the Gophers buckled down and played at a higher level, so as to deuce-up the set. And then faced Iowa set-point after set-point, upping their game yet another level and taking the set in the end. For that to have been done by 4 out of the 7 starters plus 3 bench players, was, well, quite astounding actually.
But to your point, it can go the other way too. In a recent match (one of the last-weekend ones if I recall) the Gophers were ahead about 20-something to 15, but (relaxing perhaps a bit too much) let their opponent get right back into the game and almost take the set. Probably by playing too complacently.
All this talk about passive vs. aggressive play at end-of-set makes me recall a technical point regarding Gopher blocking that I've had on my mind for a while, but have kept to myself. Consider the following mostly personal opinion and perhaps part science - since I'm not a volleyball guru (yet I have played the game recreationally and have watched a ton of Gopher and St. Thomas games).
As a team, the Gophers have been (in recent history) a pretty good blocking team. Yet it seems to me that quite often our defensive blocking efforts are turned against us as an offensive weapon by the opposing team. For an example, let me lay off the current team for a sec (they'll get their lecture momentarily), and pick on our recent great Gopher team of about 3 years ago, back when we had the twins and SSS and as additional front-row blockers, Sarah Wilhite and Molly Lohman and Taylor Morgan (and Regan too, but she was wisely red-shirted and didn't play much). That was arguably a killer blocking team. Yet by my (very informal) statistical count, that team (when averaged across the entire season) probably lost more points on attempted blocks than they won on successful blocks that went down (plus a few that stayed in play). What's wrong with that scenario? Well, I can tell you. Smart opponents consistently took advantage of our blocking skills as an offensive weapon for themselves. They consistenty aimed at the outer edges of our excellently placed blocks, and the ball hit the blockers' hands and careened out of bounds - about equally many (if not more) times than the blocker hit it down for a kill.
Now, when we played lesser teams in 2016, our skillful blocking worked very positively for us, and we mostly won. But when we played better/smarter teams (as in the NCAAs for instance) those teams not only had better hitters that jumped higher and were more often able to forcibly hit it through the blocks, but they were also smarter and better-skilled at hitting the outside of the blocks near the pins, and careening the ball out of bounds for an opponent point. Thus, that 2016 Gopher team, which was very capable of winning it all in the NCAAs, didn't
Fast forward to the 2019 team, and in fact to the first set of the Iowa game. We still have great blocking, although arguably not at the 2016 caliber (in spite of the great efforts by Pittman and Morgan with help from our OHers). Iowa had some decent hitters, but one great hitter who was making mincemeat of our blocks. Partly, they weren't putting up strong blocks initially, and partly there was the issue of the makeshift impromptu team being a bit discombobulated. But to a very large degree, that first-set team was having the same problem as the 2016 team. Iowa players kept hitting shots glancing off the pin-side of blockers hands and out of bounds for an Iowa point. That plus outright bona-fide great kills by Iowa's best (and 2nd-best and 3rd-best) hitters, and you've got yourself a recipe for a lost set.
Then the rest of the match, we got our blocking together a little bit, and we were able to stop Iowa from getting the perfect hitting that we gave them in the first set. Plus Hugh gambled on going setterless just sufficiently many times so that our blocking kept their hitting in check. Plus, Minnesota was just a better team than Iowa, even minus three of our starters. But if we had been playing against an NCAA Sweet-Sixteen team, we would have lost in straight sets.
I argue that we need a different (and rather radical) blocking strategy. For one thing, when blocking near the pin, go up like a normal block, but as the ball is struck, move your hands about 6 inches toward the pin, and even angle them about 30 degrees so as to more likely deflect the blocked ball toward the middle of the court, and not out of bounds. Also nice (but a tough thing to ask for) would be better/faster assessment-and-recognition of whether the blockers can make a successful downward (and not out-of-bounds) block, and if not than quickly tilt the blocking hands back 45 degrees so as to convert it into an upward tip that our back-row players can make a play on. In summary, if we could convert as much as half of our bad blocks (that either miss completely or go out-of-bounds) into either block-kills or neutral tips, then I think we win an NCAA title.