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Defensive Lessons From The NCAA Tournament: Part 1

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We hope you enjoyed our previous article series: Rotations 201. In that series, we took a deep dive into the specific adjustments that top NCAA and International teams used. Now, we turn our attention to defense. The 4 teams in the Final Four (Stanford, Wisconsin, Baylor, and Minnesota) were all very strong defensively. In breaking down their matches, a few things stand out:

1. A top libero adds a ton of value. It’s no accident that Stanford has won 2 National Championships with multiple-time 1st-team All-American Morgan Hentz at libero. Experience helps: 3 of the 4 teams started seniors at Libero and the lone underclassman (Minnesota’s CC McGraw) was Honorable Mention All-American.

2. On the flip side, you can’t just rely on your libero. Every team in the Final Four had contribution from all 6 players on the court. In particular, we saw front-row players and blockers involved in playing defense as well. We tend to think of defense as something the three back court defenders do, but we saw some strong off-blocker defense in the Final Four. More on this later.

3. Defenders get more dynamic and more athletic every year. We tend to think of athleticism in terms of attackers jumping high and hitting hard, but we need powerful, dynamic defenders to keep the ball off the floor and create transition opportunities for our hitters.

4. Going along with #3, we can’t just settle for a, “touch,” or even for a, “dig.” The best teams aren’t just playing for a touch on defense. They are digging and scoring in transition.

Five Types Of Digging Moves

There are lots of ways to categorize the moves defenders make to dig the ball. To keep things simple, we analyzed defense in the Final Four by putting every dig into one of five categories:

  1. 2 Arms and 2 Feet – Digs where the defender stayed on her feet and dug the ball with something resembling a traditional forearm dig. This was the most common defensive move.
  2. Overhand Dig – Anything played with the hands instead of the arms.
  3. Floor Moves – A dig that took the player all the way to the ground to play the ball.
  4. On a Knee – In between a, 2 Arms and 2 Feet and a Floor Move. Playing the ball while in a lunge or lowered stance with a knee on the ground.
  5. Emergency/Random/One-Arm – Plays that don’t quite fit anything else.
  6. In terms of frequency, here’s how often digs were made in the Final Four by each type of move:
  1. 2 Arms and 2 Feet: 119 (39%)
  2. Floor Moves: 67 (22%)
  3. On a Knee: 57 (19%)
  4. Overhand: 46 (15%)
  5. One-Arm: 13 (4%)

Initial Takeaways

There is plenty of variation between teams and individuals. Baylor played more balls overhand than the other teams. Stanford (mostly Hentz) played a lot of balls on the floor. Wisconsin had a lot of lunging digs with a knee on the floor. Minnesota had the highest proportion of digs on 2 arms and 2 feet. The technical skills required will be influenced by your specific personnel (as we saw in the Rotations 201 series) and your defensive system. However, when I was with Team USA I conducted a similar analysis, and found a similar frequency of defensive moves. (Floor Moves were a bit more common and Overhand digging was a bit less common in International volleyball).

Regardless of system, it’s clear that defenders need a variety of tools in their toolkit. Coaches should understand the somewhat conflicting perspectives of (A) defenders must be good at the simple digs: stay on 2 feet and dig with 2 arms but also that (B) just making those plays is not nearly enough!

When I work with high school or juniors players, it’s common to see them be comfortable with one type of move and uncomfortable with another type. For example, they may be confident laying out and sprawling for a ball, but not confident going for an overhand dig. Or, they may feel okay lunging to a knee to play a ball but they will never extend fully to the floor. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Player doesn’t feel confident overhand digging, so they never try, so they never get better at it, so they never build confidence, so they never try…

Therefore, junior coaches: watch your team play defense and ask yourself, “what moves are they comfortable making? And what moves will they never attempt?”

In subsequent articles in this series, we’ll dive into each type of defensive move in more depth and provide examples for you to look at or share with your players.

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