The Setter Debate
I've stayed out of this debate on the other topic, mostly because I wasn't as familiar with the players as I felt I needed to be. It's an interesting debate, especially as it is partially a continuation of the JNT McGinnis v. Kehoe v. the world debate. It's obviously a topic that people are emotional about - at least the general tone of the thread is emotional.
How Not to Evaluate Setters
Winning a championship is an indicator of a good, possibly great setter, but it would be very dangerous to use championships alone to determine who the best setter is. Who is the best point guard in the NBA? Parker or Buillups? What about Nash? How about the NBA's best center? Is the NBA's best player on either the Spurs or the Pistons?
Post season accolades are another indicator, but are similarly bad as a sole criteria. The people who decide accolades often only see highlight reels of the players they are voting on, and sometimes they don't even see that! Evaluating players, and setters in particular, is much more subtle than watching a 5 minute highlight tape.
Walking into a game sitting down and enjoying a match can be similarly mis-leading. To paraphrase Dean Smith in one of his books, he found that his thoughts about the game in the locker room afterword, were usually wrong when he went back and watched the videotape! Fans and all-time great coaches alike watch a game unfolding live through a lens that distorts what is actually happening. Only when we watch the game without emotion, and with the aid of slow motion and instant replay ;), can we properly evaluate what went on.
Some Factors to Consider When Evaluating Setters
This is certainly not comprehensive. Even this is vastly oversimplified... If the international coaches and setters were to read this, they would probably have a lot of "but...'s." I was hoping to use NCAA teams in my examples, but I haven't been able to find any video of Hawai'i or Georgia Tech from 2004 - teams that I think play a different style from the other top teams. Since I haven't seen them, I don't want to use them as examples since they may not be what I think they might be... ;) In the examples below one [i]might[/i] substitute Stanford for USA, Washington for Brazil, and (working on hearsay here) Hawai'i for China. These are very loose connections which work in some ways, and don't work in others... Fwiw, I also think Minnesota's 6-2 is reasonably similar to Cuba's at least for some comparison's sake...
All setting jobs are not created equal. This may come as a surprise to some. The setting job for the USA was different from the setting job for Brazil and very very different from the setting job for China. The setters can only be evaluated based on what they were asked to do, and the USA's setters were asked to play very differently than China's setter. This is not to say that both jobs aren't difficult.
USA's plan was a to minimize risk in both receiving and setting. USA was perfectly happy passing the ball 1.5m away from the net, and a 'good miss' was away from the net and toward the zone one/two (1/2 looked like 'half') sideline. The USA's setter was going to set balls high enough to the antenna's that the hitters could always attack the ball with full force. The USA's setter was not to risk making a setting mistake where the hitter would be forced to attack at less than full force. The USA realized that their hitters would be facing strong blocks under this system, but believed that their hitters could win a high enough % of the time to make it work. The USA believed that setting players like Haneef, Phipps, Bown, Scott and Nnamani quicker sets to the antennas would lead to an unacceptably high number of mis-connections. The USA's setters main job was to set a high ball that gave the hitter the best chance to beat a well formed block. Decision making was less 'where can I get a one on one,' and more 'which of my hitters (that I can set well) has the best approach, and maybe a weaker blocker'. On passes near the net, the USA setter had a little more chance to create, but still worked under the principle of 'make sure it gets hit hard.'
China was put together differently. The Chinese trained together under the same coach for basically 3 years, 9-10 months a year. The Chinese staff was able to believe in their passers ability to pass the ball near the net without an unacceptable number of overpasses, and was also able to trust their setter and hitters to connect on quicker tempo sets. A 'good miss' for a Chinese receiver was at the net, and preferably in front of the setter (opposite of the USA's concept). The Chinese believed in their hitters ability to get to, and attack with force, a lower set that wasn't exactly where they were hoping it would be - something Haneef, Phipps, Bown, Scott and Nnamani couldn't do. The Chinese setter's job was more: understand the opponent's blocking scheme, anticipate it before the play started, call a play to exploit it, recognize the opponent's blocking scheme as the play develops, and set the hitter who has the best seam to hit through.
Doesn't China sound like what we've read about in the volleyball text books? :) In the 2004 Olympics, only 3 womens teams played toward that end of the 'offensive style spectrum,' and some to a higher degree than others. In the NCAA no team that I saw (I didn't see Hawai'i or Georgia Tech, two teams that may have played close to that style) played the style to the extreme that China and Korea did. Of the teams I saw, Washington seemed to be making a good attempt under the circumstances, as well as Minnesota to a degree. Of course, it would seem foolish for a NCAA team to even attempt to play the style to the extreme China (and if you want to go even further, Brazil's men) did, because NCAA teams (and the USA National Team) don't have the training time available to reach mastery that the Chinese National Team does.
More was asked of the Chinese setter in terms of organization, but more was asked of the USA's setters in terms of absolute location. If the Chinese setter missed her location by 75cm her hitters were, by in large, quick enough to get there and hit it with power - even if only in one direction. If the Chinese setter made a good choice the ball might still beat the blockers, and diggers to the spot. If the American setter missed by 75cm on a high ball, her hitters might still get there, but the block and diggers would have much more time to get to the optimal spots to defend the attack. The American attackers relied to a large degree on 'tooling' the block, and a set to far inside or outside the antenna, or to close or far from the net, could reduce the chances of the attacker to effectively attack parts of the block.
If USA and China are extreme examples of the 'offensive style spectrum' most teams are somewhere near the middle. North American (including the bulk of the NCAA and what I've seen of Puerto Rico) and European teams would seem to congregate more to the USA side of center, most Asian and South American teams a little more to the China side of center...
Seeing the Block
When watched closely, the Chinese setter seems to be able to see the block during the play - she regularly chooses sets that exploit either the system of her opponent's block, or a mistake by one of the blockers. This is much talked about, but as far as I see, rarely demonstrated in womens volleyball. I have no doubt that on some good passes NCAA (and this extends to professional and Olympic teams also) setters see a blocker jump with the middle attacker, or step out a little early to cheat on closing, but as a rule setters aren't able to exploit this but a small percentage of the time. In the bulk of Europe and North America, the setters aren't [i]asked[/i] to exploit this except in setting a quick hitter when she can beat a blocker off the ground. On some teams the setter might be able to set a ball to the antenna fast enough to beat a blocker who commits to a quick hitter, but I think that is less common than most people think (and less common than I used to think it was).
In reality most setters are trained in what a block is [i]likely[/i] to do in a given situation. For example: on a pass that takes the setter away from the net and forward when we have 2 front row hitters, the block will probably...whatever. Or: when we pass a ball behind the setter when we have 3 hitters, the block will probably...whatever. In a surprising number of matches I watch, the opponents blocking system isn't even properly taken into account and setters presist in setting into a situation that is more advantagous to the block than the attack!
If you buy into this you might come to the conclusion, as I am starting to, that on most teams setters might be very replaceable. Take USA 2002. Ah Mow-Santos pregnancy develops faster than expected, and one month before the World Championships she is forced to stop playing. As far as I know, USAV tried to get at least: Cepero, and McNamee to join the team, but had to settle on Laura Davis. In 3 weeks of training, Davis beat out Fitzgerald (who had been training with the team all year) and led the USA to a silver medal (and with Phipps it likely would have been gold).
In NCAA terms: could Ohio St have been as good if you replaced Main with Kehoe? Could Stanford have been as good if you replaced Kehoe with Bowman? I think the answer to both is probably 'yes.' Now how about if you kept the setters where they are and replaced Gordon and Nnamani with Tomosovic, or Burdine? I think you might have very different results - and we're still talking about very very good hitters!