Back Row Attacking in NCAA Volleyball (2023)

Back row attacking has been on the rise recently in the NCAA women's game. Often attributed to the Brazilian men's team, the Bic (back row quick) has long been a staple internationally, but has grown in popularity at the NCAA level in the last decade. And while often limited on the women's side due to the slide attacker, the D ball has some niche usage for a few teams - typically dependant on the strength of the opposite (e.g., Kendall Kipp).

So how do the top ranked teams fare on the Bic and D? Let's take a look.

Texas, Nebraska, and USC use it the best

Texas (AVCA #7) takes the gold medal when it comes to back row attacking. While only utilizing it on 6.5% of in-system opportunities (read: good/perfect reception/digs), the Longhorns are hitting 0.409 out of the back row which is +0.125 points above expectation per attack! This is driven by Madi Skinner's shoulder, often helping to make Texas's back row attacking more lethal than its front row.

Nebraska (AVCA #2) comes in second, adding +0.100 points over expectation per attack! The Huskers' offense has been dangerous this season from all parts of the court, but especially out of the back where they're using the Bic/D nearly 10% of the time. With Andi Jackson commanding the blockers' attention on the 3 and the Slide, Merritt Beason + Harper Murray have been a potent combo, attacking through the middle of the court on the Bic. Like the Longhorns, Nebraska's back row attacking has yielded stronger efficiencies than their front court so far this season. Since Nebraska uses both OHs out of the backrow, it is unsurprising that they have the highest usage rate of the 3 top teams.

USC (AVCA RV) rounds out our podium finishes, ranking third in value added per attempt at +0.075. Despite their slow start, the Trojans have found their footing in part thanks to Skylar Fields and her dominance out of the back row. Only using the back row at a 5.8% rate, they are on the lower side. This could be attributed to Fields playing in the OH1, meaning that while she is in the back row, USC typically has 3 attackers in the front court. This differs from teams like Texas where Skinner plays in the OH2, which could allow for increased usage as Texas typically has only 2 attackers in the front while Skinner is on the Bic.

Wisconsin...doesn't need it?

The Badgers have played less than 4% back row attack while in-system so far this season. They have the #1 overall offense in my book, yet of the 34 teams mentioned by the AVCA in this poll, they play the 4th fewest balls to the back row attackers. When they do run it, they haven't been especially effective. I'd assume this is simply not a priority for them in their gym, hence they don't rely on it in matches. Their front row attackers have been so dominant this fall that they may not bother fixing something that isn't broken. Featuring some of the tallest and most physical attackers in the game today, the Badgers are likely just crafting their offense around the strengths of their players - and so far, their 15-0 start to the year would indicate there's no reason to change.

Teams favor the Bic over the D

Unsurprising, given that the women's game features much more slide attack than the men's game. The D ball seems to be reserved for teams in a 5-1 offense that features a top talent opposite. Stanford's Kendall Kipp handles the majority of the Cardinal's back row workload - Tennessee's left-handed Morgahn Fingall is a huge threat for the Volunteers - and Arizona State's Marta Levinska, another lefty, helps spread the offense for the Sun Devils. Minnesota and WKU join the party as the only other schools in the poll that are playing more D than Bic this year. Again, the D ball seems mostly driven by the question "is our opposite a realistic threat to score from the back row," otherwise teams seem to favor a DS in that role.

Some teams might want to consider alternative options

As is true for any attacking combination, some are simply more valuable than others. In my opinion, the only question that matters is: are we adding value? If not, we should choose an alternative. Now, value can be added in different ways. The actual scoring ability of your back row attacker is one piece, but how the back row helps space the floor and create better opportunities for your front row could be worth a few non-scoring Bic attempts. If blockers have to worry about more attackers, your overall offense may improve in the aggregate. That said, I cannot with any confidence say if the following teams are better or worse off by playing balls to the back row attackers.

Rice, Auburn, Marquette, Iowa State, Creighton, Baylor, Minnesota, and Houston (in that order) might want to reconsider how much back row they're playing. Or shoot man, maybe they're just warming up and working through early season rockiness in the back row attacking game. Who knows. I certainly don't.

So, who's using the back row attack the best?

The 2nd tier of back row attacking

Oregon, Purdue, Arizona State, Stanford, and Pitt. These programs are all using 10%+ of their in-system chances to play some back row attack and picking up around +0.050-0.070 points above expectation per swing. For Purdue, this is actually better returns than they get when attacking from the front row. For the other 4, they're still getting better ROI out of their front court attackers, but it's likely their offensive diversity is one of those 'rising tide lifts all ships' kind of things. While I'd be surprised to see Texas, Nebraska, or USC stray from their offensive strategies as the season progresses - it will be interesting to see how this next tier of teams evolves their back row game.

The Top 20 play about 10% back row attack

On average, these teams play 9.99% of their in-system opportunities to the back row. TCU is lightyears ahead on this one at 18.5%, while Penn State at 5.6% uses it the least (though to be fair, we set the threshold for this chart at a minimum of 5%). Is this good? Is this bad? No idea. For now, it's simply an observation. But interesting to see the pretty wide range of usage levels.

The majority of teams are better off setting the front row

There are a handful of teams that are getting better "efficiency over expected" numbers from the back row vs. the front row (see: UCSB, San Diego, Purdue, USC, Nebraska, and Texas). But that doesn't necessarily mean the back row was the better choice? In terms of regular attack efficiency, nobody except San Diego, Purdue, Nebraska, and Texas are hitting better out of the back row than the front. In a game full of decision making, it is always difficult to evaluate the opportunity cost of taking route A vs. route B - maybe by using the back row (albeit less effective for most teams) we are able to "open up" the offense for the front row players as blockers must attend to multiple attackers on all plays.

That's nice, but is this season really any different than recent years?

Back row attacking has never been better!

Looking at data from the last 6 seasons, 2023 features 8 of the top 25 slots, including the overall #1 and #2 positions. Texas and Nebraska back row talent has been so strong that they're hitting for huge margins above what they're doing in the front row. Not only that, but given the situations they've been dealt, they also hitting over 0.100pts higher than expected per swing - with Texas, dominated by Madi Skinner out of the back, hitting 0.429 on the Bic. That's just a stupid number. But what's interesting is the 'tier 2' back row teams we discussed earlier are still all in the top 25 when factoring in the last few seasons. This could speak to the increased prevalence of the back row attack - or simply the better execution by offenses these days when playing the Bic or D.

How has college men's volleyball influenced the prevalence of the back row attack lately?

I really don't know the answer to this. But what does strike me is that the majority of teams near the top have some connection to the men's game.

- Texas + David Hunt and his time as the head coach of the Pepperdine men.

- Nebraska + Jaylen Reyes who both coached and played for the BYU men's team.

- UCLA in 2019 / USC in 2023 + Brad Keller who was alongside USA men's coach John Speraw at UCI and later UCLA

- BYU's head coach Heather Olmstead's brother is the head coach for the BYU men

Some coaches might argue that programs that have both a men's and women's team are at an advantage as they can share information about what is working well and new strategies each side might potentially steal from the other. Obviously Texas and Nebraska didn't need that... but maybe it's simply the hiring of someone with a different perspective than your current coaching staff that is the key? Someone who can borrow good ideas from wherever they arise. Whatever is, these top programs had an immediate advantage in having folks on staff with direct and applied knowledge of running and training the Bic at the highest levels.

I just thought it was interesting...

Enough about the teams, which players are dominating the back row attack game?

Freshmen dominate the top of the list!

4 of the top 6 players are freshmen. Harper Murray, Avah Armour, Olivia Babcock, and Chloe Chicoine. Unbelievable. These athletes have had phenomenal starts to their collegiate careers, but have shone especially bright out of the back row - Murray and Chicoine on the Bic, Babcock on the D ball, and Armour splitting her talents between both attacks. But this might be a shock to most in the audience. After all, Harper Murray was the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Chloe Chicoine was PrepVolleyball's #1 ranked recruit. And Olivia Babcock was an AVCA and Volleyballmag 1st Team High School All-American. As new players hit the NCAA each season, I wonder if the Bic/D being utilized at the club level will influence and continue to accelerate how comfortable incoming freshmen are with the back row attack. This season could be a blip on the radar, or could signal a coming wave of change in how the game is played in the NCAA ranks.

Some schools have doubled down on back row attackers

Nebraska has Murray and Beason - Pitt has Babcock and Stafford - Oregon has Gonzales and Colyer - Georgia Tech has Otene and Bertolino - Arkansas has Head and Gillen - TCU has Gibson and Parra. Not ever program is running the back row attack, yet some have fully committed to making it a standard piece of their offense. While having a single player excel from the back, teams contributing multiple players to this Top 30 list is downright impressive. Clearly these programs have a firm understanding of how to train and execute what is still not a fully mainstream part of the NCAA women's offense. I wonder how that will change over the coming years...