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Faster Than We Thought

Since Ken Pomeroy began tracking possessions per game (aka tempo, aka pace) on his website, fans have used his measure of tempo to argue about the entertainment value of their team. But the entertainment value of tempo has long been exaggerated. Even if many fans prefer up-and-down basketball, fans typically do not like poorly played basketball. And the fastest way to speed up the game is to allow wide open shots. As fans of Providence learned during the Keno Davis era, fast-paced basketball with no defensive resistance can be painful to watch.

That’s why Ken Pomeroy’s recent use of the play-by-play data is so fascinating. This summer he used the play-by-play data to develop a measure of average possession length (APL) on offense and defense. If teams are slow-paced because they play frustrating long possessions on defense, we probably should not criticize them for not running in transition. And now with APL, we do not have to.

The following table shows the coaches that have probably been receiving too much criticism for playing slow basketball. These are coaches whose rank nationally in terms of average possession length (APL) on offense differs substantially from their rank in terms of possessions per game. (In the table I calculate the mean APL and mean possessions per game for the last 4 years for each coach. I then rank all active coaches. There are 312 D1 head coaches with previous historical data, thus the rankings vary from 1 fastest to 312 slowest.)

Faster than We Thought

Current Team

Rank

Poss Per Game

Rank APL Offense

Diff

Dave Pilipovich

Air Force

252nd

99th

153

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

148th

12th

136

Chris Mooney

Richmond

272th

148th

124

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

205th

94th

111

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

169th

63rd

106

Kevin Stallings

Vanderbilt

179th

73rd

106

Scott Nagy

South Dakota St.

136th

35th

101

Billy Donovan

Florida

250th

153rd

97

Roman Banks

Southern

236th

146th

90

Leonard Hamilton

Florida St.

123rd

37th

86

Mark Few

Gonzaga

144th

59th

85

Rick Pitino

Louisville

112th

32nd

80

Mark Schmidt

St. Bonaventure

188th

108th

80

Murry Bartow

East Tennessee St.

167th

89th

78

Brian Gregory

Georgia Tech

180th

104th

76

Randy Rahe

Weber St.

151th

76th

75

Tony Benford

North Texas

138th

66th

72

Billy Donlon

Wright St.

280th

209th

71

John Thompson III

Georgetown

247th

179th

68

Brad Brownell

Clemson

263th

196th

67

There are a number of championship level coaches from Jim Boeheim to Tom Izzo to Billy Donovan to Rick Pitino whose teams are really only slow because of their defensive tenacity.

Meanwhile there are also a handful of coaches who probably deserve more criticism for being boring. Their teams have only been fast-paced because of giving up too many quick baskets defensively. Call this the group the Keno Davis all-stars. (Keno Davis himself falls from 11th to 47th between the two metrics.)

Slower than We Thought

Current Team

Rank

Poss Per Game

Rank APL Offense

Diff

Dave Loos

Austin Peay

58th

133rd

-75

Ron Mitchell

Coppin St.

69th

149th

-80

Randy Monroe

UMBC

63rd

154th

-91

Tom Pecora

Fordham

46th

145th

-99

Jim Hayford

Eastern Washington

50th

152nd

-102

Nick Robinson

Southern Utah

34th

138th

-104

Travis Williams

Tennessee St.

59th

169th

-110

Frank Martin

South Carolina

75th

185th

-110

Dan Hurley

Rhode Island

129th

255th

-126

Rick Ray

Mississippi St.

67th

202nd

-135 

Many of these teams have struggled, so it is not a surprise that their defenses gave up easy baskets while their offenses struggled to score quickly.

But Frank Martin really stands out as an outlier on this list. These tempo calculations include his time at Kansas St. where his team won a lot of games. I think what is happening here is that Martin’s teams are extremely likely to crash the boards offensively. That sometimes means his teams don’t get back defensively which leads to more transition opportunities than a typical team allows. Frank Martin’s offenses aren’t all that fast-paced, but those additional transitional lay-ups do lead to more possessions per game.

True Fastest and Slowest over the Last Four Years

By the new metric, the fastest offensive coaches in the nation are:

Fastest

Current Team

Mean APL Off

Duggar Baucom

VMI

14.2

Dave Rose

BYU

14.6

Dan Muller

Illinois St.

15.0

Cameron Dollar

Seattle

15.1

Roy Williams

North Carolina

15.1

Mike McConathy

Northwestern St.

15.5

Dave Rice

UNLV

15.5

Mike Anderson

Arkansas

15.5

Wes Miller

UNC Greensboro

15.7

Corliss Williamson

Central Arkansas

15.8

Amusingly, two Nolan Richardson proteges (Mike Anderson and Corliss Williamson) show up in the Top 10.

And the slowest offensive coaches in the nation are:

Slowest

Current Team

Mean APL Off

Ed DeChellis

Navy

20.6

Bennie Seltzer

Samford

20.9

Jim Molinari

Western Illinois

21.0

Joe Scott

Denver

21.1

Danny Kaspar

Texas St.

21.1

Jay Spoonhour

Eastern Illinois

21.4

Larry Shyatt

Wyoming

21.8

Dave Bezold

Northern Kentucky

21.9

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

22.0

Greg Jackson

Delaware St.

22.1

Of course we still need to be careful in interpreting these new numbers. Part of the problem is that we associate faster tempo with fastbreak basketball. But at the college level with 35 second shot clocks, fastbreaks are only part of the equation. I think this post by Andy Glockner really sums things up nicely. In that column Glockner described the bi-modal nature of Wisconsin’s offense. Despite having unambiguously one of the slowest offenses in the country, Wisconsin isn’t afraid to run and take transition lay-ups when those opportunities present themselves. I would describe it this way. Transition baskets are usually the highest percentage shot any offense will get. And no smart basketball coach will pass up the rare chance for an easy bucket.

What really sets offensive tempos apart at the college level is what happens when transition baskets are not available. Do teams run some quick sets and attack before the defense is fully set (North Carolina’s secondary break)? Do they impatiently take the first semi-open shot that is available, even if that shot is a low-value two point jumper? Do they run traditional sets (like the clear out pick-and-roll) that take some time to execute, but not the full shot-clock? Or do they probe endlessly, running different cuts and sets until a lay-up or wide-open three presents itself? Those differences in styles explain why at the college level each offense’s average possession length can vary so dramatically.

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