The Tortoise and the Hare: Does Tempo Matter in College Basketball?

We live in a society that places an emphasis on speed. Whether it be fast delivery, short wait times at restaurants, or even work flow at the office, our society thrives on a balance of immediacy and efficiency.

This trend is prevalent in sports as well. Major League Baseball has made huge efforts to try to speed up their games for consumers. Football teams, both at the professional and collegiate level, have increasingly implemented up-tempo/no-huddle offenses. In hockey, the NHL introduced three-on-three overtime period in hopes of more excitement.

Basketball is no different, and college basketball particularly has been known for teams that play at a blistering pace. Is this strategy effective, however? Can collegiate programs maintain a sense of efficiency on both sides of the ball, or is that sacrificed in the pursuit of maximizing possessions?

The philosophy of maximizing possessions is pretty simple. As teams increase the number of possessions they have, in theory that should lead to more points. It sets the table for as many opportunities as possible, while applying pressure on the opponent’s defense due to the sheer number of possessions with their back to the basket. What people tend to forget with this principle is that the more possessions a team has, that number should be relatively the same as their opponent. While playing fast is great, a team needs to be efficient on defense in order for that to work.

Getting into shootouts on a nightly basis will be exciting, yes, but what about the nights that the team goes cold shooting? That sounds like a “let’s beat the traffic” game for the fans. An up-tempo style of play requires offensive efficiency as well. It’s great that a team has a lot of possessions, but they need to cash in on those chances.

With that being said, it creates the question: is there a direct correlation between efficiency and tempo?

KenPom utilizes three different metrics to measure efficiency. Adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO) represents points scored per 100 possessions, which is adjusted for opponents. Adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD) is the same principle, just using points allowed per 100 possessions. The third, which will be the most important in this piece, is adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM), which is the difference between a team’s efficiency on offense and defense. According to KenPom, it “represents the number of points the team would be expected to outscore the average D-I team over 100 possessions.”

Adjusted tempo (AdjT) is the number of possessions a team has per 40 minutes, and like the previous metrics, is adjusted for opponent. The teams that lead this category are Coppin State and The Citadel, coming in at 77.6 possessions per 40 minutes. To show the range between the top and bottom, the team with the lowest AdjT is Virginia, averaging 60.2 possessions per 40 minutes.

Coppin State, while averaging the highest amount of possessions, ranks 345 in AdjO, meaning they are one of the least efficient offensive teams in the country. Defensively, they are outside of the top 200. With that being said, they can still score, but their game totals range from 48 to 89. Their AdjEM ranks 324, which is the second-lowest out of the AdjT top 10.

Intriguingly, The Citadel grades out a lot differently. Although they average as many possessions as Coppin State, their AdjO ranks 175, which is 170 spots higher on the national list. With an offense as good as theirs, one might wonder why they have a negation AdjEM (-9.92), and the answer is their defense, which is one of the least-efficient in the nation at 344.

Whether it be an inefficient offense or defense, neither of these two teams have steadily good numbers in both categories. Therefore speed does not always benefit them, depending on the side of the ball.

The full AdjT top 10 is as follows, accompanied by their AdjEM ranking in parentheses:

1 – Coppin State, 77.6 (-13.84, 324)

2 – The Citadel, 77.6 (-9.92, 283)

3 – Bryant, 76.5 (-1.75, 179)

4 – Monmouth, 76.3 (-0.35, 165)

5 – Winthrop, 76.2 (+6.52, 107)

6 – Eastern Kentucky, 76.2 (-0.12, 163)

7 – Gonzaga, 75.0 (+34.17, 2)

8 – Buffalo, 74.7 (+6.07, 112)

9 – Alabama, 74.6 (+24.76, 9)

10 – Delaware State, 74.6 (-22.90, 351)

When considering the AdjT top 10, only two teams rank inside of the top 100 in AdjEM (Gonzaga and Alabama). If expanded to the top 200, seven teams fit the criteria. The top four teams in tempo have negative efficiency margins, but excluding Coppin State grade out fairly well offensively. The Citadel, Bryant, and Monmouth all rank within the top 175 of AdjO.

Out of the 50 teams that average the most possessions per 40 minutes, only 11 are in the top 100 of AdjEM. Pushing further, 13 teams that are top 100 in AdjO are in this group, and only eight for AdjD. While it is tough to draw a firm conclusion, it can be said that there does not appear to be a direct correlation between large amounts of possessions and efficiency.

On the other hand, the AdjT bottom 10 is as follows, accompanied by their AdjEM ranking in parentheses:

348 – Idaho State, 64.1 (-10.73, 292)

349 – Liberty, 64.1 (+6.58, 106)

350 – Davidson, 63.7 (+13.47, 63)

351 – Charlotte, 63.4 (-0.69, 166)

352 – Saint Mary’s, 63.3 (+10.94, 76)

353 – Air Force, 63.1 (-12.97, 313)

354 – UMKC, 62.8 (-6.12, 230)

355 – Mount St. Mary’s, 62.1 (-6.66, 234)

356 – Evansville, 61.9 (-9.47, 278)

357 – Virginia, 60.2 (+25.65, 7)

The numbers are similar to the previous grouping, as once again there are only two AdjEM top 100 teams in the bottom 10 of tempo. There were fewer teams that graded out well offensively, with only four teams (Virginia, Saint Mary’s, Davidson, and Liberty) ranking within the top 200 of AdjO. Seven teams ranked in the top 200 for AdjD.

It can be gathered that based on the data so far from this season, a fast pace of play doesn’t always lead to effective results. Six teams that ranked in the top ten of possessions per 40 minutes fall in the range of -0.12 to -22.90 in AdjEM. This indicates that they are expected to be outscored by up to 23 points, depending on the team, by the average D-I program over the span of 100 possessions. When considering the slowest teams in the nation, their range of AdjEM was more balanced on either side of zero.

Historically, the country’s best teams often don’t register in the top 10 of AdjT. Below are the leaders in the metric over the past five seasons (once again with AdjEM ranking in parentheses):

2016: The Citadel, 80.0 (-14.51, 312)

2017: Savannah State, 81.0 (-14.14, 317)

2018: Savannah State, 82.3 (-13.55, 317)

2019: Florida International, 77.6 (-3.41, 204)

2020: Mississippi Valley State, 77.1 (-27.87, 351)

None of these teams produced a positive efficiency margin, and four out of the five were outside of the top 300. Only one had a winning record (FIU), with the rest combining for a record of 42-82 (.338). The last time a team that was number one in AdjT had a positive AdjEM was 2013 (Northwestern State), and when record is factored in, it shows that speed doesn’t always produce a positive result.

The respective top 10’s of these years look a lot similar to this season, with not a lot of representation from the AdjEM top 100. The last time a top 100 AdjEM team lead the nation in AdjT came in 2004.

While this season’s numbers are incomplete, they can still be used in the historical context provided above. Teams that aim for the most amount of possible possessions don’t always have it translate over to efficiency. That could be a result of a number of factors, such as their system, their opponents’ systems and styles, etc. Injuries to key players such as veteran point guards could also sway this metric. This season in particular, teams that play at slow paces tend to have better defensive efficiencies. That could be due to forcing only one shot per possession, schemes, etc. More contextual analysis with these teams is needed to make a concrete conclusion, but from the surface there is a visible trend.

Virginia has always been noted as a team that doesn’t score enough to win games. They debunked that theory a few years ago by winning the National Championship, and continue to grade out as one of the most efficient and balanced teams in the nation. They are the prime example of not always needing a wealth of possessions in order to succeed.

Our lifestyles demand speed, and we search for speed in the sports we watch. While a fast pace of play is exciting to watch, in the context of college basketball, it does not always have a high success rate.

(Cover Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

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