“We want to play faster this year.”
If there was a category for offseason coaching jargon on Family Feud, this phrase would certainly be a winning response on the survey. Outside of a handful of municipalities across the country, namely Charlottesville or Madison, you’ve almost assuredly heard the head ball coach for your program utter this phrase.
The question is why?
There are several possible explanations. First and foremost, playing “fast,” or an up-tempo format, in theory results in a more entertaining style of basketball. More points. More dunks. More steals. More action. All good things for filling arenas. But more than anything, winning basketball games is what puts butts in seats. There isn’t a season ticket holder at the Kohl Center who would trade their annual success via a half-court game for more possessions.
The inception of possession-level analytics has largely negated the “statistical” arguments for playing fast just for the sake of doing so. It’s not how many possessions you have or how many points you score. Rather, it’s what goes into EACH possession that truly counts. How many points are you scoring per possession?
Yet another component of the analytical framework is, “how many possessions does a team average?” Ken Pomeroy has devised a statistic known as “Adjusted Tempo.” In simple terms, it’s a controlled statistic that attempts to answer this very question. The median result for D-I teams the last three full seasons was approximately 68 adjusted possessions a game. With the 1st ranked team being the “fastest,” the past national champions have ranked:
2021: Baylor – 213th
2019: Virginia: 353rd
2018: Villanova: 150th
2017: North Carolina: 40th
2016: Villanova: 274th
Teams that play fast win national championships. Teams that play slow win national championships. And some teams win multiple championships playing differing tempos. The real matter of importance remains: How efficient you are on a possession-by-possession basis?
So why the insistence on upping the tempo? Other than the aesthetically pleasing reasons, there are legitimate “basketball” theories as well. The more possessions you have in a game, the less one individual possession matters. 1 of 65 is greater than 1 of 75, after all. This applies to those teams staving off upset bids from “lesser” quality teams. The more possessions you play, the greater the chance the theoretically superior team will impose their will. Additionally, with more possessions, the game is naturally played at a faster pace and the chances of the athletically superior team coming out on top increases in theory. Transition offensive possessions are more “efficient” than half court possessions by a fairly significant margin. Finally, it may simply benefit your team to do so because that’s what their talent profile says they’ll do well. Mizzou fans are well acquainted with this notion from Mike Anderson’s Fastest 40 Minutes.
Transitioning to the matter of importance, what significance does this have for Mizzou? Like others, Martin has championed the idea of playing faster this offseason. When looking at his career numbers in “Adjusted Tempo,” you’ll see that his teams have historically trended towards the more methodical type.
The national rankings were the unit of choice as the shot clock was shortened from 35 seconds to 30 seconds in 2016, affecting all teams and their raw possession totals. Only three of Martin’s teams have finished in the upper half of D-I teams in this metric. His first two at California achieved that bar as well as last year’s tournament team. Prior to 2021 at Mizzou, his squads regularly finished in the lower quarter of D-I teams.
Can the shift away from a primarily half court-focused squad be beneficial for a coach who has most often found himself on the other end of the spectrum? Does his resume at Mizzou hold any clues?
At the outset, it’s useful to know exactly what Mizzou’s “adjusted tempo” was in his first four years:
In 2018, Martin’s team could be expected to attain just shy of 66 possessions a game. In 2019, just shy of 65, and so on. Until 2021, a typical Tiger team would be expected to play games with possessions in the mid 60’s.
Was that optimal? How have they performed in games when sorted by the number possessions through 40 minutes of game time? We can answer that! When focusing only on “quality” competition, meaning the top 100 teams in their respective seasons as judged by Ken Pomeroy:
(Note: There were 6 games that were tied after 40 minutes and were not included; the Tigers were 3-3 in said games which featured 5 minutes of extra possessions.)
The results are eye-opening. Against this sample of quality competition, Mizzou finished 6-22 (21.4%) when the game didn’t reach 66 possessions. Four of those six wins came in Martin’s first year. Compared with games where Mizzou did reach that 66 possession threshold and they put together a 24-25 (48.9%) record. There was a point of diminishing returns as Mizzou finished 13-8 when hitting numbers from 66 through 68. Yet 69+ possessions only resulted in an 11-17 record. Still, a marked improvement from the slower paced game record.
Literally went #ToTheFinishLine @IMS x @marchmadness pic.twitter.com/hWHEt13lpQ— Mizzou Hoops (@MizzouHoops) March 14, 2021
In 2021, when Mizzou featured a faster pace than they had the prior three seasons, they finished 1-3 in top 100 games with less than 66 possessions, the lone win coming at home against Liberty. In games going 66 or more possessions, they posted a 9-6 mark.
This is a look from 10,000 feet. Each individual game has many components that impact the outcome. Within the pace category, the outcome in actual number of possessions would best be analyzed against the respective teams’ projections coming into the game. For example, Mizzou averaged around 68 possessions a year ago. Assume they faced an opponent who averaged 65. If the game ended up at 62, their opponent would theoretically have the advantage in the pace battle. This is the concept of “dictating tempo.” That context is absent here. So too are the host of other factors that result in wins and losses.
Rather, this is simply an intriguing snapshot of how Martin’s teams have done at Mizzou against quality competition when measured by game pace. With a sample of this size, there’s no question that grinding the game to a halt has yielded few dividends. “Playing fast,” has produced results, to a certain point.
Through the staff’s own admission they hoped to improve athleticism and ability to play in transition with offseason additions. Still, the past groups did benefit by playing at least at a D-I average pace. With a quicker, bouncier group, will this team continue that trend? Will they be able to excel in even the highest tempo games where Martin’s prior bell curve began to bend downward? This is just one of a number of intriguing facets to watch when this almost entirely new group takes the floor Tuesday.