“We want to play faster this year.
If there was a category for offseason coaching lingo on Family quarrel, this sentence would certainly be a winning answer on the survey. Outside of a handful of municipalities across the country, namely Charlottesville or Madison, you’ve almost certainly heard your program’s head coach say this phrase.
The question is why?
There are several possible explanations. First and foremost, playing “fast” or in a fast format, in theory, makes for a more entertaining style of basketball. More points. No more dunks. No more thefts. More action. All the right things to fill the arenas. But more than anything, winning basketball games is what puts the butt in the seats. There isn’t a Kohl Center membership holder who would trade their annual success via a half-court game for more possessions.
The creation of possession-level analysis largely negated the “statistical” arguments for playing fast just for the sake of it. It’s not how many possessions you own or how many points you score. Rather, it’s what goes into EVERY possession that really matters. How many points do you score per possession?
Another element of the analytical framework is: “How many possessions does a team have on average?” Ken Pomeroy devised a statistic known as “Adjusted Tempo.” Simply put, it’s a controlled statistic that attempts to answer this question. The median score for DI teams over the past three full seasons was around 68 adjusted possessions per game. With the 1st the ranked team being the “fastest”, the former national champions ranked:
2021: Baylor – 213e
2019: Virginia: 353rd
2018: Villanova: 150e
2017: North Carolina: 40e
2016: Villanova: 274e
Teams that play fast win the national championships. Teams that play slowly win the national championships. And some teams win multiple championships playing at different paces. The real question of importance remains: how effective are you on a possession-by-possession basis?
So why insist on picking up the pace? Besides the aesthetic reasons, there are also legitimate theories of “basketball”. The more possessions you have in a game, the less an individual possession counts. 1 in 65 is more than 1 in 75, after all. This applies to teams that avoid thwarted offers from “poorer” quality teams. The more possessions you play, the greater the chance that the theoretically superior team will impose its will. Plus, with more possessions, the game naturally plays out at a faster pace, and the odds of the athletically superior team coming out on top theoretically increase. Offensive transitional possessions are more “effective” than half-court possessions by a fairly large margin. Finally, it may just be beneficial for your team to do this, as this is what their talent profile indicates they will do well. Mizzou fans are familiar with this notion of Mike Anderson’s fastest 40 minutes.
Moving on to the question of importance, what does this mean to Mizzou? Like others, Martin defended the idea of playing faster this offseason. Looking at his career numbers in “Adjusted Tempo,” you’ll see that his teams historically tend to look to the more methodical type.
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 gross possession totals. Only three of Martin’s teams finished in the top half of DI teams in this metric. His first two in California hit that bar along with last year’s tournament squad. Before 2021 at Mizzou, his teams regularly finished in the bottom quarter of the DI teams.
Can giving up on a team that is primarily focused on half the field be beneficial for a coach who has found himself on the other end of the spectrum more often than not? Does his CV at Mizzou contain any clues?
Initially, it’s helpful to know exactly what Mizzou’s “adjusted tempo” was during his first four years:
In 2018, one would expect Martin’s side to hit just under 66 possessions per game. In 2019, just under 65, and so on. Until 2021, a typical Tiger team is expected to play matches with possessions in the mid-60s.
Was it optimal? How did they perform in games when sorted by number of possessions over 40 minutes of play? We can answer it! By focusing only on “quality” competition, meaning the top 100 teams from their respective seasons, according to Ken Pomeroy:
(Note: there were 6 games tied after 40 minutes and were not included; the Tigers were 3-3 in said games which included 5 minutes of extra possessions.)
The results are revealing. Against this quality competitive sample, Mizzou finished 6-22 (21.4%) when the game fell short of 66 possessions. Four of those six wins came in Martin’s first year. Compared to games where Mizzou hit that 66-possession threshold and set a 24-25 (48.9%) all-time high. There was a point of diminishing returns as Mizzou finished 13-8 hitting the numbers 66-68. Still, possessions of 69+ only resulted in a record 11-17. Still, a marked improvement over the slower-paced game record.
In 2021, when Mizzou was showing a faster pace than in the previous three seasons, they finished 1-3 in the Top 100 games with under 66 possessions, the only home win over Liberty. In games with 66 or more possessions, they posted a score of 9-6.
It’s a 10,000 foot look. Each individual game has many components that impact the outcome. In the rhythm category, the result in real number of possessions would be better analyzed in relation to the projections of the respective teams at the start of the match. For example, Mizzou had an average of 68 possessions a year ago. Suppose they face an opponent of 65 on average. If the match ended at 62, their opponent would theoretically have the advantage in the pace battle. This is the concept of “dictating the tempo”. This context is absent here. The same goes for the multitude of other factors that lead to wins and losses.
Rather, it is simply an intriguing snapshot of how Martin’s teams at Mizzou performed against quality competition, measured by the pace of play. With a sample of this size, there is no doubt that the stopping the game has paid little dividend. “Playing fast” has produced results, up to a point.
By the staff’s own admission, they were hoping to improve athleticism and the ability to play in transition with off-season additions. Still, previous bands have benefited by playing at least at an average DI pace. With a faster, more bouncing squad, will this team continue this trend? Will they be able to excel even in the highest tempo games where Martin’s previous bell curve has started to bend down? This is just one of many intriguing facets to watch out for when this almost entirely new group takes the stage on Tuesday.