Is slower better in college basketball?

Everyone knows the story of The Tortoise and the Hare. Slow and wins the race. But that hasn’t always been the case in college basketball. Teams like North Carolina, with Roy Williams’ Secondary Break, or Arkansas, and Nolan Richardson’s 40-minutes of Hell, conjure up breakneck paces and 100-point games. The game has been subtly slowing down and teams that can play that game are becoming more successful.

Last season the average major conference team played 66.50 adjusted possessions per game according to Ken Pomeroy’s data. That’s the slowest it’s been in the past five years. See the chart below.


The first column in the chart is what I find the most interesting. The 2010-11 season was the first in the past five seasons where adjusted tempo actually had a negative correlation with adjusted pythagorean rating (Pomeroy’s measure of team strength). For the first time in five years being slower was better in major conference basketball.

There’s a few team to which this phenomenon can mainly be attributed to. While Wisconsin has always been one of the slowest teams in the nation, Pittsburgh (313th) and Florida (290th) were also particularly good and particularly lethargic. Even top-ranked Ohio State finished 250th in adjusted tempo and National Champion Connecticut finished 240th.

For a team like Connecticut, shortening games had the built-in advantage of being able to maximize the percentage of possessions that star Kemba Walker was able to use. In the NCAA Tournament the Huskies’ game speed throttled down even more as not a single game reaching more than 65 possessions. And it worked.

The numbers at the major conference level last season seem to reflect a trend that’s been going on for a few seasons NCAA wide. The correlation between team strength and slower tempos has moved towards the slower paced teams for each the past three seasons.


It’s interesting to note though that just now major conference teams seem to be following this trend (with one notable exception) in their hiring decisions. Here are the head coaches that switched positions this offseason and their NCAA adjusted tempo ranks for 2010-11.

  • Mike Anderson (Missouri to Arkansas) – 14th
  • Brian Gregory (Dayton to Georgia Tech) – 174th
  • Mark Turgeon (Texas A&M to Maryland) – 326th
  • Jim Larranaga (George Mason to Miami) – 223rd
  • Frank Haith (Miami to Missouri) – 236th
  • Lon Kruger (Oklahoma to UNLV) – 110th
  • Pat Chambers (Boston University to Penn St.) – 297th
  • Ed Cooley (Fairfield to Providence) – 182nd
  • Cuonzo Martin (Missouri St. to Tennessee) – 309th
  • Billy Martin (Murray State to Texas A&M) – 294th

There are 345 teams in NCAA Division I, so eight out of the 10 new major conference head coaches that coached a team last season finished in the bottom half in adjusted tempo. It appears that these days the hare is winning the race.

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