It's that time of year again, when the days are growing shorter, the leaves have fallen from the trees and the Big Ten is alleged to be playing faster basketball. Just today the Free Press published an article on this with the usual conclusion: "Maybe. We'll see once conference play starts." Except at the extremes, tempo can be one of the more difficult aspects of play to assess merely by watching. The numbers can provide some real insight here, especially when it comes to comparing teams and conferences to one another. Here, the focus will be the Big Ten, with a glance at the larger context of Division I.
Be it basketball or football, the Big Ten carries one banner: slow-paced, low-scoring, defensive-minded and physical. When the league is down, as it is in football now, the #B1G hashtag is a mark of derision, a synonym for unwatchable incompetence. When the league is up, as it is in basketball now, the league is lauded for its hard-nosed, deliberate but determined play. But how true is it? Didn't Fran McCaffery come to the conference to run, like he did at Siena? Hasn't Indiana been putting up 90-100 points on a nightly basis? Doesn't Tubby Smith like to play eleven guys so he can keep the pressure on with fresh legs? And, doesn't Tom Izzo promise us every year that the Spartans are going to get after it in transition? Well, below is the current state of pace in the B1G, visualized*:
The standard way to represent tempo is possessions per game, or pace. How many times does the ball change hands over the course of a typical game? Since each team faces opposition of various paces, Ken Pomeroy normalizes this figure based on the pace of opponents faced compared to the national average and calls it adjusted pace. That's what's represented here. The first thing that stands out about adjusted pace in the Big Ten this year is that it is indeed on the slow side. The Division I average is 67 PPG and the Big Ten clocks in at 65.6. The other striking thing is the lack of variation in pace among the teams: each team falls within a 7-possession range of 62-69 PPG. We can represent the level of variance using the standard deviation. Generally speaking, in a set of data that is "normally" distributed, 68% of the data points will be within 1 standard deviation of the average (mean). In the case of the Big Ten the standard deviation calculation gives a value of only 2.5 possessions, which suggests that the conference is pretty well clustered around the average.
So what does it mean? The Big Ten is both slow and monotonous, like a soulless bureaucratic agency? Well, maybe. Thanks to Mr. Pomeroy we can look at pace for every Division I team and figure out each conference's average pace and the diversity in pace among its teams (standard deviation) and put it in a scatterplot, shown below.
The values increase as you go up and right, so the conferences in the upper right quadrant are both fast-paced (on average) and diverse. (How about that WAC, by the way?) Conferences in the lower left are slower and more uniform. So, yeah, only the MAC and the Ivy league have the B1G beat for stolid conformity, it seems.
We can, however, break this out a bit further to see if that's the whole story. Thanks to the excellent website hoop-math.com a lot of play-by-play data from many major conference games, including all of the Big Ten, are synthesized in various useful ways. One of the breakdowns hoop-math.com provides is the percentage of shots taken within the first ten seconds after a team gains or loses possession. This separates shots taken by the team from shots allowed on defense, which provides a different perspective on pace than simply possessions. A team could look to push the ball on offense but play half-court defense designed to slow down its opponents and make them work for a good shot. Conversely, another team might play a full-court trapping defense designed to force a quick decision, but be devoted to ball security and shot selection on offense. Both teams could average the same number of possessions per game and that statistic alone would not reveal the difference in style. With that in mind, the following two charts show how often Big Ten teams take or allow shots in the first 10 seconds after gaining possession. (I've collapsed hoop-math.com's categories for how possession was gained into one.)
Some of the more interesting things this breakdown reveals are:
- The Big Ten's uniformity of pace is on defense, less so on offense. There's much more variation in the number of shots taken in the first 10 seconds, from Indiana's 47% to Nebraska's 17%, than there is in the shots allowed in that span: aside from Penn State's 33% figure, all the other teams are between 24% and 30%. The standard deviation for the percentage values on offense is 8%, on defense it's 3%.
- Only one team in the conference really runs: Indiana. Yes, it's early and Indiana is playing a lot of cupcakes, but 47% of shots taken in the first 10 seconds is pretty amazing and it's led to game scores of 97, 99, 100 and 101 so far.
- There's only one truly slow team in the conference, and it's not Wisconsin. Nebraska is without serious competition for deliberation on offense, taking only the aforementioned 17% of its shots in the first ten seconds. The next team, Northwestern, is half a standard deviation away at 21%. Nebraska also clocks in as the most deliberate defense, although they're not as much of an outlier there. Wisconsin is deliberate, but they don't stand out in this regard
- Michigan State's offense is more up-tempo than its defense. These numbers square a little better with what the eyeballs report when watching the Spartans, whose adjusted possessions per game have them at 65.7, or number 229 in the country. They're 4th in the conference in getting shots off quickly, but much more deliberate on defense, which you would expect given Tom Izzo's style, which tries to force tough, contested looks.
It would be interesting to break this down even further by using hoop-math.com's categories to see who runs most after an opponent's made shot versus only running after turnovers or rebounds. Also worth investigating is whether the conference's reputation for turnover and offensive rebound aversion has anything to do with these figures.
*All the statistics in this article, unless otherwise noted, come from Ken Pomeroy's site KenPom.com. The $20 for an annual subscription is a terrific value and the best investment any numerically-inclined college basketball fan can make.