Should We Be Worried About Slow-Paced Teams In March?

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Source: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

by Eli Boettger – February 21, 2018

Seemingly every team that will appear in March’s NCAA Tournament bracket has some sort of deficiency. Oklahoma’s supporting cast, Duke’s perimeter defense, and Kentucky’s inconsistency are the first flaws that come to mind.

As for Virginia, sitting at 24-2 with a three-game lead in the ACC and a projected No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Cavaliers are largely considered the nation’s most complete team. Tony Bennett’s squad owns wins on the road against Duke, Miami, Syracuse, Florida State and Virginia Tech, a neutral victory over Rhode Island, and also needle-pushers at home against North Carolina and Clemson. Virginia is the consensus No. 1 in each of the results-based metrics used by the committee (RPI, KPI and Strength of Record), and is second in BPI, first in KenPom, and third in Sagarin.

Regardless of what Virginia accomplishes between now and Selection Sunday, skeptics of the Cavaliers will refuse to subside. The anti-UVa faithful exists because of its snailish style of play, as opposed to its roster, its two losses, or any other factor.

With an average of 59.1 possessions per 40 minutes, Virginia’s pace of play is the slowest in the entire nation. Dating back to his time with Washington State, a Tony Bennett-led club has never ranked higher than 316th in possessions per 40 minutes. Over the past five seasons, Virginia has ranked in the top 10 nationally in adjusted points allowed per possession and the bottom 10 nationally in tempo.

Teams that prefer to slow it down are not immune to winning big in March, to be clear.

In 2015, Wisconsin upset then-undefeated Kentucky to reach the national title game. Its offense ranked 345th in possessions per 40 minutes, though it was the country’s most efficient offensive attack at 1.29 points per possession.

In 2007, Georgetown’s sub 300-tempo offense advanced to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed, while 2015 Utah, 2007 Butler and 2003 Wisconsin reached the tournament’s second weekend despite being No. 5 seeds.

Why, then, are people refraining from jumping on the 2018 Virginia bandwagon? Well, the stories of slow-paced success in the NCAA Tournament are few and far between.

Using BracketOdds‘ seed advancement tool, I compared the number of NCAA Tournament wins by every top five seed in the KenPom era (2002-present) that ranked in the top 50 in tempo and 300th or lower in tempo to its projected NCAA Tournament wins.

In 2003, third-seeded Syracuse won the national title (six tournament wins), a whopping 4.19 tournament wins above the projected total for No. 3 seeds (1.81). The total of 4.19 is more than a game higher than any other team in the data set.

The table below includes every top five seed since 2002 to rank in the top 50 or bottom 50 in tempo and finish the NCAA Tournament at least one win above its projected win total.

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Of the eleven tournament overachievers, just two (2015 Wisconsin and 2007 Georgetown) were slow-paced teams. Three North Carolina teams (2005, 2009, and 2017) highlight the list of up-tempo teams that succeeded above expectations in the NCAA Tournament.

The data appears to indicate that it is far more difficult for slow-paced teams to outperform expectations and more common to underwhelm in the NCAA Tournament.

A total of 57 up-tempo teams and 34 slow-tempo teams were included in the data set. The up-tempo teams (top 50 in tempo) performed at an average of plus-0.12 wins vs. expected in the NCAA Tournament, while slow-tempo teams (300th or lower in tempo) performed at an average of minus-0.30 wins vs. expected in the NCAA Tournament. To put into context, the net 0.42 wins is about the same differential as a No. 4 seed (1.57 projected wins) compared to a No. 5 seed (1.10 projected wins) in the NCAA Tournament.

As previous findings would indicate, slow-paced teams are more likely to suffer early tournament exits than fast-paced teams. Eight top five seeds have finished 1.38 wins below its projected total since 2002, and six of the eight were slow-paced teams.

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Some of the more recent instances, like 2015 Virginia, 2015 Baylor, and 2017 Villanova, lost in the first weekend despite expecting to compete for national titles. Even as a No. 1 seed in 2014, Virginia was unable to push past the Sweet Sixteen round. Last season, Virginia was bounced in the round of 32 after a putrid 65-39 loss to fourth-seeded Florida.

Virginia has very clearly exceeded above any and all expectations this season, entering the preseason as an unranked club projected to fade into the ACC’s middle tier. But now that Tony Bennett’s team is recognized as one of the nation’s best, the pressure is on Bennett again to prove that slow-paced teams can, in fact, win in March.

In large part, Bennett has yet to show that he can take a 300-something tempo team to the Final Four, but he will have another chance to do so this March.

If the Cavaliers fall short, you can’t say that no one warned you.