So TAFKATBTW was conversing with Ken Pomeroy in cyberspace the other day. This exchange ensued:
John: Ken, you realize you just used “halfway decent” in reference to Gonzaga’s defense. What’s next? “Big Ten” and “recklessly fast”?
Ken: What’s especially sad about that is that Northwestern actually may not be the slowest team in the Big Ten this season now that Todd Lickliter and John Beilein are in the league. Seriously, we could have the slowest conference in the history of hoops. On that note, is this the appropriate time to give Harvard’s Tommy Amaker a shout-out for his big win over Michigan?
John: Yes, this is the time. Amaker is undefeated as Harvard head coach at Lavietes Pavilion–you’re next, Vermont! As for pace, Beilein’s team at West Virginia last year was actually pretty normal. Still, you’re right: Beilein’s best shot with this group of Wolverines might be slowing things down to, oh, about one possession per game. Also note that if the Big Ten averages less than 60 possessions per 40 minutes this year, I swear I’ll pull a Sinead O’Connor and rip up a picture of Pete Carril on YouTube.
So I thought I’d take a look at what the pace is shaping up to look like across the conference. Below you’ll find possessions-per40-minute data for the 11 Big Ten teams, for both last season and this season.
2006-2007 2007-2008 Change Illinois 63.90 67.20 3.30 Indiana 65.60 73.50 7.90 Iowa 67.30 63.40 (3.90) Michigan 64.30 64.20 (0.10) Michigan St. 62.80 69.10 6.30 Minnesota 65.30 70.20 4.90 Northwestern 58.60 65.90 7.30 Ohio State 66.40 68.30 1.90 Penn State 64.80 72.10 7.30 Purdue 67.50 68.90 1.40 Wisconsin 66.50 69.20 2.70 AVERAGE 64.82 68.36 3.55
On their face, the data seem to suggest the following:
- The BP guys are right that Iowa and Michigan are playing at a more deliberate pace under their new coaches.
- But they’re wrong that the conference as a whole is playing at a slower pace. The other nine teams are all playing at a faster pace than last season. Average pace is up three and a half possessions per game.
Four teams are up more than six possessions per game: IU, MSU, NW, and PSU. With IU (Eric Gordon) and MSU (the three freshmen), this is presumably a case of having more scoring options, resulting in less need to work the clock for a good shot. For Northwestern, I’d guess it’s a case of reversion to the mean; they just played so darn slow last year. Your guess is as good as mine for Penn State; I have to confess I haven’t taken the time to get up to speed on their performance this season as of yet.
Now comes the part where I tell you why the data I just showed you aren’t all that useful yet. The number of possessions in a game is basically the same for both teams playing in any given game. So the pace state is driven as much by your opponent’s style as your own.
Historically, Big Ten teams tend to play at a slower pace than just about everybody else. Last season, they averaged just 61.5 possessions per 40 minutes in conference games (last among the six power conferences), causing the Wonk to issue a plea for change. It stands to reason, then, that when two Big Ten teams get together, the pace will probably get even slower that when those two teams play against opponents from other conferences.
I haven’t figured out a quick-and-easy way to separate out nonconference pace and conference pace for last season, but I’ve eyeballed the numbers and it seems pretty clear that Big Ten teams’ pace slows down when they play each other–probably enough to at least offset the 3.6 possessions-per-40-minutes increase shown above.
So for now, let’s go with the following assessment:
- It seems pretty likely Iowa and Michigan are going to play considerably more slowly than they did last year.
- MSU and IU seem to have the best shot at increasing their pace from last season given their expanded offensive arsenals.
- Northwestern, too, but only because they played so excruciatingly slowly last season.
- We’ll throw in Penn State for good measure.
- Odds are everyone else will revert to at least as slow a pace as last year once conference play arrives.
- Outside of maybe the two Spartan-Hoosier match-ups, we shouldn’t expect a lot of big-time barn-burners in conference play.
Update: I just did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Looks to me like pace slowed by about 6-7 possessions per game for most Big Ten teams last season going from nonconference play to conference play. This basically offsets the 3.6 possession increase so far this season. If the average goes down 7 possessions in conference play, the average will be approximately flat from last year. So stock up on caffeinated beverages before conference games start in January.
Closing note: The stats above were pulled from the basketballstate.com website. A subscription to the site costs $24.95 for 12 months. I just signed up today, but so far I’m impressed. The site appears to have as wide a selection of team and individual stats–both conventional and tempo-free–as any hoops junkie could hope for. And it’s well presented, with a number of bells and whistles (for example, a clickable map that shows where every college basketball game in the nation is being played on a given day). Any other stat heads out there should take a quick tour and think about ponying up the Benjamins.