Pittsburgh and Miami were set for an ACC basketball game on Wednesday night. It would be a meeting of two of the most deliberate teams in the country, under the banner of a league long known for energized play. Before the game, Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga was asked if either side would score 50 points that evening. After a pause, Larranaga sounded almost wistful at the prospect.
"I hope if someone does," he said, "it's us."
Both teams did cross the mark in a 59-55 win for the Panthers. But they needed overtime to get there. In a game just three days earlier, neither Pittsburgh nor Virginia could cross 50-point line. The landscape of the ACC has muddied this year, as the league features the slowest team in America (Miami, at 58.7 possessions per game) joined by three other programs (Virginia, Syracuse and Clemson) in the bottom 17 of the tempo rankings, all at 62.8 possessions per night or less.
Just two teams, North Carolina and Maryland, reside in the tempo top 100. Some teams can pry themselves out of the holding pattern – Duke dropped 78 points on Syracuse in regulation on Feb. 1, after all – and it’s premature to assess if the league will be penalized for slow play. But what was once perceived as a high-octane league now has multiple programs pumping the brakes. For some, it's full speed ahead. For others, it's all systems whoa.
“We’ve really done a good job of defending teams and getting them out of what they want to do,” said Virginia’s Mike Tobey, the center for the 335th-fastest team in the nation. “We’re a half-court team. When we have the ball on offense, we’re going to make you play 35 seconds of defense. And when we’re on defense, we’re going to make you play 35 seconds of offense. By the end of the game, some teams that aren’t used to playing like that are completely exhausted. That’s what we try to do. That’s our style of play.”
No one is budging. But then no one should be shocked, either.
The ACC got what it asked for in at least two cases. Syracuse only had four decades of playing a zone defense under Jim Boeheim before it was welcomed into its new league, and in the Orange’s defense, they are unhurried but productive (No. 4 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com). Likewise, Pittsburgh’s play under Jamie Dixon is no revelation – the Panthers are 295th in the nation in tempo and a top-15 team in defensive efficiency.
Meanwhile, a defensive-minded, patient approach was practically a birthright for Virginia coach Tony Bennett. And when Larranaga faced a talent dropoff this season and went to a primarily zone defense, it set the tone. That tone just happened to be a dirge.
“It’s whatever a coach feels comfortable with,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose club is the lone ACC representative in the tempo top 20. “I want to play a lot faster than we’re playing right now, it frustrates me that I can’t get us playing faster, yet the other team has a great deal to say about that. When they want to spend more time with shot clock, it does make it difficult. If it’s better players, higher-caliber teams, it’s harder to get them out of their pace.”
League coaches offered two theories on the more measured pace. The first: If teams commit to playing zone defense, it means an offense must burn more clock mounting an attack. And the better the zone – like, say, Syracuse’s – the longer it takes. And the longer it takes, the fewer possessions a game will feature. “You have to spend a lot of time to find a good shot against them,” Larranaga said of Boeheim’s league-leading Orange.
The second theory is also about belief, but it's more fundamental. Clemson coach Brad Brownell cited the Midwest roots for himself, Bennett, Georgia Tech’s Brian Gregory and even Wake Forest’s Jeff Bzdelik as influencing a more deliberate approach.
“Things maybe were a littler slower when we were growing up and we learned our craft under some people that way,” Brownell said. “I don’t know if that’s the reason for all of it, but I do think there are some defensive-minded coaches in the league. Ball-control offense and defense is something that some of us have preached over the years.”
All counter attacks carry their own risks. Want to trap a slow team? Williams believes slow-goers actually welcome that, given the odd-man advantage they get if they split the double team. Want to speed a game up with some hasty offense? Williams points out that could lead to a spiral of five-second offensive possessions followed by 30-second defensive possessions followed by five-second offensive possessions and so on.
In this case, the diminishing returns pile up faster than the points. “It’s going to get you beat,” Williams said.
Ultimately, the ACC has become the Big East.
It’s an amalgam of philosophies -- and teams -- spread far and wide, much like the Big East was until this season. The schools come from everywhere and the players come from everywhere and the operating systems come from everywhere, too.
The affect of the slow-down in games might not be measurable for some time in terms of prospects’ perceptions of the ACC; decades of history suggests Duke or Syracuse or North Carolina or Pittsburgh or soon-to-arrive Louisville won't lack for quality recruits. The ACC teams that slow it down may be intractable. The ACC teams that still want to rev it up likely won’t abandon their speed. Success will be determined by who can play their style better that night and in the long run ... or long stroll.
“When we’re good, it’s hard for people to slow us down, too,” Williams said. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”