Possession Obsession

The madness in March boils down to tempo and efficiency. Teams that control the pace and make the most of every chance-at both ends of the floor-have the best shot at reaching Indy
March 20, 2006

Last Fall, afterhe'd lost the top seven scorers from his 2005 national champions, NorthCarolina coach Roy Williams said a remarkable thing. Asked if he would have toslow down his trademark rocket-fueled attack this season, Ol' Roy shook hishead. "I want to go even faster," he vowed, and he wasn't joking. Eventhough the Tar Heels would rely on seldom-used veterans and five freshmen,Williams knew that his fleet guards, small-but-explosive forwards and mobilebig men had talent-the man can recruit, after all-and that he would win moregames by creating as many possessions as possible. ¶ Since 1970, when Williamsbegan counting possessions for Dean Smith as a UNC student, he has developed anincurable case of Possession Obsession. Look at it this way, says Williams, anavid golfer, "if I played Tiger Woods for one hole, I might have a chanceof tying him or winning the hole. But if we play nine or 18 holes, I have nochance. That's the way the game of basketball is. The more possessions youhave, the more often the team with the greater talent should win."

Despite theirinexperience, the Tar Heels leveraged their skills (forward Tyler Hansbroughbecame the nation's top freshman) and their speed (only four NCAA tournamentteams play faster) to go 22-7 and finish a stunning second in the ACC.

Never have tempo(possessions per game) and efficiency (points scored and allowed perpossession) been hotter topics than on the eve of this year's NCAA tournament.In 2005 Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Alabama-Birmingham, two of the nation's mostfrenetic teams, upset SEC and Big East powers using gambling full-court-pressdefenses, while Bucknell's grind-it-out approach (think Tiger versus Williams)yielded a 64-63 first-round upset of third-seeded Kansas. The Tar Heels werethe fastest-paced team in the field of 65, had the nation's most efficientoffense and owned the seventh most efficient defense. (No wonder they won thetitle.) Meanwhile, three other efficiency experts-Illinois, Louisville andMichigan State-rounded out the Final Four.

Possession may bejust another word for madness, but during the Madness of March it can also bethe key to success. Who plays fast? Who plays slow? And during the NCAAtournament, when games so often swing on a single possession, which teams makethe most of every chance-at both ends of the floor? "This isn't aseven-game series, it's one-and-done," says Memphis coach John Calipari."So you've got to get good shots every time down and make it tough for theother team every time down. That's the whole goal: You've got to beefficient."

What's the bestway to analyze a team's efficiency and help separate Final Four contenders fromearly-round upset candidates? First, you must ignore traditional statisticslike rebound margin, total turnovers and points per game and embrace asimple-but-revealing figure that doesn't appear on any NCAA stat sheet: pointsper possession.

Possession-basedanalysis is a hoops version of the approach to baseball statistics made famousin Moneyball, Michael Lewis's best-selling book about general manager BillyBeane and the Oakland A's, with an important twist: Its godfather happens to bethe most successful coach in the history of Division I college basketball. Inthe mid-1950s, as an assistant at Air Force, Dean Smith was looking for a wayto evaluate a team's strengths and weaknesses that took into account the speedat which it plays. For example, Smith wondered, why does the NCAA award a"defensive scoring champion" trophy when the measuring stick (fewestpoints allowed per game) is less the result of good defense than of playing ata slow pace?

By calculating howmany points a team scored and allowed per possession, Smith found, he gained amuch clearer picture of efficiency and could compare teams no matter what pacethey preferred. These days Smith's protégé Williams begins every halftime talkby noting the Tar Heels' offensive and defensive points-per-possession, and thePossession Obsession has spread to other elite programs such as Gonzaga,Memphis, Michigan State and Wisconsin. "I think [efficiency stats] give youa more accurate reflection of your performance, more so than field goalpercentage and a lot more than total points scored or given up," says Zagscoach Mark Few, whose team tries to meet goals of 115 points per 100possessions on offense and 95 on defense.

While Smith's ideais nothing new, only recently have statheads and bloggers extended it to all334 Division I teams, providing the first detailed national perspective onefficiency. Modifying an equation developed by NBA stat guru Dean Oliver in thelate 1980s, a blogger named Ken Pomeroy began publishing points-per-possessionand other tempo-neutral stats for Division I colleges on his website,kenpom.com, last year. "Even if you've never seen a team play, you can geta good picture of its style by looking at these statistics," says Pomeroy,a 32-year-old meteorologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., whose site became such a culthit that it crashed during the week before last year's Selection Sunday.

Pomeroy'sefficiency data for this season (page 43) indicates which well-regarded teamsmight be ripe for upsets because of their defensive shortcomings (BostonCollege, Gonzaga, Michigan State); which defensive stalwarts could be laid lowby their offensive foibles (Bucknell, Indiana, Iowa); and which efficientupstarts might be capable of springing an ambush or two (Arkansas, Marquette,Wichita State). Likewise, efficiency can explain why callow Kansas is betterthan its No. 4 seeding suggests-the Jayhawks have the most efficient defense(81.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the land-and why Duke, Texas andUConn, proficient at both ends of the court, best fit the profile of potentialchampions.

Yet there's moreto the Possession Obsession than efficiency. By measuring the number ofpossessions per 40-minute game, it's possible to determine whether a team playsat a slow pace or a fast one (page 49). The battle to control tempo is one ofthe most riveting aspects of the annual N-C-two-A two-step-and often a decidingfactor in which team wins the title. More than one shining moment has been theresult of a team's ability to master the tempo tug of war, either by ruthlesslyimposing its pace or smartly adjusting its style to the game at hand.

For teams tryingto limit possessions, the simplest strategy is to run a deliberate offense;they can also resort to other tactics, such as a zone defense, which forcesclock-consuming ball movement to create open looks. Williams adds that opposingcoaches have tried three approaches to clogging North Carolina's transitiongame: 1) sending fewer players to the offensive glass, allowing them to retreaton defense instead; 2) jamming the Tar Heels' defensive rebounders, which makesquick outlet passes more difficult; and 3) breaking out a soft containmentpress after made baskets, not to trap or force turnovers but rather to limitrun-outs.

Indeed, it's worthnoting that full-court pressure can be used either to speed up the game withhigh-risk traps (to try to force turnovers) or to slow it down by offeringlow-risk token resistance (to delay a team's entry into its offense). Coach JimCalhoun's early teams at Connecticut were known for their gambling 2-2-1 press,but as he began recruiting more elite-level talent in the mid-1990s, theHuskies began "faking" the 2-2-1, says associate head coach TomMoore-that is, using it only to control tempo. When Moore asked why, Calhounnoted that because the Huskies could score so well in their fast-break andhalf-court offenses, they needn't risk giving up easy points with a hard press."Why make thoroughbreds mix it up in the mud like plow horses?" hesaid.

"Pearl's PlowHorses" is the perfect handle for Tennessee, which vaulted from preseasonanonymity to SEC Eastern Division champion thanks to the all-hands-on-deckpress installed by first-year coach Bruce Pearl. "The key is you've got tochange the forms of pressure to best suit the opponent's attack," saysPearl. "Sometimes it's by speeding them up, and sometimes it's by slowingthem down." He did the former to help Wisconsin-Milwaukee upset BostonCollege in the second round of last year's tournament and the latter to leadthe Vols to a stunning road upset of Texas in December.

But every tempostrategy has a counter, of course. What if Oral Roberts decides to walk it upagainst first-round opponent Memphis, the tournament's second-fastest-pacedteam? "If [the Golden Eagles] want to hold the ball, then great," saysCalipari. "We'll deny every pass, we'll trap the wings, we'll make the gamespeed up. Let's get them down by eight or nine points, and if they keep [thatslow pace], eight or nine will seem like 20."

Which teams thatthrottle up and throttle down could potentially throttle a powerhouse thisMarch? Consider:

•The plodders Ingeneral, deliberate attacks give greater pause to the bracket's heavyweights.Says UConn's Moore, "The midmajor teams that would potentially give ustrouble are the ones that play a style that bleeds the clock." No outfitfits that description better than Southern Illinois, the fourth-slowest team inthe field. Salukis coach Chris Lowery admits he would never rev up his team'sfour-cylinder engine against a high seed. "That's asking to getsmoked," he says. "We want to make you guard us for 25 to 30 seconds apossession, take away all your early offense [with soft full-court containmentdefense] and make you go deep into the shot clock. Most people aren't used tothat, but that's how we play, so we never get nervous."

Looking for otherslow-paced dark horses? Try Northern Iowa, UNC-Wilmington and Utah State.

•The speed freaksNot every team subscribes to Williams's Tiger Woods analogy. In fact, UABliterally pulled a fast one in each of the past two tournaments, employing itssuffocating full-court press to knock off top-seeded Kentucky (second round,2004) and fifth-seeded LSU (first round, 2005). "Basketball is a game ofdecisions, and we like to make people speed up that process," says Blazerscoach Mike Anderson, who believes that higher seeds get rattled easily in thetournament's single-elimination format. The Blazers have no such discomfort,the result of their "seven-minute drills," daily no-holds-barredscrimmages that make their games seem like slow-motion videos bycomparison.

By gambling andtrapping at all times, UAB tries to create more turnovers than its opponentand, in turn, more possessions and chances to score-often on layups from stealsin the backcourt. (The downside: Opponents who keep their wits and break thepress can get their own easy buckets.) In the market for an up-tempo upsetpick? Check out Bradley, George Washington and Oral Roberts.

•The oddballs"Anytime you face teams that have a unique style, it's difficult," saysDuke assistant coach Chris Collins. This year that quirky customer might beGeorgetown, the bracket's slowest major-conference team, which beat the BlueDevils in January using coach John Thompson III's version of the pokeyPrinceton offense. Or Tennessee and its full-court high jinks. Or WestVirginia, which Pittsnogled its way to last year's Elite Eight by slowingthings down on both ends, thanks to a 1-3-1 defense and coach John Beilein'seccentric cousin to the Princeton offense.

Then there's onefinal category: the adapters. Who can forget the hobbled heroics of MichiganState point guard Mateen Cleaves, who mastered the wildly varying speeds duringthe Spartans' 2000 Final Four wins over Wisconsin (53-41) and Florida (89-76)?"Some of it's just a feeling out there: Do I have my finger on the pulse ofthis game?" says Calipari. Which tournament-tested point guards have thechops to negotiate 75-possession track meets and grind-it-out slugfests? ThinkIllinois's Dee Brown, Pittsburgh's Carl Krauser, UCLA's Jordan Farmar, UConn'sMarcus Williams and Villanova's Kyle Lowry.

When it comes tonavigating the tides of March, success demands not only sure-handed precisionbut also an ability to go with the flow. To reach the Final Four inIndianapolis, teams will have to build their case, one possession at atime.


More news and analysis, including Luke Winn's NCAAtournament blog, at SI.com/collegebasketball.

Playing the Margins

The difference between efficiency on offense and D canmake all the difference

One of the most telling statistics when comparing teamsis efficiency margin, which is the difference between the points a team scoresand what it allows per 100 possessions. (The NCAA does not officially trackpossessions, which are calculated using the formula Pos=FGA+[.475√óFTA]-OR+TO.)According to Ryan Kobliska, a blogger from Iowa City, the 2005 Final Fourteams-North Carolina, Illinois, Louisville and Michigan State-had the highestefficiency margins during league play last year among teams in the sevenconferences that have sent members to the Final Four in the last decade (ACC,Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Pac-10 and SEC). These teams ratedhighest in power-conference play this season.

TEAM, CONFERENCE ... Efficiency Margin

1. Texas, Big 12 ... +23.7

2. Memphis, C-USA ... +22.3

3. Kansas, Big 12 ... +18.5

4. Ohio State, Big Ten ... +14.0

5. UConn, Big East ... +13.9

6. UCLA, Pac-10 ... +13.1

7. North Carolina, ACC ... +13.0

8. Duke, ACC ... +12.9

9. LSU, SEC ... +10.9

10. Washington, Pac-10 ... +10.8

The Tempo Setters

From galloping GW to stodgy Air Force, tournament teamsmove at a variety of speeds

One way to gauge a team's tempo is by its possessionsper 40 minutes. Here are the tournament entries that play at the most extremepaces (through last Saturday).

FASTEST TEAMS ... Possessions per Game

1. George Washington ... 74.0

2. (tie) Memphis ... 73.5
Tennessee ... 73.5

4. Washington ... 73.4

5. North Carolina ... 73.0

6. Duke ... 72.9

7. Iona ... 71.9

8. Bradley ... 71.8

9. UConn ... 71.7

10. Hampton ... 71.1

SLOWEST TEAMS ... Possessions per Game

1. Air Force ... 56.4

2. Georgetown ... 59.6

3. Northern Iowa ... 61.7

4. Southern Illinois ... 62.3

5. Utah State ... 63.1

6. (tie) Boston College ... 63.5
UCLA ... 63.5

8. Cal ... 63.9

9. (tie) West Virginia ... 64.2
Bucknell ... 64.2

No Offense, but ...
Sure, Iowa, with point guard Jeff Horner (right), can shut down opponents, butwhen the Hawkeyes need a basket, their efficiency breaks down. They don't shootstraight, crash the offensive boards or protect the ball very well.

"You have to get good shots every time," saysCalipari. "That's the goal: BE EFFICIENT."

Up-tempo Bradley, George Washington and Oral Robertsmay be UPSET PICKS.

Balanced Texas, Duke and UConn best fit the profile ofPOTENTIAL CHAMPIONS

PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson PEAKPERFORMERS The numbers suggest that Denham Brown (33) and UConn, whichmaximizes its offensive opportunities, are Final Four-bound. EIGHT PHOTOSRICH FRISHMAN (MORRISON); BOB ROSATO (SMITH, REDICK); DARREN CARROLL (BARNES); DAVID E. KLUTHO (HORNER); SCOTT K. BROWN (GOLDSBERRY); RONEN ZILBERMAN/AP (LEE); CARL AUER/ICON SMI (TUTT) PHOTOBOB ROSATOQUICK PICK-ME-UP With the callow but gifted Hansbrough (front) leading the way, the Tar Heels increased their tempo this season. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (KANSAS)IN THE ZONE Mario Chalmers (15) and C.J. Giles (33) keyed the Jayhawks' proficient defense, which got better down the stretch. PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON (COOK)SLOW BUT SURE Ashanti Cook and the Hoyas prefer a plodding pace, which they used to deal Duke one of its three defeats. PHOTOGREG NELSONHORNS OF PLENTY Kenton Paulino and Texas handled each possession with care.
PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERAMAZING PACE Speedsters like Andre Allen drive the Tigers' motion offense.

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