Or, How we are becomming a team less likely to repeat the first round exits of the past two seasons.
While the estimated pace for the Alabama game was around 68 possessions (and up until the final four minutes we were probably on a 64 possession game), this represents the fastest game we’ve been involved with since SEC play started. While CKS has stated (and in previous seasons exhibited) a desire to push the tempo with this particular group of players, we’ve seen a pattern of teams being able to force us to play at a slower tempo than we would like, in part to take away Jeff Taylor and John Jenkins’ ability to finish on the break.
Last season this resulted in disaster – especially as the season wore on. The final 10 games we played at a tempo of 65 possessions (67 possessions in a game is the DI average) or less we gave up the following PPP on defense (starting with the Arkansas game): 1.39, 0.97, 0.94, 1.21, 1.19, 0.96, 1.04, 1.26, 1.19 and finally 1.28 PPP to Richmond in a plodding 54 possession game.
There were several reasons for the defensive ineptitude, but when it came down to it, patient teams were generally able to exploit our perimeter defense and post defense off the bench. It didn’t help that opponents were almost guaranteed to get a shot off (we were horrible at forcing turnovers) and had a better than average chance of rebounding their misses, but the main problem was we gave up way too many open looks when forced to defend over an extended period of time.
This season teams have continued to attempt to exploit this weakness, as we’ve already played 6 games below 65 possessions compared to just one game at the same point last season. As an aside, this is a solid strategy for a team that is overmatched talent wise – by reducing the number of possessions, there are fewer opportunities for the opponent to take advantage of their superiority, and it increases the impact of every made basket, especially threes (see the Miami game). However, there has been a marked difference in the success thus far of this strategy as the results have been as follows in defensive PPP (the games have been Bucknell, Louisville, Miami, Auburn, USC, and UGA): 1.05, 0.91, 1.03, 0.60, 1.04, and 1.07. The defense has also improved greatly overall, as the worst performance was in giving up 1.12 PPP against Davidson.
I would suggest this is important due to the recent trend of NCAA tournament games being played at a Big-10 like pace – of the final 4 teams only VCU played more than a single tournament game faster than 63 possessions and only 2 of those 20 combined contests were played at a pace faster than the average regular season pace. I don’t see anything to suggest that this will change – as we get closer to the tournament, we will have to show the ability to play defense for the full 35 second shot clock and be able to rebound any misses our defense creates. Thus far we have shown a greatly increased ability to do both, which was a trait common to Butler, UConn and UK. To be sure our past performance doesn’t guaranteed future success, and it is also true that the schedule does get more difficult. But there is only one team left on our schedule who will be significantly more difficult than Bama or Marquette on the road – UK.
For those who are curious, our offense actually was more than fine in these slower paced games. In only the first Florida matchup did we fail to score more than 1.00 PPP and in six of the 10 games we managed to score more than 1.2 PPP (and managed to only go 4-2 in those games). In fact, the only losses where we really struggled to score were against UT (both times) and at UF. This season our losses have fallen mainly on the offense, as we’ve only broken 0.9 PPP on offense in the Louisville loss, where we managed 0.91 PPP. Given CKS’ track record in being able to produce efficient offenses, this is probably an indication that we can place our early season woes on something that is very correctible within the season, especially given how important Festus is to our offense.