Butler coach Brad Stevens is known for his attention-to-detail. During Butler’s two-year run to the championship game, Stevens’ ability to diagram late-game sets, predicting the movement and placement of every player on the court, made him a coaching savant.
So it may come as a surprise that there is one area of the game that Stevens ignored: tempo.
“Never talked about it one time,” he said. “No influence on how we prepared or what we talked about in a game.”
That somewhat crushes what has become an accepted belief in the eyes of college hoops’ fans. The assumption is that the way for a mid-major to knock off a Goliath is to slow the game down. By reducing the number of possessions, David has a chance.
“You kind of get this reputation of a slower-paced team, but really we just wanted to be hard to score on,” Stevens said. “From an offensive point of view, we wanted to take the best shot. If we could get it in transition, great. If we could get it in secondary transition, great. If we had to use clock to get it, great. But we never once said ‘slow it down.’ It completely goes against what people would think.”
The women play with a 30-second shot. International basketball and the NBA play with a 24-second clock. Is it time to shorten the 35-second clock?
Myth: More possessions benefit the giants
This is what Stevens finds difficult to believe, the fact that it’s conducive for the less-talented to drag the game to a standstill and the uber-talented teams to speed it up. At one time before the shot clock, maybe this was true. Villanova could stall and take only 10 shots in the second half of the 1985 national championship game to knock off Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. But if this were truly the case today, wouldn’t the teams that play the fastest pace year in and year out be the NBA factories of Kentucky, UCLA, Duke, Connecticut, Kansas and North Carolina?
Only one of those schools (North Carolina) routinely plays at a pace faster than the norm. Tempo, in fact, is hardly a predicator of future success. The plodders and the tempo-pushers have had close to equal success. In the last 10 years, 66 of the teams that rank in the top 30 for fastest tempo each season have made the NCAA tournament, and 57 of the slowest 30 have made the tourney. On both sides of the extreme are mid-majors and majors.
Efficiency takes time
In 2010 during Butler’s first run to the title game, the Bulldogs forced all six of their opponents to play a slower pace than their average that season. The conclusion that most would come to as the reason for this was that Butler took the air out of the ball offensively. A look at Butler’s average possessions on both ends during the tournament debunks that myth. It was actually Butler’s opponents that took longer to end a possession.
“We played a bunch of teams that liked to get out and run; we just got back,” Stevens said. “I think that’s what you have to do. I sometimes get a chuckle out of the pace of play discussion because if you want to be a really good defensive team, you better be able to stop people for more than 10 seconds. It’s probably more dictated by your defensive ability than necessarily your offensive desire.”
That flips conventional thinking, but it makes sense. Efficiency takes time. Out of the 20-most efficient offenses in the country last year, only two ranked in the top 20 in tempo (North Carolina and Iona). Out of the top 20 most-efficient defensive teams, only North Carolina ranked in the top 20 in tempo.
The other way to look at it is that the more efficient you are on both ends, the more that it makes sense to squeeze in as many possessions as possible.
That’s the line of thinking for Roy Williams at North Carolina. Anyone who watches the Tar Heels knows it’s obvious that they speed up the game. Williams wants his team to run off everything, including makes, and his teams consistently play fast. That is Williams’ system, and it’s not an easy one to duplicate or more top programs would.
The only other BCS school that was in the top 20 in tempo and made the NCAA tournament last year was Marquette. The Golden Eagles averaged four more possessions last year than the year before and almost eight possessions more than in 2010.
“Coach (Buzz) Williams wants to play really fast,” Marquette assistant Brad Autry said. “He likes that style. He likes that type of player. It fits his personality. It fits our personality both in recruiting and in our staff and in our players. We want to be really aggressive, and with being really aggressive comes a really fast tempo most of the time. We feel like the best opportunity to score is one that happens very quickly.”
Autry said Marquette’s approach has been to recruit smaller, quick players because it’s easier to find talent that way than trying to bring in traditional big men.
Two programs that play a more traditional style and are able to recruit big men are Kansas and Kentucky. I asked Ken Pomeroy to send me the average length of possession during the tournament for both schools to try to figure out why the two programs with the most wins in the history of college basketball don’t play faster — both were within a possession of the national average last year.
As Pomeroy pointed out, Kentucky played most of the tournament in the lead and every single opponent played faster than the natural average, so that explains the shorter defensive possessions. Coach John Calipari has also had success by convincing the top recruits in the country to play a team concept, which is why the Wildcats are not the type to simply take the first shot available.
For KU’s run to the title game, the Jayhawks trailed in the second half of every game except for their first round win over Detroit, so they had more urgency on offense. They also had the fourth-best defense in the country, one that blocked a lot of shots but did not force a lot of turnovers, which would explain the longer defensive possessions.
Would reducing the shot clock impact the quality of play?
In the last 25 years, scoring reached its peak in 1991. The shot clock went from 45 seconds to 35 seconds in 1994, and that year scoring went up slightly more than a point, but it has steadily decreased since.
Stevens also believes the shot clock is not the issue, and even hypothesizes that scoring in the NBA would go up if they increased the shot clock.
“I know it sounds crazy, but the hardest thing I think to guard is all the way through a possession,” he said. “Obviously, if you’ve got a team that can do that, that’s great. You’ve got a really tough-minded group. Most teams can’t, and that’s a hard thing to get to.”
The concern for Stevens and most coaches when they are asked about shortening the clock is more isolation basketball in the college game.
“The more time you have, you can not only score on quick-hitters in transition, you can also get excellent looks from ball movement and player movement, multiple reversals across the court,” Stevens said.
Some teams that could suffer are those that run a lot of motion or a pass-heavy offense like the Princeton offense, such as Georgetown. Former Princeton coach Pete Carrill, however, proved such an offense can work with a much shorter clock when he installed a version of his offense as an assistant in Sacramento from 1996 to 2006. From 1999 through 2005, the Kings led the NBA in scoring three times and ranked in the top three every season.
Many college programs experience a 24-second clock during trips overseas in the summer months. Before a trip to Europe this summer, Kansas coach Bill Self preached to his guards to get the ball up the court faster so they would have more time to run their offense, which often involves several ball-reversals.
Stevens said he changes his offense entirely when they play overseas with a 24-second shot.
“We play in our breakdown,” he said. “We play in our ball-screen stuff. We don’t put in any sets. We don’t do any of that stuff. We go straight to our movement. In transition we flow right into it. Eleven seconds is a lot of time that you’re taking off of a potential possession. It’s the way I’d like to play more times than not but I think you have to be diverse in the way you play, so that people have to be diverse in preparing for you.”
Stevens, who coaches a patient offense, said reducing the clock to 30 seconds wouldn’t affect his team at all.
“I’d say a majority of our shots come well before that time,” he said. “The 24-second shot clock is a different animal altogether, but the 30-second I think there’s enough time to feel a secondary break go into action or go into multiple reversals and getting something done. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it wouldn’t change the game drastically if you did that, but I do think you end up more isolated earlier. With the thought that the best college players are leaving after one or two years, are college players going to really thrive in that situation? I don’t think that would be the case.”
Change is coming.
Last month Curtis Shaw explained some rule changes at Big 12 media day that suggest college basketball is at least taking one step to help the offense. Last year, the NCAA put the semi-circle in the lane so the defense could no longer take charges underneath the basket. Shaw said the officials still were calling too many charges when the defense was not set so long as the defender was outside the circle. This year he said they would favor the offense more on those calls.
It’s doubtful that small change will help scoring — or whether officials will actually change how they call the block-charge — but it is proof that the NCAA realizes they need to help the offense.
In a few years, the shot clock will likely be the next idea that helps get scoring ticking upward. Until then, it will continue to be a barstool argument. It’s tough to say it would improve the product or impact how some teams performed. Coaches, like they do on overseas trips, would adapt.
Some point to that Penn State-Wisconsin throwback game from two seasons ago as an argument to make the switch. The game featured two of the slowest-paced teams in the nation, and that was one reason for the low score. But the main reason was both teams shot a putrid percentage. It was the least efficient offensive game of the season for both teams. A shorter shot clock would have led to more chances to score, but it also would have led to more bricks.
Is that better?
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