Recently I have been yelling at the top of my lungs that it wasn’t UVA’s “style” that doomed it to be the 1st 1 seed ever to lose to a 16. It is an unpopular opinion. From that stance I began to wonder what people even mean by style and if in fact anyone left in major college hoops has one that is really all that different from anybody else’s.
Combine that question with my already formed hypothesis that the shot clock homogenizes the game, and I was left yearning for actual numbers. So I found some.
First, the theory has it that UVA plays so slow that it is its own unique style of play and that this style of play cannot prevail in the NCAA tournament. Well, let’s see if the numbers bear this out.
On the surface, it is undeniable that UVA has under performed its regular season in the NCAA tournament. It has turned high seeds into very little having advanced to two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight in the Tony Bennett era.
But is that the whole story?
First, Bennett took over a program that was 10-18 the year before he arrived. This was no blue blood for sure. Perusing UVA history one finds spots of success sandwiched by mostly mediocrity. Second, one doesn’t have to look far (Coach K, Dean Smith, John Wooden) to find coaches who also failed to have immediate tournament success.
But past basic anecdote, does UVA play a significantly different style than most, and does that style preclude them from tournament success?
Let’s start with PPG. This year the leader in PPG was Villanova at 87. Lowest was around 60. UVA was toward the bottom at around 67 a night. Statistically does UVA play slower than most? Yes. But simply glancing back around 20 years one will find these disparities were much greater. In the 1997-1998 year TCU led the nation in scoring at 97 PPG. The lowest number was around 56. So, in the 30 second shot clock era, the lowest PPG team is about 4 points higher than it was 20 years ago. But the highest is 10 points less. The variation has shrunk from 41 PPG to 27.
Past PPG, let’s look at possessions per game. In this UVA was dead last out of 351 teams with 62.1 possessions per game. So perhaps running teams were in fact more successful in this year’s tournament. Except they weren’t.
The fastest paced team left in the field is Leonard Hamilton’s FSU squad. They ranked 36th with 74.9 possessions. No one else left in the field cracked the top 100. Duke was 102nd at 72.9 possessions.Texas Tech ranked 223rd with 70.4 possessions. They begin a list of 7 out of the Sweet Sixteen who ranked well toward the bottom. The slowest paced team left? Loyola-Chicago who finished 340th with 66.6 possessions.
Here is the complete list: (from teamrankings.com)
FSU 36 74.9
Duke 102 72.9
Nevada 113 72.7
Texas A&M 130 72.4
Villanova 131 72.4
Gonzaga 138 72.3
West Virginia 142 72.2
Kansas 168 71.6
UK 170 71.6
Texas Tech 223 70.4
Purdue 253 69.8
Clemson 275 69.3
Kansas St. 318 68.2
Michigan 331 67.3
Syracuse 336 67.0
Loyola-Chicago 340 66.6
Two things that strike me:
- Playing fast compared to the rest of NCAA seems to be a worse style than playing slow. Only 1 of the top 100 teams based on possessions is still alive. Meanwhile a number of teams who play about as slow as Virginia are still alive.
- Nobody really plays all that faster or slower than anybody else. Teams used to, but with a 30 second clock, not anymore. Look at the range even from FSU to Loyola. We are talking about 8 possessions per game. 8. That includes everybody ranked 36th through 340th in the DI.
So, we can guess from this that UVA’s style is likely not the problem. First, UVA hasn’t been in the tournament enough times to dismiss small sample size. Second, slower paced teams seem to be doing just fine and statistically better than faster paced teams. (Villanova, Duke etc. don’t necessarily play faster, but rather are more skilled and execute better. i.e, they are more efficient.) Third, Nobody really plays all that differently from anyone else. And as we continue to shrink the shot clock, that loss of style will continue. We will have went from a league that was more Baskin-Robbins to one that is one size fits all.
Anecdotally, CBB used to be the place for different styles the way CFB still is. In a college football game we may watch one team trying to get a ton of snaps versus one who wants to milk the play clock. We may see someone run the spread versus someone running the wishbone. In CBB we used to have Pete Carrill and also Paul Westphal or Billy Tubbs. We had Dean Smith winning with 4 corners and Nolan winning with 40 minutes of hell. Those were styles. Real ones.
Today we have most everyone playing man in the half and most everyone running NBA ball screen actions from various locations with occasional transition opportunities mixed in. This is true of Kentucky, Villanova, Duke and even UVA. The last of the Mohicans is likely residing in upstate New York. His team plays zone and plays slow. And they are still playing.
But past that, any talk of different styles is mostly myth. Like the dinosaur, they don’t exist anymore.