ACC teams slowing things down to find success
Posted January 23
The numbers are compelling. Clemson is No. 351 (that’s last in the country); Miami is No. 349; Syracuse ranks No. 346; Virginia falls in at No. 342; Pittsburgh sits at No. 330.
In fact, 11 of the ACC’s 15 schools rank in the lower-half of the NCAA’s Division-I teams in possessions per game, the ultimate statistic for measuring pace of play. Only Maryland, UNC, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest rank among the nation’s top 175 “up-tempo” teams.
Surprisingly Duke, which likes to run, averages just 68 possessions per game, putting them No. 185 in the country. The Blue Devils, however, are still averaging 80-plus points per game because they are scoring a phenomenal 1.2 points per possession.
My purpose here is not to cast aspersions on teams that prefer a deliberate style. Far from it. I’ve seen many compelling basketball games with scores in the 50’s and 60’s, just as I’ve seen sloppy games in the 70’s and 80’s. My point is, that this season ACC teams as a whole are playing more deliberately, in part because that’s how newcomers Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame play.
For teams that like to play faster, adjusting to these slower half court-oriented opponents can be a challenge. State, Duke, and North Carolina, three schools which historically like the up-tempo game, have had their difficulties adapting.
What’s It Like to Play a Slower Paced Team?
Think about it. You are a team that likes to get up and down the court and now you are playing an opponent that wants to run its offense deep into the shot clock. You can defend for 15 seconds, but can you defend for 25? Or 30?
Often the longer a possession runs, the more likely we are to see a defensive mistake. So the opponent runs 30 seconds off the clock, and scores. Then how do you respond? You want to play fast. What do you do on offense? Do you put up a quick shot to try and establish your tempo? What if the opportunity runs empty? Then the other guys will grab the rebound and make you play defense for another 30-35 seconds.
What’s that you say? When they miss, you can grab the rebound and get your fast break going? Wrong. Teams like Virginia usually only send two or at most three guys to the offensive glass. They’ll always have at least two defenders back to make sure you DON’T get your running game going.
As the game goes along, the “three f’s” often appear -- fatigue, frustration and fouling. It takes patience and discipline to play against this slower style. When a team plays a game with 75 or 80 possessions, the occasional bad shot or turnover can be overcome. But in the slower 60 possession games, every offensive touch is critical.
NC State was having a really good year -- and then the Pack had to play Pittsburgh. The Panthers may be the most difficult team of all to play because they have a precision half court offense, with inside-outside balance, and they have a dynamite transition game. NC State played well for a half, but Pitt grabbed control of the tempo in the second half and State lost patience on the offensive end. State did win at Notre Dame, a fairly deliberate team, but the game was played before a small crowd with few students.
State was pummeled by Virginia, a controlled-offense team, but the Wolfpack defeated Maryland, a team that ranks in the top third in possessions per game. State almost beat Wake Forest, another up-tempo team, but ironically could not stop the Wake Forest transition game, especially Cody Miller-McIntyre.
Unlike State, Duke of course, did lose at Notre Dame, No. 206 in the possession rankings (the student section was full and boisterous that day). A week later, the Blue Devils lost at Clemson, No. 351. Soon-after Mike Krzyzewski made a couple of big changes, that I believe in large part were designed to help the Blue Devils better compete with the ACC’s more deliberate styles of play.
Coach K Goes to His Bench
Former Duke star and ESPN analyst Jay Williams says Coach K has had a seven-man rotation for as long as he can remember. Not anymore. Duke is now rotating 10 and 11 players into the game. A couple of announcers have likened the Blue Devils’ new substitution pattern to a hockey line change.
Whatever, Duke is using its depth to keep fresh bodies on the court. The other change Krzyzewski has made is to turn up the heat defensively, which is more effective using 10 or 11 players rather than seven.
Duke used these changes to great effect in beating Virginia, the only loss the Cavaliers have suffered in ACC play. Granted, Duke needed a great offensive rebound by Amile Jefferson (who to me is one of the five or six most important players in the ACC right now) to allow for the possibility of Rasheed Sulaimon’s winning shot. But Duke’s defensive pressure and newfound energy on the boards kept Virginia at bay until the Cavaliers rallied late in the game. Duke then torched NC State in an up-tempo game, exploiting the Wolfpack’s defensive weaknesses, along with State’s youth and impatience on offense.
Then came the big meeting with Miami.
I actually charted Duke’s game with Miami, to see how the Blue Devils would handle a team that has tormented several ACC opponents. With Coach K again making liberal use of his bench, Duke took control of the game late in the first half and won going away.
Miami averages 61 possessions per game and Duke checks in at around 68. But thanks to tremendous offensive rebounding (remember each offensive rebound counts as a new possession) , Duke logged 73 possessions, above its average. And Miami, which had to play faster in the second half in an effort to overcome the Devils’ big lead, got 67 possessions.
So, even though Duke wasn’t able to run up and down the floor and get fast break baskets, the Devils were able to speed up the game. Duke was comfortable and Miami was not.
They Can Beat the Top Ranked Teams but not Virginia?
That brings us to North Carolina. Everyone wonders how the Tar Heels can beat Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky, and can’t beat UAB, Miami, or Virginia. I think there’s a pretty simple answer. The three big name schools are all transition teams, and Roy Williams’ team is built to play up-tempo basketball. The Tar Heels do not fare as well when they have to defend for 30-35 seconds and then score from their half court offense.
Look at the numbers. North Carolina recorded 12 fast break points against Michigan State and 14 against Kentucky. But against UAB the Tar Heels scored only two fast break points. Against Miami, the Heels got just four fast break points and just eight against the Canes. Obviously there wasn’t a lot of running up and down the floor in Charlottesville either.
Carolina has players like Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, J.P. Tokoto, and James Michael McAdoo who excel at scoring in transition, but sometimes get lost when the only offense comes in the half court. This team just looks more comfortable when the pace of the game is faster.
Roy Williams’ options for speeding up a team that wants to run the shot clock are limited. The Tar Heels have little backcourt depth, so they can’t press for long segments of the game like Duke can. As it has been well-documented, they lack perimeter shooting, which makes them easier to defend in the half court.
The Tar Heels rank among the ACC’s leaders in steals, so they can get some transition baskets that way. And the improvement of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks gives them much needed inside scoring along with McAdoo. But until someone like Leslie McDonald or Tokoto becomes a consistent outside shooting threat to ease the pressure on the top scorer, Paige, North Carolina will likely find itself in a great many close low-scoring games. Or, maybe Roy can talk the other coaches into playing faster?
UNC, by the way, averages 71.6 possessions per game -- 59th in the country.
One More Note-About Clemson
Clemson earlier this week was subjected to a beat down at Pitt of 30-plus points. Pitt’s ability to defend Clemson for the entire shot clock at one end, and then go methodically make eight of its first 11 shots at the other end called to mind Ohio State’s masterful manhandling of the Cal Bears at the Cow Palace in the 1960 Championship Game. Clemson has the No. 1 field goal percentage defense in the ACC, but the Tigers couldn’t defend Pitt.
Now Clemson comes to Chapel Hill, where the Tigers of course have never won. Think about it, these teams have played in the Old Tin Can, Woolen Gym, Carmichael Auditorium, and the Smith Center, and Carolina has won every time.
My colleague Caulton Tudor, in his recent column, has done an excellent job of recounting the Tigers’ near misses. I would like to add one more.
They Called Palming!
In 1974, Clemson trailed the Tar Heels by one with 15 seconds left. Clemson had the ball and was setting up to take the final shot. Could this be the night for the Tigers? Nope. The whistle blew. The officials called palming on Jo Jo Bethea. Game over. Palming is rarely called in the ACC, and I can still hear Tates Locke wrapping up his post game press conference that night 40 years ago, angrily yelling one word: “Palming!”
No streak lasts forever and Sunday Clemson has a solid shot of winning in Chapel Hill, if the Tigers can dictate the style of play. If Carolina can run up and down the floor as it did in November and December, Clemson has no chance. But I’m pretty sure Brad Brownell’s team will have plenty of long 30 or 35 second possessions, and dare the Tar Heels to take quick shots against the Tigers’ vaunted half court defense.