Through seven games of the 2017 season Wake Forest basketball is playing much slower relative to its NCAA Division I peers than it has in the previous three years under Danny Manning.
While it is clearly a small sample size through seven games, we are starting to get to the point where it could be more than just noise and perhaps a strategic move from head coach Danny Manning and the staff based on the personnel and makeup of the team.
First of all let’s take a look at how possessions are measured and how fast Wake Forest has been playing under Manning so far.
Ken Pomeroy (our friend again) measures possessions in every single Division I game. He categorizes it as “Tempo” and it is defined as “the number of possessions per 40 minutes). The formula, from 2004 at least, is:
Possessions = FGA-OR+TO+.475*FTA
The .475 multiplier estimates how many free throw attempts equal one possession, as Pomeroy points out, John Hollinger uses .44, Dean Oliver uses .40, while Pomeroy has realized .475 is probably the best multiplier to date for college basketball.
This formula is applied to each team in a game and the average is the tempo for the game. Therefore in every game both teams will have the same number of possessions. This is the basis for pretty much everything KenPom does because his statistics are pace adjusted. For today we are solely focusing on the number of possessions.
The number of possessions is adjusted by KenPom as well to adjust for scheduling (obviously if an average tempo team plays 10 slow teams in row their tempo will go down), but he has raw and adjusted numbers in his rankings. For the sake of this article we will look at “adjusted tempo” rankings.
Pomeroy pontificates a bit more in his article, which can be read here.
As with any other stat on KenPom, the teams are ranked from 1st to 351st. In “Tempo”, the fastest team is ranked 1st in the country, while the slowest team is ranked 351st. There is no “good” or “bad” with this stat, as different teams play at different paces.
Usually your eye-test of a team can tell you whether a team plays fast or not. Anybody who knows anything about the ACC knows that Virginia under Tony Bennett plays very slow, while North Carolina under Roy Williams plays very fast.
The tempo stats back that up over the past few years, including this year, where UNC is ranked 20th nationally at 74.5 possessions per game, while UVA is ranked dead last at 62.3 possessions per game.
This means what it looks like. In any given game UVA averages 62 possessions per game, while UNC averages 74 possessions per game.
Generally tempo does not change under a coach unless if something strange happens. Williams likes to play fast and will almost always play fast, while Bennett likes to play slow and will almost always play slow.
This is important and the basis of the article because Wake Forest is deviating a good bit in the fourth year under Danny Manning.
Here is a look at the first three seasons under Manning:
2015- 68.0 (26th nationally)
2016- 71.4 (45th)
2017- 70.7 (57th)
First of all, you will notice that college basketball has gotten faster over the past few years, primarily due to the 30 second shot clock change. This causes more possessions.
So far in 2018 Wake Forest is averaging 69 possessions per game, which at face value doesn’t seem all that slow compared to the other numbers of years past, but that ranks 252nd nationally, which is the biggest thing to look at here.
Wake has played some slow teams so far this season, and the average is 217th, which is in the 38th percentile (assuming the 100th percentile is the fastest team). Here is a look at the tempo ranking nationally for all of Wake’s opponents:
Georgia Southern - 182nd
Liberty - 335th
Drake - 267th
Quinnipiac - 163rd
Houston - 264th
UNC-Greensboro - 276th
Illinois - 34th
This certainly can cause for slower games, especially if teams are successful at getting Wake (assuming it is looking to play quickly) out of it’s style of play. We have seen a good bit of that with half court presses, aggressive defenses, and zones to try to limit Doral Moore inside.
There are a few different things that I can think of off the top of my head to possibly explain why Wake Forest would be playing slower without intent to do so necessarily.
1. Turning the ball over/transition baskets
The Deacs aren’t good at forcing turnovers, so that doesn’t really lend itself to transition baskets and easy points, so that could help explain some of the slower tempo. On the flip side, Wake is slightly below average at protecting the ball, which would lead to more possessions over time. These effectively cancel out.
2. Bad offense or a bad defense that causes stalled possessions
Wake has an above average offense, especially when it comes to hitting the three-ball, but the average possession length on offense is 17.3 seconds, which ranks 203rd nationally. We all know that Wake has a bad defense, but somehow the average possession length defensively is 18.1 seconds, which ranks 318th nationally. On an aside, this usually would mean Wake has a decent defense because it is causing opponents to take a long time to shoot and score the ball, unfortunately I believe a big reason for Wake’s defensive APL is related to opponent’s offensive rebounding, which is point number three.
3. Really good or really bad at rebounding which causes the ball to stay in one half of the court
Wake is really bad at defensive rebounding, ranking 316th nationally at changing the possession. This is the primary cause for why the opponent usually has the ball for so long, which, compounded with what we pointed out above about a few teams on Wake’s schedule wanting to slow things down, would reduce the number of possessions over time. Wake is slightly above average at offensive rebounding, which also limits possessions since a new possession is not established with an offensive rebound. This also slows down possessions.
These are all things that could possibly be slowing Wake down so far that is schedule-based as opposed to something Manning is consciously doing.
Let’s say for a second that Manning and the staff are intentionally trying to slow the pace down this season. What are some factors that would contribute to that?
Lack of a bench? Well, Wake ranks 88th in bench minutes
Protecting big men who don’t run well? Perhaps, especially with Doral Moore
Trying to limit transition buckets as a whole? Possibly, but Wake is a guard heavy team that should naturally be able to get back after made baskets and turnovers, especially since they aren’t grabbing any offensive rebounds or defending the perimeter well.
These are all possibilities, but they don’t necessarily apply to Wake all that well.
None of these seem to point to concrete reasons that Manning would look at the roster or what he has seen at practice and say “I want to slow drastically slow down the pace of play to benefit Wake Forest in XXX way.”
Overall I don’t really have an answer as to why Wake is in the 28th percentile in tempo through seven games, especially when the past three years the slowest it has been is in the 84th percentile.
This is certainly something that will be worth keeping an eye on as the season moves along because while it is still early, it is very rare for a head coach to completely change the pace that a team plays at unless there is a drastic change in the roster.
While Wake lost Collins, Mitoglou, and Arians after last season, if anything that would cause Wake to want to play faster, not slower, because the guys on the court now are, in theory, able to get up and down the court faster since it is a guard heavy lineup.
There are a lot of questions left on this one and just another thing to file in the bank along with three-point defense as some oddities thus far for the Wake Forest basketball team in 2017.