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The Case for Wake Forest Basketball to Slow Tempo Down

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Would playing slower and limiting transition basketball on offense and defense lead to a better overall product?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In an attempt to break the doldrums of the same talking points that we have discussed pretty much ad nauseum (myself included) over the past few weeks during the losing streak, I decided to take a deeper look at Wake Forest from a statistical standpoint to see if I could figure something out that could perhaps help the team this season.

When a team is 8-12 on the year there usually isn’t a magic switch to flip, and I don’t by any means claim to be somebody who could manage to flip it even if there was, but I did notice something very interesting from looking into the stats.

Some of this was prompted a bit by a tweet I saw earlier today that suggested Danny Manning is pretty good at drawing up plays out of timeouts:

While overall out of timeouts Wake is average in points per possession at .832 (37th percentile nationally), what Wake Forest is really good at are inbounds plays, also something that is usually directly attributable to set plays and the ability of the players to execute said plays.

This season Wake Forest ranks in the 99th percentile (6th nationally) in out-of-bounds plays from the end, and the 97th percentile (13th nationally) in out-of-bounds plays coming from the side. The points per possession are simply outstanding out of these sets.

This suggests to me that there are some very solid X’s and O’s being drawn up for these types of sets, and the players know how to run them very well too.

This also means that there is some sort of solid coaching going on, and the guys are buying in (at least on these plays).

Now, could some of this be sample size? Perhaps, since there have only been 89 end plays and 59 side plays these season. Since Wake is elite at both of them I tend to think that it appeals more to the fact that the staff is drawing up some really good plays for these situations.

I wrote an article earlier this season detailing how, through seven games, Wake Forest was playing much slower relative to its Division I peers than it had in the prior three years under Manning.

For the first three seasons Manning’s teams ranked: 26th, 45th, and 57th nationally in tempo (or possessions per game). Through seven games Wake Forest was ranked 252nd nationally in tempo.

While I did not have a concrete conclusion as to whether or not it was by design to do this or whether or not some of the opponents that Wake caused that to be artificially deflated, through 20 games Wake is back up to 141st in tempo nationally. Wake is also the 4th fastest team in conference play thus far.

Wake games have sped up by approximately 2 possessions per game in conference play, which isn’t a lot, but over the long haul can matter, particularly in closer games.

Writing that article and thinking about it, along with some other stats on Synergy, I noticed something else that really stuck out, and that is the difference in efficiency on both sides of the ball when Wake is playing in the half-court vs. transition.

To put it bluntly, Wake Forest is good at half court offense and very bad at transition offense. On defense, Wake Forest is below average at half court offense, but really, really bad at transition defense.*

Half Court Offense - 67th percentile

Transition Offense - 21st percentile

Half Court Defense - 36th percentile

Transition Defense - 9th percentile

What this suggests to me is that, if possible, Wake Forest should find a way to slow the game down and do everything in its power to limit transition play either way.

I will go ahead and say that I understand most people like to watch up-tempo basketball. As a whole, folks would rather watch a team that gets up and down the court than teams that slow games down and drag things out. I love watching Virginia and what they do and I enjoy watching how they frustrate opposing teams with relentless and intelligent defense.

As the coach the job is not to do what “looks good”, it’s to win basketball games, and I think slowing down the pace would help Wake Forest do that this season.

To the staff’s credit, Wake Forest already ranks 272nd in the nation in percentage of offensive transition possessions at 13.9% per game, but I think focusing even more on slowing down and not getting out into even the secondary break could help out a lot.

Some of this is because Wake is not good at all at forcing turnovers on defense so there are no “turnovers for touchdowns” as Coach Prosser would say. If Wake were more active up top, and/or had more length, then transition offense would improve by default.

Now obviously this is easier said than done, and given the way that Coach Manning likes to play historically tempo-wise I do not necessarily see it happening, but here the case for it.

It is not easy to just “play slower” for 40 minutes. To start to do so successfully Wake would need to (as well as get the players to buy in to defending for all 30 seconds and effectively communicating, plus several other things that go into having a great defense):

1. Cut out a ton of the turnovers in the back court that lead to breakouts.

2. Abandon offensive rebounding to make sure there are guys back at all times.

3. Continue to be efficient and patient in both half-court offense and half-court defense (Ok, for this one I may need to tweak it to “start being more efficient in both of those”).

These are things that a team does very well over years by establishing a culture and identity, much like Virginia has done under Tony Bennett.

I do, however, think that it is possible to take some of the lessons from a slower overall pace of play and implement it this season. Let’s take a look at each bullet point:

1. Cut down on turnovers (particularly open court ones)

It is no surprise that Wake has struggled with turnovers in the back court and that has led to a lot of easy baskets by opponents, as well as foul trouble. A lot of the turnovers that Wake has committed this season have just been senseless and mindless. By slowing the game down a bit and not playing at a breakneck speed the entire game I think this would automatically cut turnovers a good bit.

2. Get back on D instead of crashing the offensive boards

Wake Forest is the ninth best offensive rebounding team in the ACC so far in conference play, but honestly most of that is Doral Moore and to some extent Terrence Thompson. If four guys get back after a shot goes up and Doral hangs around for a second to see if he can get an offensive rebound then I don’t think this would be too hard to integrate to get back and stop fast breaks. This does require sprinting back up court instead of moving slowly for the first two steps, which Wake has not excelled in this season.

3. Continue to be, or become more efficient in half court offense and defense

As the information above indicates, Wake does reasonably well in offensive half court sets, and while it is not “good” at half court defense, it is much better there than it is when a team gets out in transition. Once again, by slowing the game down and cutting down on the transition game it would play to the strengths of the team statistically speaking.

Wake is statistically much better in half-court offense and defense than in transition, so getting more possessions to fit into something that a team is better at is not exactly rocket science.

Mitchell Wilbekin is the only player individually who is averaging over 1 point per possession in transition, and he is at 1.423 PPP, which is solid, but everybody else is average or (well) below average.

Conclusion

Once again, I don’t expect this to be a magic trick that turns the season around, and honestly I don’t know how hard or easy it would be implement it this late into the season.

Also, I am not naive enough to think that if Wake just did this then there might be some unforeseen consequences. Would the Deacs be able to continue the efficiency at the same rate in half-court offense and defense? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that based on a 20 game sample size the Deacs would much rather be in the half-court than in transition.

Some of these things mentioned above, like cutting down on turnovers, need to be done anyway, but slowing the game down and making sure the guards understand what their role in the offense is without going 150% downhill at all times would help greatly in this.

I don’t really think it is ideal to change the identity of a team 66% of the way through the season, but I also don’t see an identity for this team at all currently.

Slowing down the game to limit possessions and also substantially limit the transition game is something that would work in favor of Wake Forest given how it has played in that sector so far this season.

I also believe that it would instill a lot of the discipline and patience that is lacking in the back court right now, while keeping players out of foul trouble and preserving the energy of the big men in the game.

Hopefully this article will generate some discussion on what Wake can do better moving forward instead of harping on the same old things.

*Synergy and KenPom have different definitions for what a “possession”, so the point per possession on Synergy is much lower than what you would expect, or what KenPom has. The important thing here is how Wake Forest ranks relative to its peers in the NCAA, which is why I have used percentiles instead of the actual point per possession. If these numbers are wanted I can provide them, but didn’t want to derail the overall point of the article with an argument over why our PPP is so low on Synergy.