Why pace matters in college hoops

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

December 7, 2021 08:59 PM

A lot of early-season questions have been answered in college basketball. But as conference play kicks into gear, adjustments will be needed.

There will be a lot more familiarity between coaches and players. While coaches are always prepping and scheming, some nonconference opponents just don’t get as much attention as others. In conference play, every game matters.

Still, there are some nonconference games left, not to mention holiday tournaments. Isolating the teams to back and those to fade can help narrow your focus during the busy holiday season, plus shed some light on indicators of positive or negative regression.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about one of my favorite college basketball topics.


There are 358 Division I teams and all of them do things differently. One of those differences is tempo. Some of my favorite handicaps are games in which you have a team that plays fast against one that plays slow. The odds can tell us a lot about those games and so can past results, particularly in conference play.

One such game Monday was NC Central vs. The Citadel. Dating to 2008, Duggar Baucom’s teams have finished in the top 10 in adjusted tempo every season, first at VMI and now at Citadel. This season, Citadel was ranked only 49th in tempo entering Monday, but that number should begin to rise.

A lot of teams who play with tempo tend to be poor defensive rebounding teams because they are always looking to charge up the floor. Most of Baucom’s teams have been underwhelming on the glass at both ends. However, his teams have also been efficient in 2P percent by scoring baskets in transition.

Longtime NC Central coach LeVelle Moton typically has teams that rank near the bottom in tempo. Some of that has to do with the plodding pace of play in the MEAC, but his teams are usually not in a hurry and pretty inefficient on the offensive end.

The total for this game was bet up from 147 to 149.5 and Citadel closed -9 after initially being bet down a bit. The side and total both suggested that Citadel would dictate the pace of the game, which pushed me toward a bet on the Bulldogs. They won by 13 in a game that actually played a bit slower than I expected.

Similarly, Delaware State and Liberty played Monday. The total went from 127.5 to 126.5 and the spread closed Liberty -23. Liberty entered the game ranked 351st in adjusted tempo by Torvik and 347th by KenPom. Delaware State, meanwhile, ranked 54th by Torvik and 138th by KenPom (I find it important to crowdsource metrics if possible).

The context clues in the line suggested a couple of things. First, Delaware State wasn’t going to score many points. Second, the game would be played at Liberty’s pace. In handicapping the game further, I saw that 49.2 percent of Liberty’s field-goal attempts were 3-pointers against Division I opponents. 

The spread was a big number with a low total, but the stage was set for Liberty to jar a bunch of 3s and win by margin. And the Flames did, winning by 36. It was an outlier performance, though, as Liberty had 1.517 points per possession thanks to shooting 21-for-38 from 3.

You can find a lot of correlations with this kind of analysis. If you think about a game with limited possessions or a lot of possessions, you can look at efficiency metrics or rebounding numbers in a different light. A good, but slow, offensive rebounding team may be able to take the air out of the ball or get second-chance points against a fast team that doesn’t rebound misses.

You’ll still end up falling victim to shooting variance or free-throw shooting, but if you can analyze the variables and think about how the game is mostly likely to play out, you can find some edges.


Let’s start with the glass half-full this week. Sample sizes are increasing and more data points will help with the adjusted metrics from sites such as Torvik’s and Pomeroy’s (stats as of Tuesday morning unless noted).

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane have not had much luck on the defensive end. While Tulsa has turned opponents over on 24.1 percent of possessions, which ranked in the top 25 in the nation entering Monday night, opponents had a 55.6 percent eFG percent, which ranked 328th.

Tulsa has forced teams to shoot from outside, but opponents have made 36.4 percent of 3s and 56.6 percent of 2s. Tulsa doesn’t seem to have a ton of rim protection, but ranking 335th in 2P percent defense is unlikely to continue. In seven previous seasons under Frank Haith, the Golden Hurricane have finished in the top 100 in 2P percent defense five times and were never outside the top 130.

Haith will get it figured out. Tulsa takes good care of the basketball and shoots at an above-average rate. The AAC looks feisty this season, but the Golden Hurricane should be able to cover some numbers in dog roles.

Montana: One of the hallmarks of my regression analysis handicapping style is to look for outliers. For that, I present the Grizzlies. Division I opponents are shooting 48.8 percent on 3s against Travis DeCuire’s team, which puts the Grizzlies at 358th out of 358 in 3P percent. Opponents are shooting only 46.8 percent on 2-point shots.

Montana actively forces teams off of the 3-point line, as its 3-point rate ranks in the top 40. Unfortunately, opponents have hit those 3s at an insane rate. Montana is also on the slower end of the spectrum in pace, so they should start to tilt toward the Under as that 3P percent defense experiences some positive regression. 

The Big Sky ranks in the middle of the pack as a conference in 3P percent, which should help Montana’s defensive numbers as league play fires up.


Clemson: The Tigers are 5-0 against teams ranked outside of Torvik’s top 100 and 0-4 against teams inside the top 100. The Tigers have only three teams left on the schedule projected to be outside of the top 100: Miami (Ohio), South Carolina and Pitt.

Clemson is shooting 41.8 percent from 3 this season, but filter that to top-100 opponents and its success rate drops to 35.5 percent. Furthermore, top-100 opponents have made 42.5 percent of their 3s. A lot of metrics sites are pretty high on Clemson and a lot of the Tigers’ upcoming games have toss-up spreads, but I don’t see many indicators that the Tigers are on that level.

Creighton: We’ve known the Bluejays to be a team that shoots a ton of 3s, but that has not been the case this season, as their 3-point rate ranks 270th. 

Creighton has not had a hard schedule so far, playing a bunch of teams in which getting to the rim was pretty easy. Upcoming opponents such as BYU and Arizona State will present a different challenge before conference play begins.

The Bluejays are just outside the top 10 in 2P percent and have been more efficient than expected at the rim, due in large part to the caliber of opponent. Their 2P percent defense is also ranked on the high side relative to what we’ve seen from other Greg McDermott teams. I’m guessing that as the schedule ramps up, Creighton falls off a bit.

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