The Final Four is set and there’s going to be a lot of talk about teams playing to “their style” during the semifinals and finals in order to take home a title in North Texas. What exactly does that mean? I recently built a parser to go through the play-by-play on NCAA.org and analyze efficiency during possessions of different lengths. Here’s what I found for the four teams that are left standing.
First, here’s a look at each team’s offensive efficiency, in terms of points per possession, when a possession lasts a certain length. Most people consider the fewer than seven seconds bucket “transition” and the 8 to 14-second bucket “secondary transition,” but in this case it just means that the possession ended within that amount of time.
One of the things I found most surprising is how good Wisconsin’s offense is in transition. The Badgers don’t run often – more on that in a minute – but when they do they’re absolutely deadly. In possessions taking fewer than seven seconds Bo Ryan’s team has scored 1.31 points per possession this season. Much less surprising is that Wisconsin is the best team in the middle portion of possession length. The swing offense is moving teams around and right in the 15 to 28-second range seems to be the sweet spot in the half court.
Except during much longer possessions it’s Kentucky that’s the most efficient on offense. Why? The Wildcats are excellent at offensive rebounding. Because this analysis is looking at “possession length” and not “time left on the shot clock,” offensive boards have the effect of making possessions much longer. Kentucky has grabbed 43% of its misses this season and leads the nation in that category. Those offensive rebounds often prove fruitful, because unlike most teams that struggle later in the shot clock, the Wildcats actually perform better than average. All the other three teams are much worse when possessions drag on. UConn for instance has scored just 0.90 points per possession in trips lasting longer than 35 seconds.
The element of surprise could also be working in Wisconsin’s favor in transition. Among the Final Four teams no team ran less than the Badgers. Just 32% of Wisconsin’s possessions this season have taken fewer than 14 seconds. Compare that to Kentucky (45%), Florida (42%), and UConn (40%), and you can see that while the Badgers might’ve upped their tempo to 287th in the nation, they’re definitely not VMI.
What is interesting though is that the other three teams in the Final Four all play at relatively similar tempos in terms of how long it takes for a possession to end. When pundits are talking about a difference in style, they’re really talking about how Kentucky will deal with Wisconsin on Saturday night.