The Key to Winning the Final Four? Slow It Down
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, are you a tortoise or a hare?
By Matt Foley
Shock was the first sensation that rippled through college basketball following 16th-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s historic opening-round annihilation of No. 1 seed Virginia on March 16. Then came the rage, ridicule and discrediting of the Virginia Cavaliers. Those who watched the game couldn’t believe that this same team had dominated Atlantic Coast Conference competition all season, while those who heard the news after the fact were convinced that Virginia was a fraud. The one thing most people agreed on? Virginia’s deliberate, plodding offense plays too slow to ever make the Final Four.
Well, those critics are wrong. Yes, it’s true that Virginia employed the slowest offensive tempo in the nation this season (351st, according to KenPom, college basketball’s leading analytics site), but that wasn’t the reason for their downfall. Want proof? Just check out this year’s Final Four.
Two of the slowest-paced teams in the country made the Final Four.
That’s right, while Saturday night’s late game features two of the most potent offenses in college basketball in Villanova and Kansas, the early game between Loyola University Chicago and Michigan will be a slow-tempo chess match of epic proportions. According to KenPom, Michigan ranks 31st in the country in offensive efficiency while Loyola comes in at No. 60. Both teams average over 1 point per possession, but what truly separates these teams — and what they have in common with Virginia — is exceptional defense and an ability to control the tempo. While Virginia was the nation’s best defensive team and played the slowest pace on offense, Michigan and Loyola are not far off. When it comes to tempo, KenPom ranks Michigan 326th in the country versus Loyola’s 315th. Syracuse, which also made a surprise run to the Sweet 16, ranks 345th.
If “slow” sounds like a bad thing, it’s not. The ability to lock down defensively while controlling pace with efficient, effective offense can cripple an opponent. On Saturday, we’ll see which of college basketball’s grinders folds first.
After beating Florida State in the Elite Eight, Michigan coach John Beilein already had his next opponent in mind. “They’re not Cinderella anymore,” Beilein told reporters. “When you win 30 games, you’re not a Cinderella team, you’re really good.”
Loyola moves the ball as well as any team not called the Golden State Warriors.
Loyola may have burst on the scene as a March Madness Cinderella, but anyone familiar with the program knows that postseason success has been a long time coming. For all intents and purposes, this program is the mid-major Virginia. With five players scoring between 10.3 and 13.2 points per game, the Ramblers are incredibly balanced. They move the ball as well as any team not called the Golden State Warriors, passing up a plethora of good shots for great ones while tiring out the defense. According to Synergy Sports, 40 percent of Loyola’s jump shots come unguarded. And an onslaught of ball movement not only produces open looks, it allows Loyola to spend more time on offense and keep the ball out of the opponents’ hands.
En route to the program’s second trip to the Final Four in five years, Michigan has gone through spurts of looking like the most dangerous team in the country — particularly when their shots are falling. Currently riding a 13-game win streak after capturing the Big Ten tournament, the bigger, faster Wolverines should win Saturday’s matchup on paper.
But while dominant displays like a 99-72 Sweet 16 beat down of Texas A&M give credence to the idea that Michigan is an offensive juggernaut, that’s not always the case. While Beilein’s squad does rank 31st in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, they also like to slow it down. Beilein is an offensive mastermind, so eating up time on offense lets him devise plays for versatile big man Moritz Wagner and the talented trio of guards Charles Matthews, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson. “They run so many different things and have so many different calls within [Beilein’s] system,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after losing to Michigan in the Big Ten championship. “It’s a tough prep.”
But what makes Michigan especially dangerous this season, like Loyola and Virginia, is defense. The Wolverines’ defense ranks fourth in college basketball, according to KenPom. They’re above average at forcing turnovers (109th) and limit opponents’ opportunities exceptionally well, as evidenced by their 31st-ranked defensive rebounding percentage. So, will Michigan be the Power Five team finally able to solve the Loyola mystery? If so, they’ll be forced to bend while breaking the Ramblers. At 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency, Loyola can go blow for blow with the Wolverines.
Of course they can. After all, the best chess matches get physical.