We hear every off-season about ‘playing faster’ but when major tempo changes occurred last season, it headed the other way. Out of the biggest tempo changes in coaches, 17 of the top 20 movers decreased their pace of play. Those top 20 coaches were the only ones who saw a pace change of more than four possessions via KenPom from 2018 to 2019.
So what happened?
Some coaches lost their second coach on the court, established point guards.
Oklahoma was a big mover at nearly seven possessions and that can almost be solely attributed to the loss of Trae Young. Without a viable replacement, Oklahoma came back to the pack. Only once dating back to 1997 did Lon Kruger top the 70.0 mark (2000 Illinois, 70.8). Kruger’s three year average since the shot clock change to 30 seconds is at 71.37 and even with a talented freshman lead guard in De’Vion Harmon, I’d expect a number right around 70 this season.
Jay Wright has fluctuated with pace throughout this career and losing Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges brought things to a halt in 2019. The offense was very much station to station while working through Phil Booth and Eric Paschall.
Mark Schmidt faced a similar dilemma at Saint Bonaventure as he lost Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. The Bonnies went from using 16.1 seconds per offensive possession to 19.3. That marked the slowest offensive team Schmidt has had since KenPom started tracking that number in 2010. With returning guards in Kyle Lofton and Dominick Welch, I’d suspect the offense to find an uptick again.
Mike White swapped out Chris Chiozza for true freshman Andrew Nembhard and the offense slowed down considerably. White’s defense brings teams to a stand-still traditionally but he did the same to his offense this past year. Florida checked in at 291st in possession length. With a returning cast and added athleticism in Scottie Lewis, it figures White will look to run again.
Some took new jobs:
I thought Richie Riley did a commendable job at South Alabama in year one but to do so he played at a much slower pace than his previous stop, Nicholls State. A 7 possession drop was significant but with a year to upgrade talent, his team should start trending towards a faster style. His second year at Nicholls State saw a team play to a pace of 73.5.
Jamion Christian didn’t have much to work with at Siena. It was Jalen Pickett ball screen after ball screen. He’s not inheriting much at GW, either. The last three years of Christian’s career have featured offenses that ranked 290th or slower. I’d expect that trend to continue for at least another season.
Others faced pressure that will likely continue into this year. Steve Masiello (Manhattan), Allen Edwards (Wyoming), Pat Skerry (Towson) and Matt Lottich (Valpo) have all hit a bit of a snag in their coaching careers and decided to slow things down. Some of that is personnel related - as Wyoming was decimated by health - but a bit of micro-managing seems to factor in here. With a future on the line, it would seem a coach may be likely to reign things in more than provide freedom to players.
Of the three coaches in the top 20 that actually decided to play faster, Mark Byington at Georgia Southern was surely influenced by a returning back-court. With Tookie Brown and Quan Jackson leading the way, Byington played to his fastest number ever at 73.2. That will likely come back a bit this year as he previously had never topped 68.9. At Central Connecticut, Donyell Marshall entered year three and totally reversed course. In 2018, the Blue Devils played to 19.3 seconds per possession (331st) and downshifted to 17.2 in 2019 (127th). Dustin Kearns at Presbyterian made a big jump from 63.4 to 67.8 but it may be hard to replace the fast pace Jim Fox played to at Appalachian State (71.6)
In total, 158 coaches played slower than the year prior. Four were identical. 106 played faster. 82 coaches were either new last season or will be this year. The great trio of Tom Crean, Lorenzo Romar and Mark Gottfried had a year off in between.
So, where might there be a shake up this year?
Five Candidates to pump the brakes in 2019-2020:
UCLA & Mick Cronin: An obvious choice as Cronin will put his culture in place. I don’t think it’s impossible that Cronin could cave as Ben Howland once did and speed things up, but I doubt it’s in year one. Cronin has never topped 64.5. A mark that low has not been seen at UCLA since Howland in 2010.
Georgia Southern & Mike Byington: Tookie Brown has exhausted his eligibility and Byington is likely to back off. Before Byington recruited Brown, his first two years at Georgia Southern resulted in pace numbers of 64.8 and 63.4 in 2014 and 2015.
Buffalo & Jim Whitesell: While it’s certainly possible that Nate Oats’ philosophy has rubbed off on Whitesell, it’s worth considering his history as a head coach. His last four years at Loyola Chicago from 2008-2011 resulted in these tempo numbers: 60.3, 63.8, 62.9 and 64.4. While that was during the downturn of pace in college basketball, all four seasons ranked 224th or slower. Paired with a loss of significant personnel, the Bulls might slow a bit.
Lipscomb & Lennie Acuff: Acuff will have the difficult task of moving up from Alabama Huntsville and taking over for the departed Casey Alexander. While Alabama Huntsville was not necessarily slow, they did only play in transition 15% of the time according to Synergy. Defensively they only allowed opponents to play in transition 12.2% of the time and Acuff deployed zone at a 20.8% clip. The average score of Alabama Huntsville’s games were 75 to 66.3. Lipscomb in 2019 was 12th nationally in tempo at 73.3. Acuff likely dials that back a bit as they fit more into the standard average in college basketball - perhaps somewhere in the 68.0 range.
FIU & Jeremy Ballard: No doubt, FIU will be plenty fast again. It’s who Ballard is. He’s young, energetic and from the Shaka Smart-VCU era coaching tree. They only know one speed (well, until you take a job at Texas). I just have a hard time envisioning Ballard matching last year’s number one spot nationally in pace at 77.6 and 14.1 seconds per possession. My position here is that a down-tick will stem from losing point guard, Brian Beard. Beard never left the floor and was the engine to an improved FIU in year one under Ballard. Fast? Yes. Fastest? Doubtful.
Five Candidates to speed it up:
Siena & Carmen Maciariello: As noted in detail here, Maciariello has no plans to be as slow this season. A talented back-court returns and even without a coaching change it’d be nearly impossible to match the 21.5 second per offensive trip they registered last season.
Kentucky & John Calipari: Hiding in plain sight here is a Kentucky team that likely has a bit of a makeover. Gone are Reid Travis and PJ Montgomery after turning the ‘Cats into a half-court, big-orientated team. In is dynamic freshman guard, Tyrese Maxey, to pair with returning guard Ashton Hagans. Calipari will move his team towards its strengths and that appears to be speed in the back-court this season. Last year’s offense was the slowest Calipari has had since 2011. I think it’s likely this team mirrors more of the 2017 group that featured three guard lineups and a tempo number of 72.
Nate Oats & Alabama: While Avery Johnson did play to a surprisingly fast pace last season (68.7), that number is sure to get bumped again this season. Oats is walking into a roster that will be forced to play small and he is already on record in believing Kira Lewis is one of the fastest players in the country. Oats’ low pace mark at Buffalo was 71.4, with the high of 73.6 coming last season. It would be shock to see the Crimson Tide at anything below 71 or 72.
UMBC & Ryan Odom: After losing KJ Maura and Jairus Lyles from the Cinderella team of 2018, Ryan Odom and UMBC slowed things down in 2019. The overall tempo dropped by 3.4 possessions last year but with returning point guard KJ Jackson and talent upgraded on the roster, the pace could trend back upward.
Leon Rice & Boise State: Leon Rice’s tempo has ebbed and flowed with personnel in any given year. Last year with senior big man, Zach Haney, that pace came in at 65.5, the lowest mark for Rice since 2015. Haney’s back-up in 6’10 center, David Wacker, also departed the program this off-season. This year with a returning perimeter of Marcus Dickinson, Alex Hobbs and Justinian Jessup to go with an athletic and versatile Derrick Alston at forward, the Broncos will operate more from the outside. A pace number trending back toward the 70 mark that Rice flirted with in 2016 & 2017 should return.