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March 15, 2012
The Speed of Might
Kentucky's Slow Pace

by John Gasaway


Today Kentucky will start what everyone expects to be a lengthy NCAA tournament run as the field of 68's overall No. 1 seed. When a team as strong as the Wildcats plays its first couple tournament games, there are certain customs to be observed in the resulting discussion.

For example you will doubtless hear it said countless times that Wildcat opponents like Western Kentucky and, I am bold enough to presume, either Connecticut or Iowa State will have to "control the pace." The lower seed, it will be said "doesn't want to get in a running game" with UK. The opponent facing John Calipari's juggernaut will likely be told by people wearing headsets that they should "slow the game down" and make it a "half-court" contest.

I don't suppose any piece of advice is going to turn you into a favorite instantly when you're facing an opponent that's 32-2, and, who knows, maybe these young Wildcats really would start to get nervous if a team slowed the tempo way down. (Hey, it almost worked for Princeton against UK in the round of 64 last year.) But there's an important piece of context you should keep in mind these next few days. If you're looking for a team that truly excels at a slow tempo, look no further than these Kentucky Wildcats.

Last week I pointed out that Kentucky's SEC games this season, at 62.1 possessions per 40 minutes, were actually slower-paced by a hair than an average Big Ten game. My observation was picked up by John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader, whereupon I subsequently heard from a number of helpful Wildcat fans who endeavored to suggest cheerfully that I might possibly be ever so slightly mistaken:

You are a complete idiot if you think Kentucky plays basketball at a slow pace. Please remove yourself from a position of being able to post such garbage.

The fact that you're reading this sentence right now means, yes, I did decide to remain in my position. My reasoning was as follows: Kentucky really did average 62 possessions per game in conference play, and, frankly, I'm unclear as to why that idea is so appalling to a few UK fans. Their team went 16-0 at that speed. Speaking only for myself, I will state for the record that my team can average 50 possessions a game or 38, for all I care, if it will enable them to go undefeated in conference play.

Is Kentucky's pace the result of overmatched opponents trying to slow them down? To a certain extent, of course. But the Cats aren't the first dominant team we've ever seen. In recent years eventual national champions like Kansas (2008), North Carolina (2009), and Duke (2010) have also posted conference seasons where they were far and way the best team in their league. Their opponents were more or less as overmatched as Kentucky's were this year, yet those eventual national champions somehow emerged from conference play with higher per-game averages for possessions played.

I think we should entertain the novel possibility that Calipari actually found some benefit in his team playing at more or less the pace we saw from them this season. And who can argue with him? Look at where this team is.

So what's an opponent in the field of 68 to do against a deliberate and devastating Kentucky team? One answer would be simply don't worry about tempo. Once you reach the brackets, the pace of play is rarely a central concern. (Thank you, shot clock!) NCAA tournament games average out to be slightly slower than regular-season major conference games, with an emphasis on the "slightly." In each of the past two tournaments, the pace has been one possession slower than what we see from the big schools in conference play, a difference that's invisible to the naked eye. (At least this naked eye.)

To be sure, there can be tempo outliers, even in March. Last year in the round of 64, North Carolina and LIU Brooklyn played a 94-possession (!) game. At the opposite end of that spectrum the 2010 national semifinal between Duke and West Virginia was exceptionally slow, at just 54 possessions. (Did you notice? Did anyone? Not really. The Blue Devils scored an incredible 78 points in that game.) But for the most part the NCAA tournament imposes its stylistic will on the participants at least as much as those entrants impose theirs on the tournament. Year after year the games will reliably yield a number somewhere in the lower- to mid-60s for possessions played. Maybe it's that uniform color scheme the NCAA adopted for the court a few years back.

In short, I don't think we'll see a series of games where each successive opponent tries to slow Kentucky down dramatically -- and I even doubt the wisdom of such a strategy to begin with. Take Iowa State. Let's say just for the sake of discussion they beat Connecticut and proceed to the round of 32 to face the Wildcats. You may not have noticed, but the Cyclones this season were a rather fast-paced, and definitely perimeter-oriented, team. They had their best season in years playing that style, and now you're going to tell them they have to hit the brakes?

I have a better idea. Tell the Cyclones to play the way that got them here. Look for transition threes. Would you rather try to score on Anthony Davis and four other UK players who are dug in and ready? Or would you rather two of your players take their best shot in transition against, say, Marquis Teague? If I'm a coach facing Kentucky, the player that Davis is guarding is going to find himself setting a lot of screens for me at the top of the key, and my team is going to take every fast-break opportunity they can find.

My team will still very likely lose, of course. But we'll at least have given it our best shot. I say teams facing Kentucky should "control the pace," alright. Speed it up, and see what happens.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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