I started writing about college basketball during the 2004-05 season, and let me tell you young people that back in my day things were different. The three-point line was a foot closer, Billy Packer still worked the Final Four, and, most notably, the Pac-10 played a really fast-paced brand of basketball. My, how times have changed….
Hitting the Brakes: Pac-10 Tempos, 2005 vs. 2009
Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of January 20
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
2005 2009 %Change
Oregon St. 71.8 56.0 -22.0
USC 72.9 59.3 -18.7
Arizona St. 71.5 58.1 -18.7
UCLA 71.9 59.0 -17.9
Arizona 73.3 61.5 -16.1
Washington 75.4 66.0 -12.5
Cal 70.7 63.0 -10.9
Washington St. 63.1 58.2 -7.8
Stanford 72.1 67.1 -6.9
Oregon 68.8 67.4 -2.0
AVERAGE 71.2 61.6 -13.5
As seen here, Oregon effectively plays at the same pace that they did in 2005 (probably a little faster, actually), they just do so now in a much slower conference. Every other team in the Pac-10, however, has slowed down over the past five seasons, from a little (Stanford) to a lot (Oregon State). When nine out of ten teams hit the brakes, the conference as a whole slows down dramatically. As a result the Pac-10 is more than 13 percent slower than it was in 2005. That's right, fans on the left coast are now seeing 13 percent less hoops in each 40 minutes of play. Time for a refund, if not a class-action suit.
This deceleration has ushered forth a state of affairs I quite literally thought I would never see. The Big Ten is no longer the slowest-paced major conference in the nation. For perhaps the first time in decades, the expression "speed up play to a Big Ten pace" is not a nonsensical phrase straight out of Lewis Carroll.
Major Conference Tempos, 2009
Conference games only, through games of January 20
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
Big 12 67.7
Big East 67.5
Big Ten 62.5
The sudden slowness of the Pac-10 was readily apparent last week, as two games failed to crack the 60-possession barrier despite the fact that both contests went to overtime. On Thursday night, Washington State prevailed 61-57 in Corvallis against Oregon State in OT, a game that consisted of just 59 possessions despite the extra five minutes. Not to be outdone, Arizona State then triumphed in overtime against UCLA 61-58 in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday. With just 56 possessions in 45 minutes, this was the slowest-paced game of the year so far in major-conference basketball and indeed one of the slowest games you will see anywhere.
Of course, slow basketball can be excellent basketball--just look at Georgetown in 2007. Led by Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, the Hoyas were the slowest-paced member of the 16-team Big East that season, yet they reached the Final Four thanks to a superbly efficient offense.
Nevertheless, the Pac-10's dramatic fall-off in pace at least raises a question: How slow is too slow? Is there a point, somewhere down there under 60 possessions, at which high-school recruits will think twice before signing up for 18 games of time-lapse hoops?
It appears the Pac-10 is about to find out. Looking at the slowest half of the league, it's likely that the new more deliberate pace is here to stay. Consider the following examples….
- UCLA. In just his second season in Westwood in 2004-05, former Pitt coach Ben Howland seemed to adopt a "when in Rome" attitude and gave his new conference's indigenous fast tempo a try. The very next year in 2005-06, however, he in effect said enough of that, and things have been notably more sedate in Pauley Pavilion ever since. Actually the Bruins' slow pace is arguably masking an interesting turnabout. Known for years as an outstanding defensive team, UCLA this year is getting it done this year primarily on offense, as the Bruins have scored 1.18 points per possession in Pac-10 play, tops in the league.
- USC. Though widely thought of as merely the destination for high-profile recruits like O.J. Mayo and DeMar DeRozan, USC is actually making something of a name for itself as a defense-first team, as seen in their impressive 61-49 win over Arizona State last week. Part of that specialty is transition D, and Tim Floyd's team is thus averaging just 59 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference. There was a time not too long ago when, with DePaul and Northwestern, Chicago was the epicenter of slow-paced basketball. UCLA and USC have now wrested that title away for Los Angeles.
- Arizona State. For years, Herb Sendek's North Carolina State teams were slower-paced than the ACC average. Now he has brought that tempo with him to Tempe, although with talent like James Harden ASU fans will happily put up with a few less possessions. This offense may be slow but it works, scoring 1.17 points per trip in-conference.
- Oregon State. Before becoming head coach of the Beavers, Craig Robinson served as an assistant at Northwestern and as head coach at Brown, two elite institutions of higher learning that also happen to be synonymous with slow-paced basketball. Little surprise, then, that Oregon State is on-track to be perhaps the slowest-paced team in major-conference hoops this season.
- Washington State. The Cougars of four or five seasons ago were the harbingers of the Pac-10's future. Under former coach Dick Bennett, WSU was slow when slow wasn't cool. Now much of the Pac-10 has been Cougar-ized.
All five teams listed here are averaging fewer than 60 possessions per 40 minutes in Pac-10 play. The slow faction within the conference therefore takes in teams at both the top and the bottom of the conference standings. It's an approach to basketball that has captured half the league and it appears to be here to stay. Suddenly, they like their hoops slow out west.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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