The ACC-Big Ten Challenge tips off tonight, and if there are two reassuring constants to every college basketball season they are as follows:
--The ACC will win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
--The Big Ten will be easily the slowest-paced major conference in the nation.
And yet hope springs eternal on both fronts. Indeed this year there's a not inconsiderable chance that neither statement will be true.
Not that the Big Ten is a sure thing to win this year's Challenge, of course. Far from it. It's just that last year the 11-game tournament proved to be a real nail-biter, with the outcome going to the ACC by a mere 6-5 margin. By the same token it looks like it could go either way in 2009, which is as good a reason as any to work up an interest in tonight's Penn State vs. Virginia contest. Should the young Nittany Lions somehow notch a road win this evening in Charlottesville against the experienced but stylistically morphing Cavaliers, it would be huge for a league that, as you may have heard, is 0-10 in this annual "Challenge" to date.
There is one thing we do know with certainty about the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at the outset, however. The Big Ten is entering this year's tourney playing at a shockingly normal pace.
Did Jim Delany send out a memo?
Major-conference tempos, November 2009
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
Through games of November 26
Big 12 70.5
Big Ten 68.9
Big East 68.7
Granted, normalcy never looks terribly earth-shattering on its surface, but consider the context here. For the Big Ten to average 69 trips per 40 minutes before Thanksgiving required a dramatic acceleration over what we saw from these 11 teams before the same holiday in 2008 (65). Indeed this is the largest such speed-up we've seen from a major conference in years.
Now, I know what you're thinking. It's only November. (At least for another few hours.) These major-conference teams are playing opponents of wildly varying quality. An unusually large share of these games are blowouts filled with garbage time, especially if Portland is playing UCLA (har!). What can really be learned from measuring the speed of games in November?
What can be learned? Plenty! (Bet you didn't see that coming.) Looking at the past three seasons we find that the pace of play before Thanksgiving has actually been a pretty trusty indicator of what we'll see in the way of tempo from these same teams during conference play. Specifically:
--The Big Ten and Pac-10 will both play a lot slower in-conference than they did before Thanksgiving.
--The Big East, Big 12, and SEC will all play a little slower in league games than they did before turkey day.
--The ACC's pace will dip slightly but remain surprisingly constant.
If the Big Ten were at long last to join the community of major conferences where speed is concerned, it would mark a seminal moment not because fast is "good" and slow is "bad," but rather because in matters of pace diversity is good and homogeneity is bad. The problem with the Big Ten's figure for "average" tempo in past years hasn't been that the number is so low as much as that it's been so magnetically popular within the conference.
By way of contrast consider the state of Washington, where the Washington Huskies have long raced along at a fast clip (last year their fast pace arguably obscured how good their defense really was) while Washington State has preferred a much more deliberate approach. The latter description may change now that Tony Bennett is no longer in residence, but in the recent past these two rivals have between them embodied far more temporal diversity than the 11 teams of the Big Ten have been able to muster.
That may be changing before our eyes. At Indiana Tom Crean seems pretty committed to getting his team to play at the speed (quick but by no means North Carolina-fast) that he had success with at Marquette. Crean's mentor Tom Izzo has long maintained to anyone who will listen that Michigan State would be delighted to play up-tempo if only the rest of the league would oblige. And even an old Gene Keady hand like Matt Painter looked surprisingly at peace last week as his Purdue team edged Tennessee while playing at a pace largely of the Volunteers' choosing. Yes, Iowa and Wisconsin will remain Iowa and Wisconsin in tempo terms until further notice. Nevertheless, recent history suggests the Big Ten's November acceleration is indicative of faster conference games to come.
Speaking of recent history, since I've gone to the trouble of teasing out exactly what happened over the past three seasons I'll go ahead and leave you with an irresponsible prediction for 2010. After all, what are archives for if not to mock the author?
This tempo projection system needs an acronym
Projected tempos, 2010: Conference games only
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
Big 12 67
Big East 66
Big Ten 64
Can the Big Ten actually be faster than another major conference? Until this year the correct answer there would have been an emphatic no. At the dawn of a brave new decade, however, we can now respond to that question with a definite maybe.
John writes entries in seven seconds or less on Twitter: @johngasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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