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December 3, 2012
Pace Changers
Upping the Tempo

by Corey Schmidt


Every preseason during media day, there's no shortage of coaches who talk about playing a faster tempo. Coaches may desire a chance of pace because they have a roster that will thrive with increased tempo, or because they're new to the program and they've brought a new system along with them. While it's still early in the season, most teams have nonetheless started to form an identity after seven or eight games, and there are several coaches who have been true to their word when it comes to upping the tempo.

Today we look at the six schools that have significantly increased their pace of play through December 1. These squads are all averaging ten or more possessions per game than they did last year. We also explore the impact that the tempo boost has had on the teams' performance to date. Later this week we'll take a look at the schools that have slowed down the most.

2012: 62.0 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 77.1
When Mike Davis was fired last March despite a fairly solid record in his six years at UAB, the athletic director expressly cited poor attendance and fan apathy as the reason a change was made. In short, the Blazers just weren't playing an entertaining brand of basketball. Davis' squads have never been speed demons on the court, and in fact they became even more deliberate late in his tenure in Birmingham. Enter Jerod Haase. A disciple of Roy Williams, Haase has completely changed the look of this squad. They've topped 80 possessions in four of their eight games thus far, including an 88-possession track meet at North Carolina on Saturday. While it's not a surprise that Haase couldn't beat his mentor at his own game, there is promise for this faster pace of play. For starters, the team's turnover rate is about the same as it was a year ago, and while it's not necessarily a good rate (22 percent), it's an indicator that Haase's guys can adapt to this new system. The team is also forcing turnovers at an increased rate, which will be necessary since early returns suggest they won't be as great at protecting the interior as they were under Davis. UAB fans haven't seen a team play like this since Mike Anderson was on the sidelines. While Haase may not have the success of Anderson early on, it appears he has met the mandate to put out a product that will reinvigorate the Blazer faithful.

Morehead State
2012: 63.4 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 74.6
When I wrote the Morehead State preview for this year's College Basketball Prospectus book, I noted that an on-court culture clash was set to occur in Morehead, Kentucky. Outgoing coach Donnie Tyndall rebuilt the program with a deliberate defensive approach that emphasized generating turnovers and limiting any second-chance opportunities. His squads were never world-beaters on offense, and indeed their best offense was often produced by creating their own second-chance buckets. Incoming coach Sean Woods' best teams at Mississippi Valley State were among the fastest-playing teams in the country. With largely the same roster as a year ago, Woods has wasted no time bringing that up-tempo style to his new program. What I got wrong in my preview was anticipating that the Eagles would struggle in this new run-and-gun system. The team sits at 4-4, with a solid win over Long Island and a nine-point loss to Kentucky included on the resume. This new approach has deemphasized the three-ball in favor of attacking the rim, which is welcomed change for a squad that is shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc thus far. And while the Eagles continue to force a ton of turnovers, they get caught fouling too much, as their opponents' free throw rate of 59 percent showcases. Morehead State is an experienced bunch playing in a completely new system. If they fine-tune their turnover problems going forward, Woods' team may be more of a factor than anticipated in the Ohio Valley this season.

Arizona State
2012: 63.4 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 74.6
Arizona State's tempo transformation is one of the more intriguing in the country. Unlike many others on this list, the Sun Devils do not have a new coach, and indeed the coach they have has a track record of slowness. Herb Sendek may try to fight the label by pointing to some of his highest scoring teams of the past, but Prospectus readers know better than to automatically associate high scoring with fast play. The fact is those teams were low on total possessions but wildly efficient in their use of them -- hence, a lot of points were scored. This year's ASU squad is scoring a lot of points because the games are featuring a lot of possessions. Sendek says the change is largely due to the presence of redshirt freshman Jahii Carson. The guard's recruitment was predicated on the ASU staff implementing a game plan that works to one of Carson's strengths, namely, making plays in the open court. Carson has been prone to committing a few too many turnovers, but otherwise he's been great in the early going. As a 5-10 point guard, he'll often be one of the smallest players on the court, but thus far he's connecting on an admirable 47 percent of his twos and has a free throw rate of 74 percent. He has also hit 44 percent of his threes on the young season. Arizona State's schedule has been quite fluffy thus far, and it won't ramp up until the New Year, but that gives Carson and company plenty of opportunities to get used to this new style of play before Pac-12 play begins.

Virginia Tech
2012: 63.0 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 74.0
Virginia Tech had a good week last week. After winning a handful of guarantee games under new coach James Johnson, the Hokies proceeded to give Iowa a thorough beating in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and then knocked off a ranked Oklahoma State team on Saturday. Johnson's squad is now 7-0 with a legitimate chance to be undefeated heading into ACC play in January (their toughest test is at West Virginia, which has been an underwhelming team so far). So what's changed in Blacksburg? Well, the Hokies have been lighting it up on the offensive end while averaging 11 more possessions per game than last year. They're turning the ball over less, getting to the free throw line more often, and shooting very well from beyond the arc (40 percent). This new approach has been particularly beneficial to senior Erick Green. The 6-3 guard was solid as a junior a year ago, but he seemingly has more freedom to attack under Johnson, as he's boosted his free throw rate from 31 percent to 77 percent. While that number is likely to come down a bit, any more trips he generates are a boon for the team, as he's made 86 percent of his freebies over the last two seasons. Going forward, keep an eye on this new-look team's interior defense. Seth Greenberg's squads rarely gave up more than 47 or 48 percent shooting from inside the arc, but this year's bunch is allowing opponents to hit 54 percent of their twos -- and that's against a fairly weak slate of opponents.

Texas Tech
2012: 65.5 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 75.8
Texas Tech has only played five games, but it's clear new coach Chris Walker favors an up-tempo style much more than did predecessor Billy Gillispie. A year ago only eight of the Red Raiders' 31 games featured more than 70 possessions. This year every game has been at least that fast-paced. Walker's bunch may be 4-1, but those wins are against three SWAC opponents and a team in its first year of Division I. Their lone loss is an 85-57 drubbing to Arizona. It's too early to conclude much about this team, and it will be a while before the picture becomes clearer: Tech won't leave Lubbock until January.

2012: 64.2 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 74.2
Historically, Mick Cronin's squads have come in slightly below Division I average in terms of tempo, which makes Cincinnati's blistering pace at the start of 2012-13 all the more intriguing. While the Bearcats are typically killed in the media for their cupcake schedules in November and December, this year's 7-0 start includes three straight wins over Iowa State, Oregon, and Alabama. So what has increasing the pace of play done for the Bearcats? They're forcing defenses to foul them more often. UC has been among the worst teams in Division I at getting to the charity stripe, so improving their free throw rate from around 30 percent to 40 percent has helped keep their offensive efficiency solid despite a slight uptick in turnovers. Their bigs have been able to keep up too. Three forwards have a block rate over 7.3 percent, including Cheikh Mbodji at 15.2 percent, and as a team they're holding all opponents to just 36 percent shooting inside the arc (a mark that ticks up to just 42 percent for major conference foes).

Also accelerating....

Ole Miss
2012: 66.3 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 76.0

Jackson State
2012: 63.2 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 72.8

Southern Utah
2012: 64.3 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 73.7

2012: 65.4 possessions per 40 minutes
2013: 74.1

Unlike the first six schools listed, these teams are more likely to be on this list due to small sample size. While Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy is on record as saying he has some new players who warrant a quicker pace of play, the Rebels were similarly fast during the start of last season before leveling out in SEC play. By the same token Syracuse's early-season games have been all over the place in terms of tempo, from a low of 62 possessions versus Princeton to a high of 86 versus Arkansas. The good news for the Orange is they've won no matter the tempo.

Of these four, Southern Utah is the team most likely to be undergoing a true tempo revolution. Roger Reid's teams were notoriously deliberate, and they never took threes. New coach Nick Robinson has enabled the Thunderbirds to improvise a bit more than his predecessor, though that has yet to yield significant improvement on the court.

Follow Corey Schmidt on Twitter: @cjschmidt1. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.

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Premium Article VCU, Texas, and Belmon... (12/03)
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