Winning by playing at pace

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By Ryan Scott

In 2015, the Stevens Point men won a national championship with one of the most disciplined, technical displays of both offensive and defensive efficiency we’ve ever seen. Obviously, the roster was packed with good players, but there were no superstars and none of the individual numbers would stand out to anyone. As a team, though, the Pointers averaged almost 50 percent from the floor and more than 40 percent from the 3-point line. They held opponents to just 54 points per game and committed less than nine turnovers per contest.

In many ways it was textbook conservative basketball — some would call it “old school.” It was a “don’t make mistakes” approach that has served many teams and coaches well over the years. Since 2015, though, teams across Division III have embraced analytics, working strategically to maximize efficiency and focus on the highest percentage shots.

As I look at the 2019 Division III basketball landscape, it appears the margin of error for these deliberate teams is increasingly slim. It’s becoming harder and harder for a team patient on both ends of the floor to put together the six straight wins necessary for a title or even avoid the seven or eight losses that would put them out of Pool C contention.

“Obviously the ideal is to make teams grind it out and take tough two-pointers, while your team gets an open three, free throws, or a layup on offense,” says Johns Hopkins head men’s basketball coach Josh Loeffler. “Of course, no roster is ideally built.”

This slow-defense, quick-offense approach has been borne out by the numbers, at least at the Division I level. Peter Keating, one of the analytics wizards at ESPN, analyzed the low seeds in the Division I tournament that have been most successful in recent years and found the teams with the largest disparity between offensive and defensive possession lengths have won the most.

His prime example is the University of Buffalo (coached by Maranatha Baptist alum, Nate Oats), which has the ninth quickest offensive pace, but is 336th on the defensive end – forcing opponents to play slow.

It’s difficult to find similar numbers across Division III; we just don’t have the same depth and breadth of statistics being collected, but I’ve been interested in how coaches have been adapting to recent trends in speed and efficiency and what that portends for the future.

“So much of it depends on personnel,” says Rutgers-Newark coach Joe Loughran, whose Scarlet Raiders play a very New Jersey, hard-nosed game on both ends of the floor. “If you’re going to play at pace, four out of your five guys better have the skill level to score at that pace. We’re willing to raise the tempo, but we don’t always have the personnel, so we try to dictate pace with our defense first.”

Speed can help when you’re taking advantage of the numbers, but it’s only going to make things worse if you’re on the wrong side of those percentages. Nobody is playing faster than Greenville these days, but many of their conference opponents are starting to run with them – to match the frenetic pace – and it’s working more and more often.

“Lots of teams are starting to take 3-point shots against us,” says Grinnell head coach, David Arseneault, Jr. “That’s the way so many teams play normally, they’ve decided not to change everything around for us. Today’s players are just more comfortable playing with pace.”

That’s not to say speed is the answer. Any team that embraces The System, like Greenville, will tell you it’s a lot more about how effectively you rebound and turn the other team over. Defensive statistics are much more important than just putting up points. Yes, they’re playing the numbers game on the offensive side of the ball, but it only works if your opponent is being made to work hard.

“In comparison to my dad, I’m a little less okay with us giving up uncontested layups,” says Arseneault, who ran the point for his father at Grinnell a decade ago. “Having guys who can protect the rim has been huge for us and we’re first or second in the country in blocked shots per game.”

Grinnell is “only” averaging 119 points per game this year — second in the nation, sure, but not typically what we’d expect of the pacey Pioneers. The slow defense model is at least influencing how Arseneault is adapting The System. Personnel is a factor here, too.

“We have a pair of guys, 6-7 – 6-8 and super athletic, who can really challenge shots at the back of the press,” says Arseneault, “We’re probably still near last in field goal percentage defense, but we’re around six percentage points better than when I played, which isn’t a lot, and makes a real difference. Those big guys also make those shots around the basket much higher percentage shots for us.”

Whether it’s offense or defense, what I mean by margin of error is simply how easily a few made buckets, a few points on the field goal percentage can swing a game. A faster pace is designed to maximize possession, taking advantage of strengths and minimizing the damage of weaknesses. For a while it was all about speed, but lately, it seems, even the fast teams are changing things up on defense.

“One of the ways you see teams with a faster pace adjusting this season,” says Loeffler. “They’re working harder to deny the 3-point shot.”

Loeffler regularly sees one of the teams doing this most successfully. This season the Swarthmore Garnet are allowing about 20 percent fewer 3-point attempts than last season, and opponents are only hitting 28 percent of them (down from 35 percent last season).

Whitman has a vaunted full court press that routinely stifles opposing offenses, but Northwest Conference coaches cite the Blues’ half-court defense, which continually forces long possessions and bad shots, as the real danger when playing Division III’s winningest team over the last four seasons. Williams, under Kevin App, has been doing this effectively and even Arseneault pointed out that minimizing an opponent’s 3-point attempts has been a priority for Grinnell this season.

In the end, as any basketball player, coach, or fan will tell you, the team with the best players generally wins the game. A coach’s job, then, is to put the players in the best position to play to their strengths. All this analytics movement is doing is providing the tools to maximize talent, which is all coaches have ever attempted to do. But if numbers alone could make it work, somebody would be doing it already.

“Yeah, it sounds great, to play fast on offense and slow on defense,” says Loughran. “The truth is, though, you don’t always have the players capable of doing it. In the end it comes down to whether you can get a big rebound or a big stop at the end of the game. You need to figure out the best way to play with the guys you have on the floor.” That’s easier said than done.

Coaches don’t last long in this business if they’re unwilling to adapt. As the players change, so must the tactics. My question — and I think it’s probably too soon in this trend to really know for sure – is whether slow and conservative will continue to be the most viable default position as it has been in the past. In other words, can the 2015 Pointers still win in 2019? That’s something I’m excited to see play out as we enter the NCAA Tournament and beyond.

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon