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Possession Obsession
March 20, 2006
The madness in March boils down to tempo and efficiency. Teams that control the pace and make the most of every chance-at both ends of the floor-have the best shot at reaching Indy
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March 20, 2006

Possession Obsession

The madness in March boils down to tempo and efficiency. Teams that control the pace and make the most of every chance-at both ends of the floor-have the best shot at reaching Indy

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Last Fall, after he'd lost the top seven scorers from his 2005 national champions, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said a remarkable thing. Asked if he would have to slow down his trademark rocket-fueled attack this season, Ol' Roy shook his head. "I want to go even faster," he vowed, and he wasn't joking. Even though the Tar Heels would rely on seldom-used veterans and five freshmen, Williams knew that his fleet guards, small-but-explosive forwards and mobile big men had talent-the man can recruit, after all-and that he would win more games by creating as many possessions as possible. � Since 1970, when Williams began counting possessions for Dean Smith as a UNC student, he has developed an incurable case of Possession Obsession. Look at it this way, says Williams, an avid golfer, "if I played Tiger Woods for one hole, I might have a chance of tying him or winning the hole. But if we play nine or 18 holes, I have no chance. That's the way the game of basketball is. The more possessions you have, the more often the team with the greater talent should win."

Despite their inexperience, the Tar Heels leveraged their skills (forward Tyler Hansbrough became the nation's top freshman) and their speed (only four NCAA tournament teams play faster) to go 22-7 and finish a stunning second in the ACC.

Never have tempo (possessions per game) and efficiency (points scored and allowed per possession) been hotter topics than on the eve of this year's NCAA tournament. In 2005 Wisconsin- Milwaukee and Alabama-Birmingham, two of the nation's most frenetic teams, upset SEC and Big East powers using gambling full-court-press defenses, while Bucknell's grind-it-out approach (think Tiger versus Williams) yielded a 64-63 first-round upset of third-seeded Kansas. The Tar Heels were the fastest-paced team in the field of 65, had the nation's most efficient offense and owned the seventh most efficient defense. (No wonder they won the title.) Meanwhile, three other efficiency experts- Illinois, Louisville and Michigan State-rounded out the Final Four.

Possession may be just another word for madness, but during the Madness of March it can also be the key to success. Who plays fast? Who plays slow? And during the NCAA tournament, when games so often swing on a single possession, which teams make the most of every chance-at both ends of the floor? "This isn't a seven-game series, it's one-and-done," says Memphis coach John Calipari. "So you've got to get good shots every time down and make it tough for the other team every time down. That's the whole goal: You've got to be efficient."

What's the best way to analyze a team's efficiency and help separate Final Four contenders from early-round upset candidates? First, you must ignore traditional statistics like rebound margin, total turnovers and points per game and embrace a simple-but-revealing figure that doesn't appear on any NCAA stat sheet: points per possession.

Possession-based analysis is a hoops version of the approach to baseball statistics made famous in Moneyball, Michael Lewis's best-selling book about general manager Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, with an important twist: Its godfather happens to be the most successful coach in the history of Division I college basketball. In the mid-1950s, as an assistant at Air Force, Dean Smith was looking for a way to evaluate a team's strengths and weaknesses that took into account the speed at which it plays. For example, Smith wondered, why does the NCAA award a "defensive scoring champion" trophy when the measuring stick (fewest points allowed per game) is less the result of good defense than of playing at a slow pace?

By calculating how many points a team scored and allowed per possession, Smith found, he gained a much clearer picture of efficiency and could compare teams no matter what pace they preferred. These days Smith's prot�g� Williams begins every halftime talk by noting the Tar Heels' offensive and defensive points-per-possession, and the Possession Obsession has spread to other elite programs such as Gonzaga, Memphis, Michigan State and Wisconsin. "I think [efficiency stats] give you a more accurate reflection of your performance, more so than field goal percentage and a lot more than total points scored or given up," says Zags coach Mark Few, whose team tries to meet goals of 115 points per 100 possessions on offense and 95 on defense.

While Smith's idea is nothing new, only recently have statheads and bloggers extended it to all 334 Division I teams, providing the first detailed national perspective on efficiency. Modifying an equation developed by NBA stat guru Dean Oliver in the late 1980s, a blogger named Ken Pomeroy began publishing points-per-possession and other tempo-neutral stats for Division I colleges on his website,, last year. "Even if you've never seen a team play, you can get a good picture of its style by looking at these statistics," says Pomeroy, a 32-year-old meteorologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., whose site became such a cult hit that it crashed during the week before last year's Selection Sunday.

Pomeroy's efficiency data for this season (page 43) indicates which well-regarded teams might be ripe for upsets because of their defensive shortcomings (Boston College, Gonzaga, Michigan State); which defensive stalwarts could be laid low by their offensive foibles (Bucknell, Indiana, Iowa); and which efficient upstarts might be capable of springing an ambush or two ( Arkansas, Marquette, Wichita State). Likewise, efficiency can explain why callow Kansas is better than its No. 4 seeding suggests-the Jayhawks have the most efficient defense (81.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the land-and why Duke, Texas and UConn, proficient at both ends of the court, best fit the profile of potential champions.

Yet there's more to the Possession Obsession than efficiency. By measuring the number of possessions per 40-minute game, it's possible to determine whether a team plays at a slow pace or a fast one (page 49). The battle to control tempo is one of the most riveting aspects of the annual N-C-two-A two-step-and often a deciding factor in which team wins the title. More than one shining moment has been the result of a team's ability to master the tempo tug of war, either by ruthlessly imposing its pace or smartly adjusting its style to the game at hand.

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