Thursday, December 2, 2010

Analysis: The Up-Tempo Ivy League?

The new world of tempo-free basketball statistics has opened the more nuanced fan's eyes to the sneaky importance of a previously unquantified figure known as pace.

The concept is nothing new. For instance, Princeton has played at varying levels of a snail's pace for years now, while most people know that Virginia Military Institute has led the nation in pace over the past five years, running up and down the floor to such an extreme that one might think points are scored by crossing half court, not putting the ball in the basket.

The understanding and quantification of pace, as well as its effect on game outcomes, has come a long way, however. Every team in the nation now has an associated pace statistic, which tells how many possessions, on average, that a game involving a certain team should be expected to have. With one simple number, it's easy to see whether a team likes to run and gun or establish a half-court offense.

While that seems useful for aesthetic purposes, it's actually quite useful for understanding game outcomes as well. Anyone reasonably familiar with statistics can already see the logical path here, but to put it into layman's terms, given an infinite number of possessions, a superior team will beat an inferior team. If possessions are limited, however, there is a chance that the inferior team can get lucky and knock of the superior team. As the number of possessions continues to decrease, the likelihood of the upset continues to rise. The statisticians in the bunch will cite the proper term for this (variance) and could quite quickly display how increasing variance is good for the predicted loser and bad for the predicted winner.

In recent history, the Ivy League has been a third- to fourth-quartile conference nationally with as many as six or seven teams ranked outside the top 200 some years. Given the logic above, it should stand to reason that the Ivies play slow, especially out-of-conference, where the average league team would be an underdog on the average night.

There are a couple notable exceptions to this: Princeton has played slow throughout the years, even when that strategy hurt them as favorites, and Harvard has consistently played fast despite often being well-below average (most comically, playing 14th fastest in the nation in 2003-2004, when they went 4-23).

This season, however, the pattern has seemed to have been flipped on its head. The two slowest teams to this point have been Penn (63.5 possessions per game) and Harvard (66.5) - roughly 330th and 250th nationally, respectively. The Crimson was probably the only team that could have justified playing fast, given that they were expected to be well above-average nationally and would want to exploit the "favorite's advantage" of cramming more possessions into every game.

The pace issue gets more bizarre when you look at the league's fastest teams to this point - Yale (70.1, ~60th nationally) and Columbia (70.4, ~50th). Since 2005, only Harvard and Penn have played a full season above 70 possessions per game, and neither team had a really good reason for doing so. When the Lions play host to the Crimson later this year, they would be 20 percent to win the game at 70 possessions, but 24 percent to win at 60 possessions.

That may not seem like a vast difference, but over a 14-game schedule increasing your odds of winning each game by four percent is worth about half a win.

Yale and Columbia aren't alone in playing faster. Cornell has played at a 68.6 possession per game pace (~135th nationally), almost three possessions per game faster than the last two title teams.

Then, there's Princeton. The team synonymous with slow play and stall tactics has posted a gaudy 68.0 possessions per game this year, which is currently right at the national average. As a league favorite, the Tigers would be well served to push for more possessions during Ivy play, but they've been favorites before and it hasn't stopped them from mimicking paint drying.

Varying theories exist as to why Princeton has chosen now to start playing up tempo, but the most commonly cited one is personnel - the Tigers have the talent on the offensive end that can wear down opposing defenses and a stalwart defense that can keep opponents from scoring consistently. The faster pace should help Princeton stay more consistent in Ivy play, where every opponent except Harvard will be inferior on paper, and should keep the Tigers from falling victim to random losses (like Brown at home last year).

And that's how pace could play a huge role in the Ivy race. If Princeton reverts to playing slow during league play, it will make its road to the league title slightly more difficult. While it may seem weird to see the Tigers stepping on the accelerator and adding possessions to games, it's the right call, especially when conference play rolls around.

Yale and Columbia, on the other hand, might want to think about slowing it down a bit.

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