Big XII Tourney Primer: the importance of tempo

The Big XII conference has been the consensus top conference all season in college basketball. With 70% of its members likely making the NCAA tournament, this week’s Big XII Tournament in Kansas City should prove to be full of drama as each game is basically a toss-up. The depth of the conference and absurd amount of great college players in the league add even more intrigue than a normal conference tournament.

When the Big Ten and former Big East conferences were the top leagues in college basketball over the past few years, the style of play in those leagues was usually considered slow and physical. While that may not exactly be true for those conferences in 2014*, it’s true that the Big XII doesn’t have a reputation for a specific style of play. KU has generally played lock-down defense under Bill Self, but this season they seem to prefer outscoring opponents more than defending. And that was before it was revealed their best defensive player may miss the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma State and Baylor may be the hottest teams in the Big XII (after each weathering some severe mid-season struggles), and they play some of the best defense in the conference. The Tubby Smith led Texas Tech Red Raiders have had a knack for pestering more talented opponents in the conference by slowing the game down to limit opportunities to score.

*Wisconsin was perhaps the most notorious slow and defensive minded team; however there must be something in the Madison water this year. They are 6th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency with 118.6 points per 100 possessions and they score an unheard of 73.2 points per game.

The quarterfinal matchup of Iowa State and Kansas State is a perfect example of the contrasting styles of play in the Big XII. Iowa State leads the conference in scoring offense at 82.5 points per game, and K-State leads the conference in scoring defense, conceding only 64.9 points per game. On the flip side of that, the Cyclones have the 2nd worst scoring defense in the Big XII at 73.5 points per game, and K-State is 8th in the conference in scoring offense at 69.4 points per game.

Just by these stats alone, it seems clear the Iowa State only has a great offense and they play little defense. And Bruce Weber’s Wildcats play great defense, but are offensively inept. The answers aren’t as simple as that.

The pace of play that each team prefers is where Iowa State and K-State have the greatest contrast. By looking at Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive metrics, we see how many points each team scores and concedes over the course of 100 possessions, and these tempo-free statistics give us a much better gauge of proficiency than the standard scoring stats. AdjO is points scored per 100 possessions, and AdjD is points allowed per 100 possessions. The statistics for Iowa State and K-State are below, as well as each schools overall rank out of 351 college basketball teams for each stat.

AdjO (overall NCAA rank) AdjD (overall NCAA rank)
Iowa State 113.5 (32) 97.1 (47)
Kansas State 107.5 (118) 94.6 (22)

Iowa State leads the Big XII in scoring, but there are five Big XII teams and 31 NCAA teams that score more points per 100 possessions than the Cyclones: Kansas (119.2), Oklahoma (117.2), Baylor (116.8), West Virginia (116.3), and Oklahoma State (114). Despite being nearly last in the conference in allowing 73.5 points per game, ISU is a much more respectable 5th in the conference allowing only 97.2 points per 100 possessions. Iowa State plays at a very high tempo, allowing for more offensive and defensive possessions each game. Therefore, while the Cyclones are neither great nor bad both offensively and defensively, their per game scoring stats make them seem great on offense and bad on defense.

Iowa State has such a surprisingly good defense; they actually have 3 of the top 6 defenders in the Big XII by an actual defensive metric that isn’t blocks or steals. Much like WAR in baseball, basketball has a statistic that attempts to estimate the value a player provides in helping a team win games, appropriately called win shares. And much like WAR in baseball, there is a defensive portion to the formula. The table below shows that Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim, and Dustin Hogue right there with Oklahoma State’s defensive duo and KU’s Joel Embiid as the best defenders in the conference. It’s also noteworthy that four of K-State’s starters are among the top 20 defenders in the Big XII. By only paying attention to the standard scoring stats, you might not realize how well these players defend.

Defensive Win Shares
1 Marcus Smart Oklahoma St. 2.2
2 Markel Brown Oklahoma St. 1.9
3 DeAndre Kane Iowa St. 1.8
4 Melvin Ejim Iowa St. 1.7
5 Joel Embiid Kansas 1.7
6 Dustin Hogue Iowa St. 1.6
7 Will Spradling Kansas St. 1.6
8 Kamari Murphy Oklahoma St. 1.6
9 Le’Bryan Nash Oklahoma St. 1.6
10 Cameron Ridley Texas 1.6
11 Andrew Wiggins Kansas 1.5
12 Shane Southwell Kansas St. 1.5
13 Perry Ellis Kansas 1.4
14 Cory Jefferson Baylor 1.4
15 Thomas Gipson Kansas St. 1.4
16 Demarcus Holland Texas 1.4
17 Isaiah Austin Baylor 1.3
18 Ryan Spangler Oklahoma 1.3
19 Marcus Foster Kansas St. 1.3
20 Brian Williams Oklahoma St. 1.3

K-State leads the Big XII in both points per game allowed and points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats much prefer to slow down the pace of play, which plays in perfect with their above average defense. However, it is the defense that must keep them in games when the offense goes on scoring droughts, which it has a tendency to do. K-State generally hasn’t had the scoring power to win in faster-paced games. Although K-State tries to play with much less possessions than teams like Iowa State, the Wildcat offense still scores at a much lower rate. That is why Thursday’s game with Iowa State should be very interesting with the contrasting styles of play.

It is clear that the standard stats that broadcasters reference non-stop on ESPN can be very misleading. Tempo-free stats provide a much better way to analyze basketball teams while keeping pace of play in mind. The Iowa State vs. K-State match-up may seem like the top offense facing the best defense in the league, but it is far from that. It is the high-tempo Cyclones battling the slow and defensive-minded Wildcats. Tempo and playing styles will be the big topic at the Big XII Tournament in Kansas City all weekend, even more so with Iowa State and K-State.

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