Last week the teams then ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, Ohio State and Pitt, achieved something remarkable stylistically. Together the Buckeyes and the Panthers averaged a preposterously slow 57 possessions per 40 minutes in the four games they played during the week. Are success and a glacial tempo related? Could DePaul win a Big East game if only they’d hold onto the ball until they saw single digits on the shot clock?
Well, no. Actually big scary Goliaths at the top of the national polls are being dragged against their wills into these snail-fests by would-be Davids. And, truth be told, the Davids seem to be onto something. Last Monday Notre Dame won at Pitt 56-51 in a 48-possession affair that was the slowest game in D-I so far this year. Five days later a Northwestern team that entered the evening 3-6 in the Big Ten very nearly beat the No. 1 team in the nation, losing at home to Ohio State 58-57 in a 49-possession game.
You can blame all this rampant and faddish slow-ball on Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey. He started it, and what’s more he’s unrepentant. It all began last February, and ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil was the first to document what happened. On February 18 ND was 6-8 in Big East play. Luke Harangody was sidelined with an injury, Brey’s defense was giving up points by the boatload (allowing 1.13 points per trip in Big East play), and the Irish were at risk for not making the NCAA tournament.
While having dinner with Brey around this time, Notre Dame assistant coach Anthony Solomon mentioned that his 1984 Virginia team had reached the Final Four as a No. 7 seed (in a pre-shot-clock 48-team field) thanks in part to a very slow pace. Light bulb, Bob’s your uncle, here we are. The Irish D improved dramatically at the new slower pace, and Brey’s team ripped off five consecutive wins. It was enough to get them into the dance, where they lost 51-50 to Old Dominion in the first round.
I’ve already suggested that the 1984 Cavaliers fall squarely under ”Rather be lucky than good,” but be that as it may teams keep offering amazing testimonials to the giant-killing properties of going really slow. My working assumption is that these properties are more psychological than strategic in their power. Not that I underestimate the power of psychology. On the contrary, if you can freak out your highly-ranked opponent by making them play D for 30 seconds every single time down the floor, by all means do it. If I had to peddle slow-ball at a coaching clinic my Troy McClure sound bite would be: “Psychology is strategy!”
But the notion that an overmatched team can increase its chances of winning by limiting the number of possessions, while sound as a pound conceptually, is begging to be grossly overstated. Yes, if Ohio State and Northwestern play 500 possessions on a neutral floor the Buckeyes are very, very likely to kick the Wildcats’ butts, whereas 50 possessions on NU’s home floor gives Bill Carmody’s team a much better shot at attaining an unnatural and evanescent state of affairs: scoring more points than OSU. But variance in performance, not tempo, is the key variable. Performance in the major conferences right now takes in everyone from Texas to the aforementioned DePaul Blue Demons. Tempo, by stark contrast, is fenced in pretty narrowly by custom on the high end and the shot clock on the low.
I also suspect we hear about 100 percent of slow-ball’s successes but none of its failures. In a dress rehearsal for their upcoming Ohio State clash, Northwestern lured already slow Wisconsin into a slow-even-for-the-Badgers 50-possession game in Evanston on January 23. Bo Ryan’s team (very slowly) ran the Wildcats out of the building, winning 78-46.
Which is all well and good, but of course if teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation keep losing or coming really close to it in sub-50-possession games, opposing coaches will go slow no matter what John Gasaway says. (I know, the nerve.) When that happens it may be time to visit a proposal bruted about the Prospectus break room by my colleague Kevin Pelton and look at shaving another five seconds off the college shot clock. Until then, enjoy all the passes.