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Average Possession Length: What Is Up-Tempo, Exactly?


Tempo-free stats allow us to evaluate a team's efficiency on both sides of the ball as well as the pace of games, but as Ken Pomeroy has outlined here, there's another level to that--average possession length. Using play-by-play data from the last couple of years, Pomeroy found the average length of an offensive and defensive possession for each I-A school.

Here is a glance at the ACC last year:

ACC Offensive APL (Nat'l rank) Defensive APL (Nat'l rank) Adjusted Tempo (Nat'l rank)
Boston College 19.1 (265) 18.4 (219) 64 (261)
Clemson 19.1 (262) 19.3 (330) 62.6 (298)
Duke 17.7 (133) 17.4 (64) 67.6 (96)
Florida State 17.7 (128) 18.5 (238) 65.1 (208)
Georgia Tech 17.4 (96) 18.8 (285) 66.7 (134)
Maryland 17.3 (85) 18.3 (208) 67.3 (107)
Miami 19.8 (305) 17.6 (87) 63.1 (287)
NC State 16.5 (33) 18.5 (247) 68 (80)
North Carolina 15.8 (14) 17.6 (86) 70.6 (15)
Virginia 20.0 (314) 18.9 (307) 61 (328)
Virginia Tech 17.3 (87) 17.9 (139) 66.6 (138)
Wake Forest 17.2 (80) 17.4 (52) 69.3 (33)

[First two columns: seconds (national rank). Third column: possessions per 40 minutes (national rank)]
[Become a subscriber to Ken's site if you aren't already; it's well worth it if you're into this sort of thing.]

The average NC State offensive possession lasted 16.5 seconds last season, which made State the 33rd-fastest offense by this measure in the nation. There are things that could theoretically deflate that figure--forcing a bunch of turnovers, rebounding at the defensive end really well--but of course the Wolfpack did neither of those, so this is a pretty clear indicator that State had an up-tempo offense. Mark Gottfried is no bullshit on that front. (Our eyes told us as much; this is just confirmation.)

Pomeroy found that longer defensive possessions are generally indicative of better defenses, but he also acknowledges the noise in the data. There are exceptions in this case for the reasons I just mentioned, and State is a good example. An inability to force turnovers combined with mediocre defensive rebounding leads to longer defensive possessions and may result in poor defensive efficiency**.

(**Now this sounds like a drug commercial. A risky lunge at a dribble-driver may pay huge dividends; side effects include embarrassment, easy layups for the opponent, trash talk to which there can be no response, existential crises, and an all-encompassing sense of inadequacy.)