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Speed is relative: Tempo in context

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A quick note about pace. (See what I did there.)

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you did not know better, you wouldn’t think much has changed from the last season of the Mark Gottfried era to the first season of the Kevin Keatts era. NC State averaged about 70 possessions per 40 minutes last season, which ranked 71st, and it is averaging around 73/40 this year, which ranks 63rd. Relatively speaking, this is no change.

This is where average possession length (seconds per possession) comes in handy. When you take that into account, the difference is pretty clear.

Average Possession Length

NCSU Offense APL (rank) Defense APL
NCSU Offense APL (rank) Defense APL
2018 15.2 (31) 17.4 (248)
2017 16.9 (120) 16.5 (39)

A lot of coaches like to talk about playing up-tempo basketball, and technically, NC State was an up-tempo team last year. If you watched that State team, though, you know otherwise, and the reason why State looked like an up-tempo outfit was because its defense was just plain terrible.

State was grounded in a half-court mindset for the last few seasons of the Gottfried era—last year was actually an anomaly in terms of how fast the offense dictated terms. State’s defense was routinely solved so quickly that it gave the appearance of an up-and-down team, despite the fact that its offense showed no urgency.

This season, Kevin Keatts so far is meeting the promise of speed—when transition opportunities are there, his guys are pushing it. But his defense is serving as ballast, since the full-court or token pressure design of his schemes are forcing opponents to take a lot more time to set up their offense.

Setting everything else aside, the sign of progress is not in the time taken by the NC State offense to score, but rather the time taken by the opponent’s offense to score. And right now they are struggling; Keatts’ system is an annoying barking dog that forces players to think and then react, which often has negative consequences.

Quick turnovers are the ideal, but the point is to disrupt an offense and make it work more methodically, and NC State is doing that. This is a significant difference from last season. It also weights the tempo in a way that might belie just how fast the team wants to play at the offensive end.

We’re in bizarro world, basically, where the tells of pace from last season have been reversed, which is why it is important to dig beyond the base tempo numbers. This NC State team wants to run on offense, and it also wants to constipate the hell out of teams at the other end. It’s doing that. The big-picture results may appear similar to other State teams, but the route is dramatically different.