Buffalo has been the biggest surprise of this college basketball season. The Bulls amassed a 12-1 record in nonconference play, including wins at Syracuse and West Virginia, and they have cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history (16th in the Jan. 14 poll). But perhaps most importantly, they've given us reason to see pace of play in a whole new way -- one that indicates Buffalo can keep stampeding through March.
At first analytical glance, Buffalo appears to have maintained a consistent profile from its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2015 under Bobby Hurley through the past four seasons under Nate Oats. It's rooted in hustle, hustle, hustle -- as reflected in the Bulls' superior offensive rebounding and perimeter defense -- and above all, racking up possessions per game. The year Hurley arrived, Buffalo jumped from 201st in the country to 82nd in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com, and it hasn't ranked below 37th since.
But there's more than one way to measure pace. Many teams keep a constant beat. Virginia moves at the rate of a three-toed sloth, for example, whether setting up Kyle Guy or packing the line. Others, however, establish a significant difference between their average possession length (APL) on offense and the amount of time they allow opponents on defense. And after racing at both ends under Hurley, Buffalo has become just such a team under Oats. This season, the Bulls are keeping the ball for an average of 14.4 seconds on offense, the eighth-quickest pace in the NCAA (through Jan. 17), while forcing opponents to hold it for 18.3 seconds, which ranks 334th! Buffalo plays fast but makes its opponents play slow.
Offensive styles tend to have more influence than defenses on a team's total possessions per game, according to 2013 research by stats guru Ken Pomeroy. So quick-shooting teams can look fast statistically even when they decelerate opponents by pressing or playing zone. In evaluating such programs, it's crucial to recognize the full picture. Forcing longer possessions can short-circuit fast breaks, induce risky passes and lead to poor, last-second shots. Indeed, while tempo has almost no statistical bearing on overall scoring, there is a decent correlation (0.38 on a scale from minus-1 to 1) between APL on defense and scoring margin.
And here's where things get really exciting: Buffalo-style hidden slowdowns are a secret shared by a whole class of March Madness Cinderella teams.
Normally, we expect Davids to require a slow tempo to maximize their winning chances against Goliaths. After all, if you are better than I am, then the more possessions you get, the bigger the gap between us will grow, on average. Fast underdogs occasionally pull off big upsets anyway, which seems confounding -- until you look at pace in terms of possession length rather than possessions per game. Last season Marshall ran down Wichita State as a 13-seed while ranking sixth in the entire NCAA in adjusted tempo. But that masked an APL of just 14.2 seconds on offense, ranking third, and a whopping 17.5 seconds on defense, ranking 208th.
Many of the deep seeds we remember as fun run-and-gun underdogs actually used their speed to get good shots, then turned around and disrupted their opponents' flow, creating huge gaps in their average possession times. Florida Gulf Coast, which made the Sweet 16 in 2013 as a 15-seed, ranked 19th in the country in offensive possession length and 236th on defense. Lehigh, a 15-seed in 2012, ranked 19th and 328th in those categories, and knocked off Duke. Ohio won in 2010 (78th, 196th) as a 14-seed and in 2012 (98th, 236th) as a 13-seed.
Buffalo lost in the first round in 2015 and 2016 when the Bulls were running up and down the court, then destroyed Arizona last year in a 13-seed vs. 4-seed upset by applying relentless pressure on the ball and creating open looks for quick bombs. I don't think it's a coincidence, either. In basketball, as in life, intelligent aggression trumps speed for its own sake. And if you're looking for a team breaking out this season by applying that lesson, keep an eye on St. John's, whose APL gap has widened in each of Chris Mullin's four seasons as coach. The Red Storm now rank 18th in the nation in average possession time on offense and 270th on defense.
Mullin was part of the Run TMC Golden State Warriors back in the day and talks all the time about playing up-tempo, so you might have thought his team would just be flying all over the place. Not so fast.