Tempo-Free Stats: Further Infiltrating College Hoops

The idea of keeping in-depth statistical records on teams and players has literally been around for decades in the sporting world. But while a sport like baseball turned the corner and finally started to embrace the benefits of this type of analysis on a grand scale, a vast amount of college basketball fans, coaches and media members weren't exactly lining up to sort through spreadsheets of numbers back in the day.

The stereotypes of those pushing this new angle certainly didn't help the cause either. Experienced coaches and their hardworking assistants don't want to look at a list of their squad's true shooting percentages. These guys want to know if their 6'1" freshman guard can consistently pass out of a double team, or if he has the intestinal fortitude to drain a big free throw in the waning minutes. In a way, trying to get people to take notice this rising movement was like a diminutive team manager tugging on his coach's sleeves, painstakingly trying to tell him that his star point guard owns the worst second half turnover rate in college hoops. The data itself was right in front of everyone's eyes. The problem was that a vast majority didn't care to see it. And really, it was the intersection between those two extremes, the "stat-geek" and the "stubborn coach/athlete", that caused tempo-free stats to make a significant imprint on college hoops.

Technology will always continue to push the boundaries of how we digest our sports. There simply came a time when points, rebounds and assists became too monotonous. How did we arrive at those numbers? And how does that stack up against the rest of the programs in the country? The concept of comparing schools from opposite ends of our great nation became an intriguing topic. If team A runs constantly, scores a boatload of points and plays lackluster defense, how would they match up against team B who favors a half-court, defensive-oriented style?

The answers to questions like these are difficult to pinpoint when only looking at X's and O's. That's ultimately why tempo-free stats have started to carve out a large niche at the college level over the past few years. But what are they, and how can we use them? Instead of attempting to duplicate this beautifully simplistic post, I'll let The Only Colors explain what I'm talking about here. Here are the basics:

Pace (Possessions/Game)

  • Key question: How many times per game does a team get the ball?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: The more times you get the ball, the more points you’re going to score, all things being equal.

Points per Possession (PPP)

  • Key question: How many points does a team score per possession?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: Allows for more meaningful comparisons between offensive outputs of teams that play at varying paces.

Turnover Percentage (TO%)

  • Key question: On what percentage of possessions does a team give the ball to the other team before it’s able to create a scoring opportunity?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: If you don’t get a shot off, you can’t score.

Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)

  • Key question: How many points does a team score per shot taken from the field?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: Three pointers are better than two pointers (exactly 50% better, actually), so dividing total points scored off field goals by field goal attempts makes more sense than traditional field goal percentage, which treats 2-pointers and 3-pointers as equals.

Free Throw Rate (FTR)

  • Key question: How many opportunities does a team create to score from the free throw line relative to the number of shots it takes from the field?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: Points scored at the free throw line count just as much as those scored from the field.

Offensive Rebounding Percentage (OffReb%)

  • Key question: What percentage of offensive rebounding opportunities does a team procure?
  • Fairly obvious explanation: Extending a possession with an offensive rebound creates another opportunity to score.

Basically we're acknowledging that different schools play at different speeds, and therefore leveling the playing field. By calculating a team's effectiveness compared to their number of possessions on offense, we can find out who are truly the most efficient teams in the country. And we can take that same type of information and translate it to the defensive end as well. Ken Pomeroy, who runs the tempo-free site KenPom.com and is viewed as a modern day messiah, had the Duke Blue Devils No. 1 in his team rankings for the majority of last season. Our eyes might have told us that the Kansas Jayhawks were actually the better team, but the numbers disagreed. Some even thought the notion of Duke winning an NCAA title in 2010 was utter blasphemy considering the handful of elite programs they would have to face off against. Many even used the prediction as ammunition for why tempo-free stats are over-analyzed. So when Duke eventually went on to win the national title, it not only strengthened the statistical hold on the sport, but also helped to turn non-believers into believers right there on the spot.

The funny thing is, after hundreds of words, I've only scratched the surface of this awesome statistical movement. If you really want to delve into this topic, read John Gasaway's blog entry from 2005. And be sure to check out KenPom.com every single week during the season for your numbers fix. It might seem like the sheer amount of data at your disposal is overwhelming, but the more you play around and start to uncover trends the better off you'll be in the long run. And heck, judging by last year, it might just give you an extra boost in your bracket pool too.

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