Tempo – a simple term and a simple concept that provide quick and valuable insight into what happened in past college basketball games, and what is likely to happen in future ones. It’s impossible to watch every NCAA hoop game played – or even a significant percentage of them. By using tempo, and by extension tempo-free stats, the smart college basketball handicapper can use the boxscores to get a good sense of what actually happened in a game – not the deceptive story that the final score and traditional stats can tell.
Tempo is simply a way of looking at how fast a team plays, or how fast a basketball game was played. We’ll talk about college basketball in this article, though the concepts are sound for the NBA as well. In college basketball games typically feature between 60 and eight possessions per team in a 40 minute game. Each year you will see a game or two that is played at a glacially slow pace – 55 or fewer possessions – and a few that are run at a ridiculous speed – 90 possessions or more. Most will fall into the 60-80 range, though. If a team averages close to 60 possessions per game then you know that they are a methodical team that takes the time to set up plays and let the game develop. They like to slow down games to fit their comfort zone. On the other hand, a team with an average tempo of somewhere near 80 would be a run-and-gun type of offense that likely relies on speed and athletic advantages to gain an edge.
You can find tempo or possession stats online without much problem, but you can also calculate them easily for your self if you want. The formula is just:
Possessions = field goal attempts – offensive rebounds + turnovers + (0.475 x free throw attempts)
That will give you an accurate estimate of the number of possessions a hoop team had in a game. If you want an even better number then you can calculate the possessions for both basketball teams in a game and then average the two. If you do this for every game that a team has played then you can come up with the total possessions a team has had on the season so far. That’s when things get interesting.
The first use of tempo stats are to get a sense of how teams match up in a game. If both teams have similar numbers of possessions per game then the styles are basically similar, and chances are decent that – at least on the surface – neither team will have to move too far out of their comfort zone. If one team likes to average 80 possessions, though, while another averages 60 then there are going to be fireworks. Those two styles are in total conflict, and at lest one of the teams will be forced to play a style of play that is very uncomfortable for them. Tempo can allow sports bettors to spot these style clashes, and from there the bettor can think about which team will likely be able to set the tone of play, and what that means for the outcome of the game.
By understanding the preferred tempo of a team and their opponent then you can look back to see how teams have fared against opponents with similar tempos in the past. For example, if a high tempo team has done well in the past adjusting to low tempo opponents, but the low tempo team struggles to adjust to a faster pace of play then you might have found a nice play on the up-tempo team.
Once you have a basketball team’s tempo then you can start to look at tempo free stats. Tempo free stats are basically any stats that are broken down by possession instead of by game. A final score can be deceptive because it depends on how many possessions a team has. A team that win 90-80 hasn’t necessarily played better than one that won 70-60. In order to get a sense of how good the 90 point team is compared to the 70 point on we need to have a way to compare them apples-to-apples. A great way of doing this is by looking at their points per possession. It is quite possible that the team that only scored 70 points averaged more points per possession than the one that scored 90 points. That means that the 70 point team is more efficient, and could be expected to score more points than the 90 point team if both played a game with the same number of possessions. The public can often be blinded by high scoring teams, so offensive efficiency is a great way to spot when a team is worthy of attention and when they are deceptive in their strength.
Offensive efficiency is typically listed in points per 100 possessions. A very good basketball team might have an offensive efficiency of 120 – 1.2 points per possession. To calculate that you simply take the number of points a team has scored on the season and divide it by the number of possessions – and then multiply it by 100 if you wish. You can also calculate the defensive efficiency by dividing the number of points a team has given up by the number of possessions. If a team has a decent offensive efficiency but a really lousy defensive efficiency then you know that it’s not much of a team. Early in the NCAA basketball season you need to make sure that these statistics aren’t skewed by the opposition – a team’s offensive efficiency could look much better than it really is if they have played a couple of really bad teams to get warmed up. As such, offensive and defensive efficiency might be more effective when just used for conference games, or if the three worst opponents are dropped off.
One last little trick with efficiency – efficiency margin. To get this you just subtract the points per possession given up from the points per possession scored. If that number is positive then the team scored more than they gave up, and they are likely to be a reasonably effective team. If the number is negative then they struggle to keep up with their opponent and are going to lose their share of games. Basketball bettors can also spot interesting trends by following these numbers – for example, if they look at teams from major conferences with an efficiency margin of +.10 or better at the end of the regular season then a disproportionate number of those teams is going to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.