Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pace Notes: Thoughts About the 2006-07 Season

Another season and another decline in the average possessions per game. In his 2005-06 season retrospective, "State of the Game", Ken Pomeroy observed that "...The dramatic slow-down during this time (the 1970's and 80's) prompted the NCAA to experiment with, and eventually add, the shot clock and three-point line. There was an initial increase in tempo in response to the shot clock, but the game has been slowing down since 1994, and reached an all-time low in 2005...". That trend continued into the 2006-07, as the year-end raw pace slowed from 67.6 to 66.9, making the year-over-year average decline another 1.1%. The season started optimistically; the average for games played through November 28 (the first week when all D1 teams played at least one game) was 69.2, well above 2006 ending pace. I had loosely tracked Ken Pomeroy's pace statistics during the 2005-06 season and realized that the average pace for all D1 members had declined by about 2% from New Year's (the start of most conference play) to the end of the season. Taking weekly snapshots of the Pomeroy's efficiency stats I was able to track the raw pace for the entire D1 season (graph below).
D1 Average Possession/game
After starting above 69.0, the raw pace began to decline dramatically as all of the teams began their season with home games and invitationals. The pace took a dead cat bounce during the fall exam period and resumed its decline through the end of the season.

If, as Pomeroy suggested, D1's declining pace is tied to the increasing use of the 3 point shot, pace may make a larger adjustment this season as the 3 point line was moved back a foot for men's play. The question is "Will it rise?" as teams decide to take play inside rather than risk declining 3FGM percentages, or "Will it decline (again, only more drastically)?" as teams work harder (and longer...) to set up the 3 point play. Widening the lane to encourage dribble penetration and enlarging the "no charge" area under the basket might work to speed up play as well. Abolishing zone defenses, as the NBA has attempted to do for the pace three decades will most likely lead to the same Prohibition Era-style cat-and-mouse game that characterizes NBA play today. Teams disguise their match-up defensive play as referees, tired of calling the illegal defense foul that disrupts game flow, ignore all but the most blatant violators.

As I track pace again this season I will also keep in mind the season-long pattern shown in the chart above. When I plotted the average D1 pace at New Years, in late January (or early February -- about mid-season in conference play), at the end of February (the end of the regular season and conference play) and season-end (post NCAA & NIT), I noticed the same pattern in the 2005-06 (blue line in chart above) and 2006-07 seasons (the red line above). The number of possessions declined by between 1 - 2 possessions per game as the college teams moved through that portion of their season. For the 2005-06 season, the points on the trend line were 69.02-->68.32-->67.81-->67.61, while for the 2006-07 season they were 68.34-->67.43-->66.98-->66.85. Reasons for the decline include:

  1. Familiarity between coaches and opposing team members translates into more strategy during play.
  2. The relative importance of conference play motivates coaches to exercise greater control over each possession.
  3. Shorter player rotations diminish disruptions to each teams playing rhythm.
  4. Player fatigue due to the length of the season.

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