One of the things BYU basketball has done extremely well under Dave Rose is play fast. BYU has been in the top 25 in possessions per game since the 2010-2011 season, and is currently 7th in the nation. The idea behind this offensive strategy is fairly simple. It involves a lot of running. The conditioning required to run with BYU combined with the altitude of Provo in comparison with other West Coast Conference schools tips the scales in BYU’s favor every home game – more than just what the noisy confines of the Marriott Center could provide. After checking out of the game on January 7th, one of Pacific’s players remarked, “I can’t breathe coach. I just can’t breathe.” The ability of BYU to test the conditioning of opposing teams should not be underestimated.
A possession for statistical record keeping is pretty well defined. The official formula for possessions is: (FGA + TO + .44*FTA – OREB). One might look at the formula and think it is extremely straight forward. Except for the .44*FTA. Why .44? .44 was determined as the correct factor essentially through guess and check. Not every free throw attempt is the result of a foul on a missed shot, so .5 or .33 if the shot is a 3 point attempt, are not accurate. Not every free throw is the result of an and-1, so 1 is an incorrect factor. A group of NBA statisticians came together, looked at the data, and through trial and error arrived at the conclusion that .44 is the correct factor to use. A team will have a slightly different number of offensive and defensive possessions in a game.
Disclaimer: As I have tracked stats, I have chosen to not subtract offensive rebounds because an offensive rebound allows the offense to reset, and take advantage of a new shot clock. As a result of this, the number of possessions in this article will be slightly larger than in statistic databases.
Princeton averages about 76 offensive possessions per game. Against BYU, Princeton had 88 offensive possessions. Colorado had one more possession than their season average. Pacific played 8 more possessions than average. And those were just on the offensive side. Game totals are approximately double that. Princeton players ran the floor approximately 24 more times than they are used to. That would take a toll on any athlete and definitely played a role in BYU’s wins over those teams.
But some teams, and playing styles, have been able to give BYU trouble over the past few years - namely Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and teams that play as fast as BYU does, like Utah Valley. I believe that pace is the main reason for their success against BYU. I’ll start with UVU. They average 86.5 offensive possessions per game and are one of the few teams with a higher average than BYU. They actually view BYU as a slow team (if you can believe that) and actually played over 100 offensive possessions in that game. They ran us off the floor, both in shooting percentage and in pace. That game was essentially BYU playing a BYU clone, and the clones were better prepared.
The case with Gonzaga is a similar story. Last year, BYU and Gonzaga split their regular season games. Over the course of the season, BYU and Gonzaga averaged about the same number of offensive and defensive possessions per game (with BYU playing slightly faster, of course). Against BYU, Gonzaga changes their playing style to slow down the game because they believe it will frustrate BYU to their benefit. This has proven generally true, but occasionally BYU is able to beat Gonzaga, and it is by getting Gonzaga to play close to their season average. This is also why I believe the games between BYU and Gonzaga will continue to be close.
Saint Mary’s is a different story all together. SMC plays a style extremely similar to BYU except they play at a pace almost 40 offensive possessions slower per game (around 80 total possessions per game!). In the past three games against SMC, BYU has a 1-2 record. In the loss to SMC last year, SMC played a game with 13 more total possessions than their season average. This was 16 possessions slower than average for BYU. This year, SMC played exactly at their season average of 139 possessions per game. BYU plays an average of 186 possessions per game. SMC was able to get BYU to play at a pace they are uncomfortable playing. When you watch these games at home, you can feel the frustration and impatience coming from the team. They pass less and take less than ideal shots. In the win last year, BYU played 18 fewer possessions than their season average, but forced SMC to play 12 more possessions than their average.
When BYU is able to force teams to play at their fast tempo, or at least faster than their average, things bode well. However, when BYU is forced to play slower than what they are accustomed to the team plays frustrated and tries to force it on offense.
The ability of Gonzaga to play at multiple paces has led them to try to slow down their games against BYU, but in the games they have been unable to slow the game, BYU has gone toe-to-toe with the perennial WCC Champion. Against BYU, the one of the greatest indicators of who will win is the pace of play. If SMC dictates the pace, as they did earlier this season, they win. If BYU is able to force a faster game, BYU wins.
As the season continues, watch the flow and pace of each game, and note how well BYU plays. USC was the only game this season who played faster than average that BYU performed below average in offensive and defensive rating. SMC was the only game played slower than average that BYU’s offensive rating was above average, and no below average pace games have resulted in an above average defensive rating. In terms of wins and losses, BYU has lost its 2 slowest games and 3 of the 4 fastest games. The only double digit losses by BYU came in the slowest game (SMC) and the fastest game (UVU).
BYU does not play well when they do not dictate the pace. Pace is one of the key indications to watch when BYU plays to determine if BYU will be successful.
If you have a BYU stats question let me know by tweeting me at @okelleykm or emailing me at email@example.com.