Slow is steady: On tempo, and why Florida basketball's offense isn't what you think

USA TODAY Sports

Florida's not the breakneck team that fans and writers remember from early in Billy Donovan's tenure. And it's better for it. But that should be better understood.

Florida's round of 64 opponent in the 2013 NCAA Tournament is Northwestern State leads the nation in two statistical categories: Points per game and possessions per game. The latter is the more important stat when it comes to understanding the Demons, because despite playing against the highest-scoring team in the country on Friday, Florida will have the better offense on the floor by far.

And it's because Florida is slow.

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Florida was more like Northwestern State once. In 1999-2000, Florida put up 2,299 shots in 37 games, which remains the most shots Florida has launched in a season, and scored 83.8 points per game, coming within a point per game of Florida's 1986-87 team, which put up 2,246 shots in 34 games and scored 84.2 points per contest ... despite Vernon Maxwell's shots from that season not officially appearing in the UF record book. Florida averaged 80 points per game in each of the four seasons from 1998-99 to 2001-02, in fact, putting up more than 1,750 shots and more than 650 threes in each of those seasons.

But Florida also turned over the ball frequently in those years, with 556 turnovers in '98-'99, 607 in '99-'00, and better than 450 in '00-'01 and '01-'02; 607 remains the team record for total turnovers, despite Florida equaling or exceeding that season's 37 games four times in the years since, and the 17.9 turnovers per game in '98-'99 is a team record that probably won't be touched.

Those were risks worth taking in the Billyball system that existed back then, with pressure defense and quick threes fueling a team that was going to outshoot you because it couldn't rely on half-court defense. But with the exception of the '99-'00 squad, which needed a Mike Miller miracle to beat Butler in the first round, those four high-octane teams didn't go deep in the NCAA Tournament, compiling just three NCAA Tournament wins in the three years around that magical NCAA final run.

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It wasn't until the Oh-Fours and their defense came around that Florida made its title runs — and it was efficiency, not speed, that was their hallmark on offense.

Remarkably, in the 11 years since 2003 that Ken Pomeroy has posted public efficiency stats, Florida has never scored fewer than 1.126 points per possession in his adjusted efficiency statistics. The Gators give good shooters tons of threes, which helps bolster effiency, and mostly avoid efficiency-killing turnovers, and feed efficient post players, and always manage to do one really well when the other isn't a strength: The second- and third-highest turnover percentages Florida has posted the KenPom era came from the two national championship squads, which were both fantastic enough at shooting both twos and threes to more than make up for it.

Those teams weren't in the top 100 in terms of pace, either. Florida's "fastest" team, as measured by possessions per game in Pomeroy's Adjusted Tempo, was the 2005-06 bunch, which clocked in at 67.9 trips per contest. Three teams matched that number this year in college basketball: George Washington, Duke, and Ohio. They were ranked No. 82, No. 83, and No. 84 in Adjusted Tempo.

And that was much, much slower than the Gators were playing at the turn of the millennium. Team Rankings has raw possessions per game from those years, which aren't quite comparable to Adjusted Tempo, but they paint the picture well: Florida averaged 76.5 in 1998-99, and 77.2 in 1999-2000, but declined to 74.5 in 2000-01 and held at that number in 2001-02.

By 2005-06, that number was 70.2. This year, it's 64.1 — and Florida is No. 312 of 347 NCAA Division I teams in tempo. In the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, only Wisconsin and Pittsburgh are slower.

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And yet we still get ledes like this one, from The Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley.

All season long, Florida has tried to wear down the opposition with its up-and-down tempo.

Friday night will not be one of those nights.

Florida's "up-and-down tempo" is hard to figure, especially when the Gators aren't even among the top 300 teams in the country in raw possessions per game. (Adjusted Tempo slots Florida slightly higher: No. 298.) This is not a Florida team that runs and runs, nor one that jacks threes regardless of quality; it is a Florida team that searches patiently for the best shot on offense, and one that plays defense in the half court for virtually the entire shot clock.

But even that doesn't sufficiently describe Florida's tempo, because the Gators aren't averse to running: They just do it selectively. Florida is lethal in transition off turnovers, and good off long rebounds, as Hoop-Math's numbers support: Florida posts an insane 77 percent Effective Field Goal percentage off steals when it shoots within 10 seconds, and excellent 59 and 58 percent marks off rebounds and opponents' buckets when it shoots within 10 seconds. More than 40 percent of the shots in each of the latter two situations are threes.

Those numbers back up what you can see when you watch every Florida game: A Gators team that plays a pressure offense of sorts in transition and semi-transition, often rushing the ball up the court with passes or dribbles in the hopes of finding a hole that won't be there seconds later. Patric Young and Casey Prather are murderous when they get run-outs at the rim; Erik Murphy sniping as a trailer may be even more deadly.

But that confounds the idea of Florida as a running team and the idea of Florida as a slow team, and, with all due respect, the Florida beat does not have a lot of writers who understand advanced stats well enough to write all this.

That's a shame, because Billy Donovan clearly does.

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Donovan's understanding of defense on a per-possession basis has helped fuel Florida's defense in 2012-13, but Donovan's quote about advanced stats to ESPN The Magazine's Eddie Metz wasn't just about defense: "I've been a big believer in advanced metrics," Donovan said. That makes sense, given how Donovan's offense has been oriented around threes for almost two decades.

But Florida adding a little more focus on defense (and, in fairness, better defenders) and turning into one of the nation's best defensive teams was a sign that knowing those advanced stats and what they say will be key to understanding Florida going forward. Tempo's another sign. And there will be more to come, both relating specifically to Florida and not.

While I was writing this article, a roommate's friend asked me about Northwestern State, and, taking the easy way out, I told him that the Demons lead the nation in scoring, which took him aback. But Northwestern State scores 1.054 points per possession.

Florida scores 1.183 PPP. And if Florida kept that scoring rate up over the 72.9 possessions per game that Northwestern State gets, the Gators would score 86.2 points per game.

That's significantly more than the Demons' 81.0 points per game ... and Florida has played all of its games against Division I competition this year. Remove Northwestern State's four games against non-Division I teams, in which the Demons scored 118, 92, 95, and 108 points, and Northwestern State isn't even the nation's top scoring offense.

And when teams take the Demons out of their run-run-run-run-run rhythm, their offense isn't great. Northwestern State has played seven games with fewer than 70 possessions, and is 4-3 in them, with just one 80-point outburst that was fueled by fantastic shooting. Florida isn't likely to be tricked into playing the Demons' way, not with just three games of 70 or more possessions, all three (home wins over Missouri and Alabama State and a road loss to Arkansas) characterized by enormous first-half leads that led to frantic, pace-increasing rallies.

Of course, doing all this research takes time. It took me hours that would otherwise be spent going to games and getting quotes and waiting in line for barbecue.

I think getting you better information is worth it.

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