If the expression “slow and steady wins the race” applies to basketball, then this much is certain: Virginia men’s basketball players will be cutting down the nets after winning the NCAA championship Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
While none of other three Final Four teams play particularly fast, Virginia has played the slowest — at least according to a stat called adjusted average tempo — of all the 353 Division I teams this season.
To arrive at that stat involves a calculation centered around the total number of possessions and minutes for a team in a game, per KenPom.com. That “adjusted” part of the metric takes into account other factors such as strength of schedule and the tendencies of opponents.
What does it look like on the court? Well, it’s about how you might imagine. Virginia often has long offensive possessions — in fact, at 20.9 seconds per possession this year, only one other team had a longer average possession time than the Cavaliers.
The average Division I possession lasted 17.5 seconds, so Virginia’s are a full 3.4 seconds longer. That might not sound like much, but it can feel like an eternity for an opponent (and a viewer).
There are a couple of potential drawbacks with long possessions as an offense: There is more opportunity for a turnover if a team is sloppy, and if the shot clock gets too deep without a good look at the basket, it can lead to an inefficient shot.
“You have to be assertive and have an aggressiveness, and you also have to take good shots,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said regarding the team’s offensive philosophy.
“You can’t get wild. You can’t go over the edge. But you also have to be sound with a level of patience, but you can’t become hesitant and ineffective. So it’s trying to find that sweet spot.”
The Cavaliers have largely found it this season. They rank No. 2 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (123.0), which takes into account points scored per 100 possessions in the context of a team’s opponents.
And according to College Basketball Reference, they turn the ball over only 12.7 times per 100 possessions — the ninth-best mark in Division I and the best among Final Four teams.
Virginia’s careful style will be put to the test against Auburn in Saturday’s semifinals, though; the Tigers create turnovers on 21.5 percent of opponent possessions, third best in the country.
Virginia can afford to hold onto the ball because it has great shooters. The Cavaliers make 39.4 percent of their shots from three-point range, eighth best in the country. Their three highest-volume long-distance shooters each make 39.9 percent or better, including Kyle Guy at 42.7 percent on 267 attempts.
They also hold opponents to 28.7 percent shooting from three-point range, part of the reason they are fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, as well.
You might imagine that a team that limits possessions, limits its own turnovers, shoots the lights out and locks down on defense might be frustrating to play against — and even watch.
You would be correct.
But it’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing team that gets to the end of March Madness hoisting the trophy.