How Tournament-Proof Are the Nation’s Top Five Offenses?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

This year multiple coaches across the country have conceded publicly that a team’s offense is the biggest factor in its ability to maintain a defense. “Defense wins championships” may still be a treasured maxim, but the truth is that offense is the fuel in college basketball. The question then becomes one of how vulnerable the best offenses in college basketball are to a one-game slump? Since only a single bad night is all it takes to be sent home from the NCAA Tournament, it’s worth investigating the nation’s top five offenses to set some criteria for evaluating the rest of the field. Per KenPom, here are the top five offenses nationally based on adjusted offensive efficiency, along with their corresponding adjusted tempo.

Team Adj. ORtg Adj. Tempo
1. UCLA 124.5 14.1 (6)
2. Oklahoma State 123.9 16.5 (91)
3. North Carolina 122.2 15 (16)
4. Gonzaga 122.2 15.7 (33)
5. Villanova 121.7 18.8 (314)

As the tempo column shows, teams can play at both warp speed (UCLA, North Carolina, Gonzaga) or at a relative crawl (Villanova) and still be extremely effective. That said, to the extent that the game slows somewhat in the NCAA Tournament, it is reasonable to suggest that some of these teams may face more trouble than others. 
The Bruins, Tar Heels and Bulldogs all use a healthy dose of tempo when they play. This is not to say that any of those three teams cannot also win a low-possession game, but their opponents would certainly be better-suited to impose a slowdown game on them to the extent possible. Villanova has already proven its favored pace can win championships. The next question then becomes which of the faster teams are most poised to handle a grind-it-out half-court game?

UCLA and North Carolina have multiple low-post options, making both seemingly more adaptable to a half-court game. Oklahoma State? The Cowboys’ top four players in terms of usage don’t clear 6’6”, and Jeffrey Carroll at 215 pounds doesn’t exactly sport a back-to-the-bucket frame. Of the top five offenses, Brad Underwood‘s club seems the most susceptible to a slower pace. The issue of usage brings us to the next factor: How dependent are these teams on a single player?  What would a poor shooting night from a star player do to this quintet’s offense? There is no totally conclusive answer, but we’d certainly expect teams with a player carrying a high individual usage rate to be more vulnerable.

Jawun Evans Carries a Huge Load for Oklahoma State (USA Today Images)

That’s more bad news for Oklahoma State, as none of the other four teams places more in the hands of a single player than the Cowboys ask from Jawun Evans. Evans uses a whopping 33 percent of the Cowboys’ possessions and takes a similar number of their shots. No other top-five offense has a player higher than 27 percent and 28.3 percent (Villanova’s Josh Hart). UCLA is a fascinating case because  it is Aaron Holiday, not Lonzo Ball or Bryce Alford, who leads the Bruins in possession usage at 23.7 percent. That offensive balance certainly bodes well for the Bruins. 

Another divide among the top offenses is the type of player who leads the team in usage. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks and Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski are big men who do so, while the other three teams are led by guards. It goes without saying that shutting one guy down isn’t enough to beat these teams, but bigs are generally more susceptible to foul trouble and it would be tougher for the Bulldogs and Tar Heels to replace their top players than for the Bruins and Wildcats to endure the losses of Hart and Holiday.

Finally, which of these teams depends the most on the three-ball? Then answer is Villanova and UCLA, a pair of teams that log 35 percent and 34 percent of their points from beyond the arc, respectively. The Bruins are the best three-point shooting team of the five by accuracy (42%, third nationally) while Villanova shoots at a lower percentage and compensates by shooting a greater volume.  Nearly 45 percent of Jay Wright’s team’s shots are three-pointers, by far the highest rate among the top five offenses. On the other hand, North Carolina and Gonzaga are the least reliant on three-pointers (26% and 27% of their respective points) among the five teams.

UCLA Seems Well-Poised to Handle the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

In summation, UCLA plays at the highest tempo, is very good but not overly tied to the three-pointer and has strong post options. North Carolina plays the second-fastest tempo, is not at all tied to the three-pointer and has strong post options in the event of a grinder. Gonzaga plays at a high tempo, has a post option and doesn’t rely excessively on the three-pointer. Villanova plays at the slowest pace, is heavily reliant on the three-ball and lacks a solid back-to-the basket foundation. Oklahoma State plays at a moderate tempo, shoots the three-ball well but isn’t beholden to it and lacks a strong post presence.

So which team is best suited to keep scoring right on through the NCAA Tournament? It says here that UCLA is the best-situated squad, followed by Gonzaga. Both teams can produce from the post, they can shoot it from outside, and they are not dependent on any one player. A bad three-point shooting night probably means the end for Villanova, and any kind of subpar performance (from fouls or just generally poor play) from Evans would finish off Oklahoma State. North Carolina sits right in the middle. Of course, there are plenty of other factors that go into slowing a great offense, but this seems like a reasonable launching point. Limiting any of these five teams is of course much easier said than done, but the chances are good that if some team pulls it off, it will be from exploiting the traits discussed here.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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