Last season, Big Ten teams averaged 62.3 possessions per game, the lowest aggregate figure of any power conference and the sixth-slowest out of the 32 recognized college basketball conferences. The league was also sixth-slowest the year before that, and was second-slowest in the two years prior to that. Big Ten teams don't much care for the fast break.
In 2015-16, college basketball's going to speed up quite a bit. The shot clock is now 30 seconds and not 35, so teams will have to shoot faster across the board, creating extra possessions and almost certainly more scoring, if not more efficiency. But Maryland is likely to be especially notable in this regard, to hear Mark Turgeon tell it at the Terps' media day on Oct. 20.
"It'll be interesting to see. We've been practicing with it. It is different. It does come a little bit quicker. We're trying to run an NBA system," Turgeon said. "We did it last year. We're better at it this year, it's much improved. By the way that we do things, it allows us to do things quickly offensively."
Turgeon has stated a preference for fast offense before. Even last year, when Maryland was No. 4 in the Big Ten in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted pace metric and the Terps' offensive efficiency cratered in conference play, Turgeon didn't want to slow down.
"You always want to get easy ones if you can," he said last February. "I don't think we play fast enough, to be quite honest with you, at times."
Turgeon's teams have really sped up in recent years
Turgeon's teams were notoriously deliberate when he coached at Texas A&M and Wichita State, but he's sought faster and faster offense since he's been at Maryland. His Aggies and Shockers teams were deep in the bottom half of the country in adjusted tempo (possessions per game, indexed to the pace of opponents) in eight of his 10 years as a coach before coming to Maryland. At Texas A&M, no Turgeon team took more than 66 adjusted trips up the court per game or got inside the top 230 teams in pace nationwide.
But in College Park, Turgeon's Terps have been drastically faster. They averaged between 67 and 69 trips in his first three seasons, and Maryland's offense struggled. Last year, the offense clicked when the team's pace slowed to a relative crawl: 62 opponent-adjusted possessions per 40 minutes. Oddly enough, that figure was about equal in conference and non-conference play was still fourth-fastest among 14 league teams in Big Ten games.
For what it's worth, Pomeroy projects Maryland to play at an adjusted tempo of 68.4 possessions this year, No. 182 in the country and No. 8 in the Big Ten.
Pace impacts games in subtle but important ways
The difference between Turgeon's teams at Maryland and elsewhere shouldn't be understated. It's true that a difference of three or four possessions per game doesn't seem significant, but it absolutely matters. When games are decided by one, two, three or four possessions, the amount of offensive trips a team takes and defends can have an enormous impact at the margins. It's not nearly as simple as saying, "Both teams get the same amount of chances," then being done with it.
Teams take different tempo approaches based on personnel and philosophy differences, and Maryland's seen drastically different ends of the pace spectrum in the last year. The Terps last season played against both pack-line-defending, fast break-squashing Virginia (adjusted tempo: 58.4) and breakneck VMI (77.1). There's no more reliable factor in whether a game is high-scoring or low-scoring than pace, so teams built on defense are incentivized to play slowly. Teams that can run and gun but not defend much are encouraged to play more quickly, and so on.
Maryland's roster is probably a good fit for a fast-paced approach
Last season, Maryland wasn't as well-suited to play quickly as it is now. The Terps were working in four freshman rotation players, and only Melo Trimble and Dion Wiley entered as polished ball-handlers. Dez Wells was a transition beast, and Jake Layman can run the court well. But the Terps had a lot of players best tailored for a half-court offense: Jon Graham, Evan Smotrycz, Michal Cekovsky Richaud Pack and Damonte Dodd aren't major transition threats.
This year, Maryland's freshmen from a year ago all have more seasoning. Rasheed Sulaimon – one of college basketball's best athletes – is here, and so are hyper-athletic frontcourt players Robert Carter and Diamond Stone. Wells is gone, but Maryland's lineup has pure athletes all over the place. As long as they can play under control, their superior skill should take over and encourage quite a bit of fast-paced scoring. The 30-second clock jibes with this edge.
"It'll be a little bit different, but we're equipped to handle that, too," Turgeon said. "We've got good shooters, we've got a good inside game. I don't think the 30-second clock is going to hinder us at all. In fact, I think it's going to help us."