Authored by: Steve Sandmeyer
We’ve been following along this year’s March Madness using our Google Cloud pipeline to conduct another great season of NCAA basketball data analysis. Along the way, we’ve created new metrics, such as competitiveness, explosiveness, and clutchness, as well as reminisced over some of the most dramatic survive-and-advance shots in the past decade of the men’s tournament. And now that the final number of the Big Dance finally upon us, we can see it’s going to be historic, one way or another.
For starters, we have a few clear narratives: Virginia continues to exorcise the demons of last year’s historic upset in search of redemption. Meanwhile, Texas Tech is this year’s dark horse, attempting to ride their smothering defense one more time to complete a storybook ending to the season.
Beyond that is the fact that both teams are vying for the title for the first time, which is pretty neat. Even more noteworthy, though, is that this the first time that’s happened in modern tournament history (which is to say, since the round of 64 was introduced in 1985).
On top of all of that? The possibility that this will be the slowest championship game in tournament history.
We don’t mean to imply there won’t be exciting moments and/or high drama — March Madness always seems to provide plenty of those. It’s just that they probably won’t manifest in a fast-paced, up-and-down style of play. Basketball purists will love this matchup, but adrenaline junkies, probably not so much.
If you weren’t watching on Saturday, Texas Tech’s 61–51 semi-final win over Michigan State was glacially slow — to the tune of the lowest scoring Final Four first half in 19 years. Virginia’s 63–62 win over Auburn in the other semi-final wasn’t much faster. Each team had fewer than 60 possessions.
The data supports what we saw over the weekend. According to Google Cloud’s schedule adjusted metrics, Texas Tech’s pace of play comes in at #249 and Virginia’s at #353 (dead last, at 60 possessions per 40 minutes).
Moreover, these two teams have two of the four most efficient defenses.
Putting this all together, it means that neither team will have a ton of opportunities to score, and when they do, the baskets will not come easily. An epic tug-of-war is on tap between Virginia’s offense and Texas Tech’s defense tonight.
When Virginia has the ball, they intentionally play slowly, using most of the 30-second shot clock. This achieves two things: first, it limits the cumulative number of possessions/opportunities for the opponent over the course of the 40-minute contest. By chewing up clock, the Cavaliers effectively “shorten” the game. Second, it allows more time to create a higher quality shot with a better chance of going in. Instead of taking lots of bad shots quickly, they run longer offensive sets at each possession for better shot selection (and tire out the defense, to boot). This strategy has been extremely effective: despite having the slowest pace of play in the league, the Cavaliers have the second best offensive efficiency rating (122.1) among 353 Division I teams.
On the other hand, when it comes to defense, Texas Tech is the gold standard. They rank #1 in the NCAA for defensive efficiency (82.7 rating), #7 in forced turnover rate (23.4%), and they completely obliterated two of the top-four-rated offenses (Michigan State, 61–51; and Gonzaga, 75–69). To put those wins in perspective, Michigan State ranked third in the NCAA in assists with 18.6 per game, but on Saturday, they had six. Meanwhile, Gonzaga was the top-rated offense in the NCAA, but committed 16 turnovers on March 30 and were held to less than 70 points for only the fourth time all season.
Lest you think that the rest of the college basketball-obsessed world isn’t on top of these numbers, oddsmakers in Vegas (who are right a lot more often than they are wrong) have listed the over/under for total points scored at 118 — which is the lowest National Championship total posted in 20 years. Spoiler alert: the early public betting money has come in on (anticlimactic drumroll) under 118.
Regardless of outcome, tonight’s National Championship game will be one for the books. We have two slow teams — one efficient offense, two great defenses, and not a lot of points scored — each in pursuit of the first NCAA Men’s Tournament championship for their alma mater. But just because we expect it to be slow, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a one-sided affair. At the very least, we expect to see some good drama to unfold. Just, not in the way most people are accustomed to seeing during a title game.
… but did we mention it’ll probably be slow?