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Speedy Zags playing with pace

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Gonzaga is playing at its highest adjusted tempo in the last 15 years.

Bryant v Gonzaga Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

It is only three games into the season, so small sample size qualifiers, competition level and the like apply, but Gonzaga is playing at its highest adjusted tempo (possesions per 40 minutes) in the last 15 years according to kenpom.com.

Through three games, the Bulldogs are playing with a 72.1 rating. While this figure doesn’t even place them in the nation’s Top 100, it is the highest mark for the Zags dating back to the start of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings in 2002.

Gonzaga’s increased pace of play became readily apparent in the season opener against Utah Valley, first through my own eye test, and then confirmed by Ken Pomeroy’s pace score of 80 assigned to the game. The 80 score stands out because the Zags have only reached that level in one other game over the last 3 seasons (1/2/16 at San Francisco which went to overtime).

Even with the more sloggish game dictated by San Diego State’s style of play, the Zags are currently several points above the 70-threshold, a level they haven’t maintained since the 2009-2010 season.

There are a couple of likely reasons for the uptick in pace beyond just pointing to the shot clock being reduced from 35 seconds to 30 seconds in 2015.

First, the impressive squad depth which has been mentioned on numerous occasions already (despite us only being in the nascent stages of the season), permits the team to play faster and more aggressively for a longer period of time—the whole game if the coaches so desire—without tiring out the players. This advantage allows the Zags to physically overwhelm opponents over the course of a game.

Second, the depth we speak about doesn’t just mean there’s more bodies this year to throw out on the court. Rather, the players put on the floor are really talented—even if they’re coming off the bench. Thus, there’s minimal drop off in Gonzaga’s ability to execute its gameplan when substitutions start, an issue that plagues most squads and hinders a team’s ability to control the tempo of the game.

Third, the team can get whatever type of shot they want at an earlier point in the shot clock. Mark Few’s offensive system features a lot of “actions” in any given set, giving players a lot of choices in where to go with the ball in order to create the best scoring opportunity. This generally means longer possessions as options are cycled through in an offensive set. But, Gonzaga’s offensive average possession length is in the Top 50 in the country this year, and its evident from the game film that the Zags can find an offensive mismatch almost immediately based on the aforementioned depth of high-level talent, thus shortening the length of its offensive possessions.

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, the Zags are playing more aggressively on defense leading to shorter possessions for opponents. Remember, tempo and pace don’t only measure what a team is doing on offense, but what’s happening on the defensive side as well. Currently, Gonzaga is holding opponents to an average possession length of 16.0 according to Ken Pomeroy’s calculations, which is the team’s lowest mark since Pomeroy began keeping track of this metric in the 2009-2010 season. And, it’s not the lowest figure by a narrow margin either as Gonzaga generally plies its trade in the 18-19 range. There’s almost assuredly some correlation with this reduced figure and the shot clock being shortened to 30 seconds, but Gonzaga is also forcing turnovers at a significantly increased rate this year and forcing opponents into shots earlier in the shot clock. The increased turnovers are also leading to more transition opportunities on the offensive end which also generally creates quick and easy offensive opportunities.

As mentioned above, the season is still very young and as the sample size increases, Gonzaga’s tempo might decrease. But, the composition of this team leads me to believe that this is how the Bulldogs will play for the majority of the year. At the very least, it’s something to keep an eye on as the schedule progresses.