What The Gators Can Learn From The Final Four Teams

Though Villanova is still celebrating their National Championship win that happened less than 24 hours ago the Gators’ loss on March 17 in the Round of 32 makes it feel like their season ended ages ago. Flipping the page to the next season players and coaches have both started their preparation for the 2018-2019 campaign with the returners in the gym getting shots up while the staff hits the recruiting trail to look for future Gators. While you never want to dwell on the past for too long, I think it’s more important than ever to keep a close eye on the world of college basketball to be on top of the latest trends that are going to win you games and sell your program to recruits. Basketball is a copycat game and looking at what has made other programs successful is a valuable tool and should not be ignored. With Final Four births and National Championship victories being a goal of the team I thought I would take a look at what Michigan, Kansas, Loyola-Chicago, and the victorious Villanova Wildcats did successfully this year to get them to college basketball’s biggest stage and what the Gators can learn from them in order to reach the same heights.

You’ll see me post a lot of stats and they will all be referring to that team’s number and national rank from this season via KenPom and Synergy Sports Tech. I will also post the Gators’ stats in every scenario as a reference point to how they did against the Final Four teams.

The Myth Of Playing Fast

In today’s basketball world playing fast is a trendy topic amongst coaches, players, and analysts. Players always talk about playing fast, coaches tell recruits they want to play with pace, and analysts look at playing fast as some magical indication that an offense is working, regardless of outcome. In reality, playing fast doesn’t actually appear to be a necessity to win. In fact, playing slightly slower than average might even appear to be the most fruitful way to play basketball. Here are two statistics related to pace of play, first adjusted tempo (a pro-rated estimate of possessions versus a team that plays at average D-I tempo) and average possession length, which I find to be the number that more accurately shows how fast a team is playing since it shows how long it’s taking for them to put a shot up.

Adjusted Tempo:

Villanova: 68.7 (150th)
Michigan: 64.9 (324th)
Kansas: 68.8 (144th)
Loyola-Chicago: 65.5 (307th)
Florida: 67.1 (226th)

Average Possession Length (seconds):

Villanova: 17.9 (233rd)
Michigan: 18.6 (308th)
Kansas: 16.5 (72nd)
Loyola-Chicago: 18.4 (285th)
Florida: 16.9 (110th)

As you see, playing fast will not get you to the Final Four. Playing fast leads to less consistency and more turnovers while playing slower and working for a good look leads to more open shots while also fatiguing the defense at a higher level. The idea that playing slow is better than playing fast is further evidenced by Villanova ranking #1 in offensive efficiency this year while also having the highest offensive rating in college basketball history. And they did it by playing slow. As you can see, the Gators were actually in the same realm of these Final Four teams in pace and that looks to be the sweet spot. However, I will say, there is a right way and a wrong way to play slow. Villanova plays slowly but methodically, moving players through offensive progressions and making the defense react by utilizing player movement. The Gators had some trouble last year when the game slowed down by not having enough ball and player movement and they’ll have to learn that playing slow doesn’t mean just holding onto the ball. Playing at a controlled pace while working through multiple offensive sets was the common trend with the Final Four teams and it’s something that the Gators could learn from.

One And Done Doesn’t Do It

Top 15 recruits and one and done talent always dominate the off-season and early-season narratives of college basketball but when it comes to post season play it’s experienced players that get the job done. Trae Young, Deandre Ayton, Collin Sexton, Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba, and Jaren Jackson were long gone by the time the Final Four rolled around and it was journeymen like Jalen Brunson, Mo Wagner, Devonte’ Graham, and Clayton Custer that were dominating the play. That’s not to say there wasn’t hire level talent or highly rated recruits, but there wasn’t a single projected one and done guy to set foot on the Final Four floor.

If you combine all four rosters, there were:

3 Five-Star Recruits (One of which being Malik Newman, a Mississippi State transfer)
18 Four-Star Recruits
13 Three-Star Recruits

Villanova, the champions, provided two five-stars, 5 four-stars, and 4 three-stars. That isn’t a lot of supremely high rated recruits, but players that fit the program and are developed during their time with the program. Villanova’s star breakdown also looks a lot like Florida’s star breakdown for their roster next year which will be:

1 Five-Star Recruit
8 Four-Star Recruits
4 Three-Star Recruits* (*this includes Jalen Hudson, a three-star who may turn pro)

This is encouraging for the Gators moving forward and also points to the way the Gators should be recruiting. The lure of a top-15 five-star splash is great, and having one of those guys can really help your program, but it’s the 40th-80th ranked players that stay until they are juniors or seniors that help your program make it deep into the NCAA Tournament. Keep that in mind when you see the coaching staff in hot pursuit of that style of player and not the one and done talent that other major programs are chasing.

Three-Point Prominence

Let’s see how the hottest shot in basketball, the three-pointer, factored in to the Final Four teams’ offenses.

3-Point Percentage:

Villanova: 40.1 (11th)
Michigan: 35.2 (156th)
Kansas: 40.1 (10th)
Loyola-Chicago: 39.8 (17th)
Florida: 37.0 (78th)

Percentage Of Total Points From 3-Pointers:

Villanova: 40.2 (15th)
Michigan: 35.6 (81st)
Kansas: 37.0 (50th)
Loyola-Chicago: 30.4 (189th)
Florida: 35.9 (75th)

As expected, some of the best teams in the country happen to also be some of the best 3-point shooting teams by percentage in the country. The percentage of total points from 3-pointers is perhaps more interesting as it shows that though a good chunk of your offense should come from behind the arc it also shouldn’t be such a high percentage that you live and die on that shot (unless you’re Villanova, whose offensive abilities are breaking the mold). 3-point shooting could be an interesting storyline for the team next year as sharpshooter Egor Koulechov has graduated and 40% shooter Jalen Hudson might go pro, but the team returns it’s two highest percentage long bombers in Keith Stone and Michael Okauru while smooth shooting big men Chase Johnson and Isaiah Stokes will both be active and the team brings in Noah Locke who is widely considered to be one of the best 3-point shooters in the class. While efficient 3-point shooting is key, it’s also important to remember that it can’t be the only offensive weapon in your repertoire.

I mean, unless you’re Villanova.

The Devil Is In The Details

Coaching isn’t always easy to quantify but one area where you can look to see a bench boss’ handiwork is in after time out plays, the offensive possessions following a break where a play is drawn up at the exact personnel desired can be put onto the floor to execute the set that was composed. Additionally, after time out plays can show how good a team is at learning on the fly, seeing if they can learn a set in 30 seconds and execute it immediately. Let’s take a look at after time out play efficiency:

After Time Out Efficiency (Points Per Possession):

Villanova: 1.059 (5th)
Michigan: 0.981 (30th)
Kansas: 1.058 (6th)
Loyola-Chicago: 1.064 (4th)
Florida: 0.722 (337th)

Wait…what?

That isn’t a typo, the Gators are actually one of the worst teams in the country at executing offense out of time outs, and that happens to be a category that the Final Four teams excelled at. 337th. Right behind the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners and just ahead of the San Jose State Spartans. This is clearly an area that needs to improve, and it could be an indicator of other offensive struggles. If the Gators struggled to score after a timeout was used to draw up a play, it makes sense why they sometimes struggled to score for long stretches during games. If some players never truly grasped the offense, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t be able to learn a play during a TV timeout. Some people might look at this as a coaching fault, and that could be the case too as Mike White continues to develop his in-game strategic abilities. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a single stat, but the way that the Final Four teams excelled in this category makes me think in some capacity it is tied to a team’s basketball IQ and I think it will be a stat to keep an eye on next season.

There are a lot of ways to play basketball and there are a lot of ways to win basketball games. I’m not saying the Gators need to completely copy everything done by whoever wins the championship the season before but I think it’s smart to look for trends to see what has proven to be successful or unsuccessful and use that date in either a small or big way to improve.

Did you see anything from the Final Four teams that you think the Gators should try to emulate? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.