“Playing fast is in my DNA. It’s what I want to do, it’s what our guys want to do.”
That was Mike White, speaking in July of 2020. He was asked about playing fast, and gave an honest answer about what he was thinking. This included saying he felt convicted about the pace of play Florida had been under his tenure, and of course finished with him saying that the Gators would play fast in 2020-21.
If you’ve been following Florida basketball over the last 6 years then you won’t be surprised by Mike White saying the Gators were going to play fast. Up-tempo basketball was what White was known for at Louisiana Tech and that style was something that helped get him hired at Florida.
And, if you’ve been following Florida basketball, you’ll know that the Gators haven’t exactly been known for an accelerated pace of play over the last several years.
For that reason, White saying in July that he was convicted about his team’s tempo and that playing fast was in his DNA was met with a bit of skepticism and a few eye rolls, though for some it meant some hope that Florida was going to get out in transition in a way that was going to be aesthetically pleasing and a way to generate easier scores than having to grind out exclusively half court possessions.
Listening to national media, the prevailing thought was that Florida was in fact playing faster last season than they had in years prior and it was something they were praised for. After most of the Mike White tenure saw the Gators playing slowly and methodically, the media started to notice a faster pace of play and were quick to point it out on broadcasting and in writing.
Even though Florida’s reputation was one of a team that was playing faster, there were also times that the Gators still seemed to walk the ball up the court and work through the shot clock, going through multiple progressions before taking a shot late.
This begs the question–how fast did Florida really play?
Today, we’re going to get to the bottom of how fast the Gators really played, and if they really were a fast team, a slow team, or somewhere in between.
Before we get going, there needs to be a bit of a disclaimer.
Nowadays playing fast is held up as a bastion of winning basketball, and it seems like every coach is claiming they want to play fast. I want to be clear here–playing fast is not the only way to win basketball games. Baylor was a team in the middle of the pack in terms of pace and they just won a National Championship. Virginia won their title as arguably the slowest team in the country, and both of Villanova’s championships came playing slowly and methodically. For that reason, I would caution you from taking any of the findings of this article and equating fast play with good play and slow play with bad play. The mission of this piece is to get to the truth and fact about Florida’s pace of play, and how close they were to the claim that the Gators were going to play fast.
With that being said, here we go!
Let’s start by discussing what is arguably the most misused stat in college basketball.
KenPom’s tempo metric.
You’ll hear this one referenced all the time when discussing how fast a team plays, and it makes sense, right? Tempo is in the name after all!
This one has been used (incorrectly) to really nail Florida on their pace of play over the last couple of seasons. For example, two seasons ago when people seemed to really get fed up with Florida’s pace they were 322nd in KenPom tempo. The year prior, 344th. Perfect for those who needed doom and gloom numbers to slam Florida and their alleged desire to play fast. The year before that, 226th.
People love to use that number, and those people will see that Florida was 167th last season. Florida was pretty middle-of-the-pack, at least according to that metric.
Okay, now I’ll tell you why that number is so misused.
KenPom’s tempo metric factors in the total number of possessions in games played by the team they are evaluating. That means that it doesn’t just factor in offensive possessions, i.e. the number that would really suggest to you how fast a team is playing, it equally factors in defensive possessions.
That means that, according to KenPom tempo, a team is “punished” for playing good defense that results in long defensive possessions. You see, offense is all about getting the best possible shot. If you can’t get a good shot, you’re going to get deeper into the shot clock as you look for one.
This is something that, quite frankly, I’m not sure that most people who cite the KenPom numbers understand. That, or when they talk about playing fast they also mean they want defensive possessions to go quickly, which would not show a high level of understanding of defensive basketball.
What you’re really looking for, if you’re going to use KenPom to evaluate how fast a team is playing, is offensive possession length. When people have discussed Florida’s tempo over the Mike White era, that is what they are referring too–how much is Florida getting up and down the court and how quickly are they getting a good shot up.
There is one logical guess as to why people cite KenPom’s tempo metric but don’t cite offensive possession length. You see, the tempo number is available on the main page of KenPom’s website, meaning anyone can go look at it. However, offensive and defensive possession length are only available on team pages, which is only accessible to paid subscribers. So, when someone misuses the tempo stat to discuss how fast a team is playing with the ball, they either haven’t yet learned how to properly use KenPom numbers, or they just don’t subscribe. Which is fine–this is an error based in misunderstanding, likely. These are probably not people trying to cherry pick a number that fits the narrative of skewering Florida’s pace, though they have totally been used that way.
So, we have established that offensive possession length is a far better way of evaluating how fast a team played than KenPom tempo.
Last year the Gators were 88th in offensive possession length, something that would suggest they really accelerated things last season.
Here is how they ranked in offensive possession length over the last couple of years, with the KenPom Tempo number in brackets so you can see where they are similar and where they are way off:
2021: 88th (167)
2020: 237th (326th)
2019: 291st (344th)
2018: 110th (226th)
Look, Florida didn’t play fast in the last couple of seasons that led to Mike White facing criticism, but it wasn’t as bad as people who misused KenPom made it out to be.
So, 88th! Not bad, right? That’s probably a number that would make Mike White and people who wanted the Gators to play fast happy, right? For some, yes.
Okay, I said using average possession length was better than KenPom’s tempo metric, and it most certainly is, but is it the best way to evaluate how fast a team played?
Here is the thing, offensive possession length can be extremely misleading for a few reasons.
For starters, turnovers.
We know Florida turned the ball over a ton, and this is a number that actually shortened their average possession length and made it look like they played a lot faster. While turnovers can absolutely happen late in the shot clock, they often happen in the middle of possessions when a team is working through an offensive possession. Since Florida turned the ball over a lot last season, this had a big impact on their average possession length. Turnovers skew average possession length, but not as much as this next thing.
With the new rules in college basketball, an offensive rebound only resets the clock to 20 seconds making any possession that follows an offensive rebound likely shorter than a normal 30 second clock possession. Additionally, often an offensive rebound is followed immediately by a putback attempt, and those quick shots completely mess up average possession length. Let’s say a team takes 25 seconds to take a shot. It goes up, misses, and gets rebounded and put back in 3 seconds. Realistically, that situation was one long possession. On the stat sheet, that’s 2 possessions in 28 seconds, which would be considered extremely fast (the fastest average possession length in college basketball was 14.2 seconds this season). You can see how offensive rebounding and putbacks can really mess up average offensive possession length.
Florida was a fantastic offensive rebounding team, and they had a ton of quick put back attempts from Colin Castleton, Omar Payne, and Anthony Duruji. Those shots take away from some of the integrity of average possession length.
To recap, KenPom tempo isn’t a good way of evaluating how fast a team plays, and average possession length is much better but can still be flawed.
There has to be a better way, right?
I think there is.
I’m a huge fan of using play by play data, particularly from a popular service called Synergy. Synergy breaks down plays into pretty much every possible variable, making it possible to gather all kinds of helpful information for any type of problem that needs to be solved.
This allows us to look at how many shots Florida took in transition, and by seeing how many possessions they were able to run and get a shot I think we get the most accurate look at how fast Florida really played last season.
On the whole, Florida took 16.7% of their shots in transition.
That number speaks to them actually playing quite fast last season as the national average for shots in transition was 16.2%. Florida wasn’t way above the pack and wasn’t above 20% like the fastest teams in college basketball were, but they were faster than average.
For context in terms of how much faster Florida played last season than in years prior, in 2019-20 they took 11.2% of their shots in transition and in 2018-19 it was 14.5%. Those numbers speak to just how little they played in transition those two seasons, and it shows Florida did accelerate their pace of play last season.
However…it still doesn’t tell the whole story. You see, that percentage is an average of how many possessions Florida played in transition over the whole season. In a long season, averages over the course of all those games can be misleading.
To get a more accurate picture of Florida’s tempo, I decided to look at each individual game and see what percentage of their shots they took in transition. This will show us in what games they played fast, and in which they didn’t.
Here is Florida’s percentages of shots in transition for each individual game last season. It’s a lot of games to look at, so I bolded the numbers of each game where Florida played faster than the national average so you can quickly see when Florida played fast, and when they played slow. In brackets is the raw number of transition possessions they had in that game.
Army: 11% (9)
Boston College: 27% (22)
Stetson: 20% (17)
FSU: 31% (26)
Vanderbilt: 32% (25)
LSU: 14% (11)
Alabama: 13% (11)
Kentucky: 10% (8)
Ole Miss: 14% (10)
Mississippi State: 9% (7)
Tennessee: 19% (15)
Georgia: 13% (11)
Vanderbilt: 20% (15)
West Virginia: 21% (17)
South Carolina: 24% (19)
Arkansas: 17% (14)
Georgia: 11% (9)
Auburn: 19% (16)
Kentucky: 6% (4)
Missouri: 23% (12)
Tennessee: 10% (7)
Vanderbilt: 18% (15)
Tennessee: 10% (9)
Virginia Tech: 7% (6)
Oral Roberts: 20% (16)
Quite noticeably, there is some pretty massive variation between games where they played quite fast, and when they played slow.
In my opinion, this tells us a lot of what we need to know about how fast Florida played last season.
Look at most of the games they played fast in. Most were against lesser opponents. Yes, West Virginia and Florida State were great teams and Florida played fast against them, but past them you see Boston College, Stetson, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and South Carolina.
Against better teams like Alabama and Kentucky, the Gators went back to playing slow, but that isn’t even the most noticeable time that Florida started to crawl.
Look at their three postseason games. In the SEC Tournament against Tennessee, a huge game with massive NCAA seeding implications, they played incredible slow. Then, in a first round game with Virginia Tech, they played their second slowest pace of the season.
You’ll see against Oral Roberts that their overall rate of transition possessions was high, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In the first 30 minutes of that game, 28% of Florida’s shots were early offense. The final 10 minutes where they let their double digit lead slide and ultimately lost? 11%.
Those three games tell you most of what you need to know about Florida’s relationship to playing fast. The character of a team isn’t revealed against Stetson, Boston College, and Vanderbilt when you’re winning by 20, it’s revealed in the biggest moments of the most important games of your season. In two of Florida’s most important games of the season against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament, they chose to play slow. In crunch time of the Round Of 32, unquestionably the most high leverage minutes in Florida’s biggest game of the season? They played slow.
Is playing fast really in Mike White’s DNA? If your DNA and your identity is shown in what you do in the biggest games and not what you do in low leverage non-conference games and against basement SEC teams, it’s hard to say that the DNA is to play fast.
Again, this isn’t to blast anyone, it’s the central goal of this article–to get to the facts and to truth.
Analytics site EvanMiya has a tremendous tool called True Tempo that I think tells us a lot of what we need to know about how fast Florida played in 2020-21. True Tempo essentially shows how fast a team played relative to how fast their opponents normally allow teams to play against them. Or, you could say, how fast a team dictates tempo. If an opponent normally allows teams to play really fast against them and you only play somewhat fast against them, it’s not going to give you a lot of credit for that pace. If you play fast against a team that usually only allows opponents to play slowly, you get huge credit for playing fast.
Simply put, it’s the most accurate measure out there for how much a team dedicated their own pace and how much they were actually just playing at the tempo their opponent normally allows.
In this metric, Florida placed 198th nationally.
In the SEC the Gators got to play teams like Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, and others that all had some of the quickest possessions against in the country last season. That set the Gators up to have a decent number of transition opportunities and a decent average possession length, though it was arguably something that gave the Gators a false sense of security when it came to their confidence in playing fast. EvanMiya’s True Tempo number showed us that the Gators didn’t actually dictate playing fast very often, something that should be factored in when evaluating a team’s ability to play fast.
More than that, we really saw Florida’s identity in postseason play. While they had stretches during the season where they were able to push and play fast, they chose not to in the most important games and biggest moments of the season. We can look at all kinds of advanced numbers and statistics, but a look at those games might tell you all that you need to know.
We learned that while Florida did play fast at some points, it was largely against lesser opponents and usually only against teams that regularly allow opponents to play fast. Florida wasn’t a team that often dictated a fast pace of play if it wasn’t made easily available to them, and their actions showed that they weren’t particularly comfortable playing fast against quality competition.
Was playing fast in the DNA of this team? Likely not.