I like seeing defensive basketball played well, and the University of Virginia men’s team has been doing that frequently recently. The team stakes its game on intensive defensive pressure, often holding opponents to fewer than 50 points and sometimes even fewer than 40 points in games. The local crowd applauds blocks, tips, and steals vigorously and gets really loud when the defense forces the opponent into the last 10 seconds of the shot clock.
Over a couple of weeks, there was a flurry of discussion about whether the style of play constituted boring basketball. The coach dismissed the criticism and the team seems to enjoy the crowds’ enthusiasm for its defense.
I was just looking at the changes in U.Va.’s offense and defense over the past three coaches.* I noticed that the defense has, indeed, improved in recent years, as reflected in Ken Pomeroy’s opponent-adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions. The trend is clearly that the recent U.Va. teams are giving up fewer points. And, the trend is that U.Va. is clearly scoring more points per 100 possessions, too. So, how boring is that?
Of course, the tempo at which Tony Bennett’s teams play (adjusted tempo is Mr. Pomeroy’s metric; possessions per 40 minutes adjusted for opponents) is markedly lower than the pace at which previous teams have played. Why is the recent trend toward slower play? Virginia does not often race the ball up the court after other teams’ made baskets or after gaining possession via a rebound or steal. The team runs a set offense routinely. But, remember, Virginia is a team that forces the other team to use a lot of the clock, and that reduces the number of possessions, too.
With a win Monday night, this not-so-boring-to-me brand of basketball would make U.Va. the first school outside of North Carolina, Duke, and N.C. State to win consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference regular season titles outright.
*For 2015, the data reflect only the first 28 games.