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Can Virginia make a Final Four with a slow pace and top defense?

Slow tempo and defensive teams do just fine in the Big Dance

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Championship-Virginia vs North Carolina Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common criticisms of the Virginia Cavaliers basketball team is that the slow tempo and defense first mentality that UVA plays deters them from success in the NCAA Tournament. While the Hoos have not yet reached the Final Four since Tony Bennett took over in 2010, data in the eight tournaments since 2010 show that defensive-minded slow tempo teams do just fine in the Big Dance.

Looking at Ken Pomeroy pre-tournament data, below are the adjusted tempos for each of the last eight NCAA tournament winners.

NCAA Champions Tempo Since 2010

Season Team Tempo Rank
Season Team Tempo Rank
2017 UNC 53
2016 Villanova 250
2015 Duke 83
2014 Uconn 237
2013 Louisville 129
2012 Kentucky 190
2011 Uconn 186
2010 Duke 206

The most recent champion, UNC, was the fastest team at #53, while Villanova was more deliberate at #250. (UVA is currently #351.) If you split the 351 eligible teams in half, five of the past eight champions were in the lower half of the country in terms of tempo. If you expand out to the 32 teams that made the Final Four in that time frame, 20 of them came from the slower half as compared to 12 for a faster tempo. If you look at thirds, almost double the amount of teams that made the Final Four came from the slowest third of the country (13) than the fastest third (7). No team that has a tempo in the top 50 has made a Final Four in the past eight years. Meanwhile three teams in the bottom 50 in tempo have made it (2014-Florida at #327, 2015-Wisconsin at #347, and some team from upstate NY in 2016 at #321). Playing at a slower more deliberate pace has not affected these teams’ success in the tournament, nor should it hinder Virginia’s chances either.

Defensive minded teams have had success in March Madness as well. Looking at the same time frame, four of the past eight champions were in the top #10 in KenPom defensive efficiency ratings and four teams were in the top #10 in offense. (UVA is currently #1 in defense.) If you expand out to the 32 Final Four participants, 22 teams were in the top #25 in defense and 23 were in the offensive top #25. There is no noticeable difference between being an efficient offensive or defensive team. It is even more beneficial to be in the top #25 in both, which is the case for 17 of the 32 teams. After winning the ACC Tournament, Virginia’s offensive efficiency ranking moved to #21, to go along with their #1 defense.

Maybe the balance the Hoos have achieved so far this year will be the key for Virginia to break through to the Final Four this season.