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Sometimes Playing Fast Is Actually Bad

We make a lot of jokes about Virginia’s pace, but Marquette is going the other way and not doing it well.

Marquette v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The pace and speed of Virginia basketball under head coach Tony Bennett is and has been the subject of a variety of jokes during his tenure. The apex of the comedy value of the glacial pace of the Cavaliers may be when they got their doors absolutely blown off by UMBC in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The criticism of Bennett’s team being unable to function at a faster rate as they fell further and further behind in that game while the time remaining grew smaller and smaller remains valid to a certain extent, even after the 2019 NCAA tournament ended with Bennett and his players climbing a Werner ladder to cut down the nets as champion.

As much as we all continue to get mileage out of the jokes involved, the fact of the matter is that it appears that Marquette fans miiiiiiiight want to actually be jealous of what Bennett is accomplishing. It appears that not only is MU head coach Steve Wojciechowski not embracing the slow pace/high efficiency approach of Bennett, but he’s going about letting his Golden Eagles teams play at a lightning quick pace in pretty much the worst manner possible.

As things stand right now, on the morning of December 13, 2019, Marquette is currently ranked #37 on in offensive efficiency and #30 in defensive efficiency. That’s a drop of five spots on offense from the end of last season, but an improvement of 15 spots on the defensive end. With nothing else to discuss or look at and no other context clues, I’ll be happy to tell you that I’d be more than willing to trade five spots on offense for 15 spots on defense.

If we dig down one notch, though, we see that Marquette ranks #22 in the country in adjusted tempo. If you prefer to think of it this way, it means they’re one of the 25 fastest playing teams in the country. The Golden Eagles are getting nearly six possessions per game more than than they were a year ago, which represents a 94 spot jump on KenPom in their tempo ranking from the end of the 2018-19 season. A very small dip in offensive efficiency combined with a decent jump in defensive efficiency and a huge jump in pace of play would generally speaking sound like a very good way to go about things. That sounds, generally speaking, like you’re going to score a bit more points in total thanks to the speed and allow a bit less thanks to the improved defense, and that’s always what you want to do.

Except .........

Well .......

It looks like Marquette is going about their elevated pace of play in absolutely the wrong way.

According to KenPom, Marquette is ranked #193 in the country in average defensive possession length. That’s a dip of 44 spots from last season. There’s a few possible reasons for this, of course, but one of them could easily be that Marquette is a tougher defensive nut to crack and teams are taking longer to figure out how to get the shot that they want. If that’s the case, then a longer defensive possession isn’t a bad thing. Another reason for the long defensive possession length is that the Golden Eagles aren’t very good at forcing turnovers. In fact, they’re actually bad at it, ranking #284 in the country in defensive turnover rate. Still, all of this is slowing the game down, and thus decreasing the number of possible possessions, and MU is showing an overall increase in possessions.

So the increase in overall tempo must becoming from the offense, and as it turns out, Marquette has the 55th shortest offensive possessions in the country on average this season. That’s a jump of 36 spots from last season. Now, with Markus Howard on the roster as the only true serious every night offensive threat, you’re not going to get a lot of argument from me about speeding things up on the offensive end. More speed = more movement = more confusion by the defense = more availability for other guys to get good looks at the rim = easier looks for Howard. That’s definitely a good reason to play fast.

Except, and you’ll be shocked to find this out, that’s probably not the reason that Marquette is playing faster than they were last season. At the very least, it’s not the only reason.

Marquette is turning the ball over on 21.4% of possessions so far this season. One out of every five Marquette possessions — a little more than that, actually — end with the Golden Eagles coughing it up. This ranks them #275 in the country, firmly in the bottom quarter, according to KenPom. That’s bad. It’s a 36 spot plunge in the rankings and as well as nearly two full percentage points worse from the end of last season in a category that was already bad last year and was clearly a spot where MU drastically needed to improve on for 2019-20. Somehow, even knowing that this was a major problem for them, the Golden Eagles have gotten worse at ball control.

And that’s at the core of the issue here. You know what’s a way to speed up your average offensive possession length? Ending it with a turnover before you even get a shot off. You know what’s a really good way to drag your offensive efficiency down? Turning the ball over more than you used to do.

When MU manages to get a possession to the point where they get a shot off — even if that shot is a free throw — they’re an incredibly effective offense. As mentioned above, Marquette is a top 40 offense this season even with the turnovers factored into things. That’s KenPom’s adjusted numbers, though, where it takes into account strength of opponent relative to efficiency. In terms of pure raw data, the Golden Eagles are scoring just a shade over a point per possession this season, 1.01 per trip down the floor. If you wipe away MU’s 141 possessions that ended in a turnover this season, that number turns into roughly 1.28 points per possession. That’s a lethal level of offense when Marquette manages to get a shot up or even just gets to the free throw line.

And yet, for whatever reason, Marquette just can not stop themselves from throwing the ball all over the building. There are six players listed on MU’s KenPom page as notable contributors somewhere between Go-To Guys and Limited Roles that have a turnover rate over 20% — the national average on KenPom for turnover rate for teams is 19.7%, so 20% is a nice average number for a player — and Jamal Cain is sitting right on the edge at 19.9%. Ed Morrow is the worst offender on the roster at 38.1% of his possessions ending with a turnover, most of which have been a traveling violation.

I know, right now you’re shouting at your screen about Markus Howard’s 29 turnovers on the season, which is the highest total on the team. I’m not about to try and tell you that 3.6 turnovers per game is somehow a good thing. What I am going to tell you is that his turnover rate is down nearly a full percentage point, 18.4% to 17.5%, from last season. If you want Markus Howard to score 25 points a game like he has so far this season, or even the 18.3 per game that he has if you wipe out the 91 against Davidson and USC combined, then you have to make your peace with a few turnovers. Relative to how much he has the ball, he’s doing better than he did last season, and he wasn’t even close to the worst offender on last year’s roster, either.

When the turnovers are under control, Marquette may be one of the best teams in the country. They had a turnover rate under 18% against Purdue, Davidson, and USC this season, and looked great for those 120 minutes. Elsewhere..... it’s not good. We’ve all seen the managers doing their balloon popping thing every time MU commits a turnover in various open practices, so it’s not like the situation is not on the radar for the coaching staff. The question is what will be done about it going forward because whatever they’ve been doing with the team so far has not worked overall through the first nine games of the season.