It’s no grand discovery to say that the final tally on the scoreboard is intended to reflect what transpired throughout the course of a game.
If, say, Duke beats North Carolina 84-70 (relax, Tar Heel fans, this is merely an exercise), 84 points will go towards the Blue Devils’ per game scoring average. On the surface, that seems telling enough. But does it really paint an accurate picture of the game?
Context is important. For instance – what kind of pace did Duke play? Did they limit their turnovers? Were their shooters efficient from the field? All are valid questions, but that ‘84’ doesn’t necessarily provide a proper glimpse into those key details.
So, in an effort to establish an equal playing field in judging offensive and defensive competence, coaches started focusing on more explanatory metrics -- points per possession and points allowed per possession, specifically. Or, as many know them -- offensive and defensive efficiency. Tempo is crucial in the sport of basketball, but it can skew traditional offensive and defensive numbers. Efficiency rankings level the playing field.
For example, Loyola Marymount led the nation in scoring with 101.9 points per game in 1990-91, but that’s bound to happen when you have significantly more possessions than the rest of the country based on pace of play. Participation doesn't always correlate with effectiveness.
With that in mind, here are some teams from last year that were either better or worse than you thought on the offensive end of the floor. Tomorrow, we’ll break down the defenses. Let’s get to it.
*Note: All statistical data is via Sports-Reference.
Better than you thought:
Points per game: 72.5 (53rd of 351)
Offensive rating: 121.1 (1st of 351)
The popular narrative is to regard Wisconsin as the tough, rugged Big 10 squad that ekes out games thanks to its defense. But as it turns out, the Badgers’ offense was the driving force behind their Final Four run in 2015.
They averaged 121.1 points per 100 possessions, good for tops in the country, despite ranking outside of the top 50 in points per game. Bo Ryan has played at a deliberate pace for years, and while the Badgers opened up the offense last year (by their standards, at least), they weren’t the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels of the early 90’s by any stretch of the imagination.
The Badgers had pristine spacing, a smart coach, solid role players and two offensive studs in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. When those two shared the floor with Nigel Hayes, the Badgers scored more than 128 points per 100 possessions, an other-worldly mark. Wisconsin has quite a bit to replace, obviously, but Ryan has the infrastructure to field a very good offensive team year in and year out.
Wichita State Shockers:
Points per game: 70.3 (99th of 351)
Offensive rating: 112.7 (19th of 351)
Like Wisconsin, the common narrative for Wichita State is that the defense propels them to greatness. While that unit is certainly elite (they ranked 12th in the country in defensive efficiency), their offense isn’t far behind. The Shockers were a top-20 offensive team a year ago, and their well-rounded style of ball culminated in a 30-5 record and a Sweet 16 berth as a No. 7 seed.
Expect more of the same for 2015-16. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are back for their senior seasons, and each posted an offensive rating higher than 123, which would have been tops in the nation. In other words -- when Baker and VanVleet share the floor, the Shockers are a really, really good offensive team.
It was easy to question how Wichita State would perform after losing Cleanthony Early to the NBA, and last year, Gregg Marshall’s squad proved to be just fine. With the core intact, this team could make some serious postseason noise in 2016.
Michigan State Spartans:
Points per game: 71.1 (81st of 351)
Offensive rating: 109.7 (46th of 351)
I’m not sure what’s less shocking: seeing the Spartans make the Final four as a No. 7 seed last year or that they found their way onto this list. Michigan State was Wisconsin-lite last season, in a way, living off of its reputation as a defensive stalwart but actually thriving on the other end of the court.
In fact, the Spartans had a down year on defense by their standards -- and that’s putting it nicely. They barely cracked the top 100 in defensive efficiency. But Tom Izzo was able to engineer a Final Four run thanks to an underrated offense, led by Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine.Don’t be surprised to see senior forward Matt Costello get more burn next season, either. He has a career offensive efficiency mark of 122.5, and he played just a smidge more than 20 minutes per game last year.
Points per game: 65.4 (223rd of 351)
Offensive rating: 110.8 (32nd of 351)
Virginia is notorious for playing at a snail's pace, but that doesn't stop them from being very, very successful. On the surface, the Cavs’ 65 points per game mark sounds pedestrian at best and well below average at worst. But Virginia makes the most of its possessions, and they methodically dissect talented ACC foes into submission.
Honorable mention: Kentucky Wildcats, Northern Iowa Panthers, Utah Utes
Worse than you thought:
Points per game: 73.4 (42nd of 351)
Offensive rating: 103.1 (169th of 351)
LSU is clearly a program on the rise, but its frantic pace distorts the offensive outlook a bit. On the flip side, the Tigers are actually much better on defense than statistics would suggest (203rd in points allowed per game, 43rd in defensive efficiency).
Head coach Johnny Jones instructs his players to take quick shots on offense, and the new shot clock rules will probably help his system. Oh, and a guy by the name of Ben Simmons might, too. Things are just fine in Baton Rouge.
Points per game: 77.4 (19th of 351)
Offensive rating: 109.6 (47th of 351)
The Razorbacks averaged more points per game than Kentucky did last season, but John’s Calipari’s offense was far more efficient. Still, Arkansas won 27 games last season under head coach Mike Anderson, and by all accounts, his speedy style of play has been a success in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks lost Bobby Portis to the NBA, the team’s leading scorer (17.5 points per game) and most efficient player, as well. The Arkansas offense came to a screeching halt when Portis hit the bench, notching less than 100 points per 100 possessions. They’ll need to replace that production by committee if they want to hit that 27-win threshold once again.
West Virginia Mountaineers:
Points per game: 72.6 (52nd of 351)
Offensive rating: 104.9 (121st of 351)
While the efficiency metrics accurately predicted some teams’ fortunes or misfortunes in the NCAA tournament (Wisconsin, Michigan State, LSU), it certainly did not hinder the Mountaineers from achieving success in 2015. Until they played Kentucky, that is.
A 25-10 season and a Sweet 16 berth is nothing to scoff at, though. West Virginia had six players average seven points per game or higher in a stacked Big 12, and they’ll return most of their key parts outside of Juwan Staten. However, none of the Mountaineers’ three leading scorers shot better than 45 percent from the floor last season, but if they rectify that, Bob Huggins’ crew can put up more of a fight against the Kentuckys of the world next season.
Honorable mention: Northwestern State Demons, Oregon Ducks, North Carolina Tar Heels