Who has the nation’s best offense?

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By John Foster

 Let’s dig up a painful memory for us Wildcat faithful.

On Nov. 14 the basketball team from Virginia Military Institute took a break from standing in formation and cleaning their cots to come to Rupp Arena and put a butt whooping on the winningest program of all time. Travis Holmes comes down the court, nails a three. Travis Holmes comes down the court, passes it to Chavis Holmes, who immediately hit a three. They won 111-103. How could anybody put up with this kind of firepower, let alone any other team from the Big South Conference? And to be sure, no one stopped them.  They had the best offense in the country, scoring a blistering 93.8 points per game. Why couldn’t they win the conference and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament? Consider a different game. Grinding, muscular No. 1 Pittsburgh came to Freedom Hall undefeated Jan. 17. They lost the game, only scoring 63 points and averaging 78 points all season.  So it must be defense that got Pittsburgh to the Elite Eight and the VMI cadets sitting at home cleaning their muskets. Actually I think it has a lot to do with offense. If you hang with me, I’ll show you how 78 points per game can be better than 94. Points per game is considered the main barometer of a team’s offense. But let’s take a look at the top five teams – VMI then North Carolina, followed by Chicago State, Texas State and Wake Forest. So why is it that only two of those teams made it to the NCAA tournament, and only one made it to the Sweet 16? Meanwhile Michigan State isn’t within the top 100 teams in points per game, but is still feeling the sweetness. Sure, the level of competition is different, but that doesn’t account for Texas State, the fourth “best” offense in the country with a losing record. Of course having a good defense makes a difference — arguably more of a difference. Does anybody remember those boring defensive-based teams Tubby Smith used to lead? You know, the ones that made it to the NCAA tournament every year? Boy, it’s sure a good thing we got rid of that loser. Really that’s all there is. A good offense plus a good defense makes a good team. In the ethos of John Madden, the team that scores more points than the other wins. The problem comes with considering points per game as a measure of a good offense. It’s a deceptive stat. For one, Chicago State lost to Utah Valley State 121-123 in January. The offensive numbers are mind-blowing. Three players scored more than 40 points, with Ryan Toolson of Utah Valley scoring 63. The numbers seem less impressive considering the game went to four overtimes. The score after regulation — an unremarkable 79-all. Those extra 50 points do wonders for your average. But a bigger difference is much more fundamental, getting to the heart of what it means to have a good offense. Let’s consider the best possible offense. If a team scored three points every possession without exception, they’d be unbeatable, right? It really doesn’t matter how quickly they score. They could fly up the court, immediately chuck a three and score, or they could grind the shot clock down and make it. Either way, the team has an unbeatable offense. One way is more fun to watch, and certainly scores more points, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently better. Points per game treats basketball like pop-a-shot — score as many points under the time limit — instead of the alternating possession game that it is. In this game of pop-a-shot, the points per game correlates strongly to the tempo of the team. Statistician Ken Pomeroy ranks teams by tempo. VMI is the fastest, Chicago State — fourth, Texas State — fifth and UNC — sixth. Over the course of a game, VMI’s blinding speed of play produces about 15 more possessions than Pittsburgh. Of course they score more points with 15 more tries, but their opponent has 15 more shots at it as well. If you think about it, the same applies to football. The best offense is one that scores a touchdown every possession regardless of whether they do it in 10 seconds or 10 minutes. So the more accurate way to rate an offense is points per possession. The beautiful thing is, it synthesizes everything offensive into one stat. Offensive rebounds — in there, field goal percentage — in there, free throws — yep, turnovers — that too. The sports world has plenty of stats, but they’re starved for good ones. How often do you hear something like “He’s the first 19-year-old Virgo to score more than 26 points, have more than two assists and foul out while his team’s ahead.” So, without any previous calculation, I’ll put my points per possession theory to work, and see how many of the Sweet 16 fall on each list — the points per game leaders versus the points per possession leaders. Fortunately someone has already figured that out for me — Pomeroy again. It looks like he’s been considering this longer than I have. All together, seven Sweet 16 teams are within the top 16 in terms of points per possession. When weighted based on strength of competition, that number jumps to nine. So based on this one stat alone, we could’ve predicted them with close to 60 percent accuracy. You also would have predicted seven of them based on their defensive efficiency — their opponent’s points per possession.  Based on points per game, you would have only predicted four — UNC, Missouri, Syracuse and Gonzaga. That’s because points per game is such a limited view of a team’s offense. So who had the nation’s best offense this year? North Carolina. But right behind is Pittsburgh. They’re not fast, but they are efficient.   E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com