So much is made of playing style in college basketball today, and particularly if you play a running style compared to a slower, more deliberate half-court style. It has become such an important topic in terms of the perception of a program that many coaches negative recruit others by telling recruits that those other programs don't play fast. Phrases like "slow down" and "grind it out" have become near dirty words.
The issue is, however: the perception of up-and-down and playing fast is more the reality than, well, reality.
There are plenty of programs that sell themselves on playing an up-and-down, quick-paced style. There are also programs that negatively characterize other programs as being slow, too-controlled and deliberate. Some programs do both. The thing is, most of the time, the programs many times trying to float this narrative don't play fast themselves, and sometimes actually play a slower-paced style.
If you compare statistics, in fact, there aren't too many programs in the nation that live up to how they bill themselves. And the ones that sometimes get a bum rap definitely don't deserve it.
In trying to analyze whether a program plays quickly or slowly, the best barometer are the statistics of possessions per game and points per game. But remember, there are so many factors that go into every statistic for every season – sometimes personnel dictates a different style in specific years, or several years; sometimes the personnel in a program's conference affects statistics, etc. Even so, there are definitely trends with certain programs, but the funniest thing about it is that, even when there is a difference in statistics in, say, possessions per game between programs that have reputations as playing fast and those that don't, the statistical difference is minimal.
Take North Carolina. There is a perception out there that the Tar Heels play fast. If you watch many of their games it certainly seems like a frenetic pace (and sometimes just sloppy, out-of-control play dictated by poor shot selection and poor defense, but we digress). North Carolina has averaged just around 74 possessions per game for quite a few years. In comparison, let's take a typical program without a reputation either way – like California. The Bears, over the same last few years, have averaged about 69 possessions per game. UNC does have the edge, but it's by five possessions. That's five possessions over the course of an entire game. It's not nothing, but it certainly isn't amazingly significant. If you're a high school recruit, are you basing a big part of your decision on where you're going to play college basketball on, say, five possessions per game? Heck, with five players on the floor, you might not even get one more look at the basket among those five possessions. The point is: You would think the way programs sell themselves and negative recruit others it would be a difference of 15 or 20 possessions per game.
But at least North Carolina has the statistics to back up its claim that it plays fast, even if they aren't necessarily overwhelming statistics.
Many programs sell themselves as playing fast that simply don't. There are programs that have done an excellent job of getting it into the popular culture of college basketball that they play fast. The college basketball television pundits will mind-numbingly repeat it; recruits will be quoted as saying they want to play at a certain program because they play fast when the simple reality is that program doesn't.
Of course, the most obvious example of this bunch is Arizona. Arizona, under Sean Miller, has a reputation for playing fast, which is purely fiction. Over the last four seasons, Arizona has averaged 66.9 possessions per game, and 72.6 points per game. The 66.9 possessions per game would put Arizona in about 230th place among NCAA Division 1 teams (which, coincidentally, Arizona was in 2011-2012). It's not really a bad thing. It's just Arizona's pace and it clearly has been successful for them. But it's clearly not fast-paced or getting up and down.
Over that same period, New Mexico, under new UCLA coach Steve Alford, averaged 68.8 possessions per game and 72.8 points per game.
Now, we wouldn't use these statistics to try to support any argument that UCLA under Alford will play faster and score more points than Arizona (even though we could, going by the statistics). The point is: Arizona, like many programs out there, is propagating its reputation as being a program that plays very fast and it's just not true. Alford's New Mexico teams weren't crazily running up and down, but they certainly weren't considered slow-down either. In fact, in 2009-2010, when Alford had personnel that lent itself to running more, New Mexico averaged 70 possessions and 76 points per game.
In the last three years, the Pac-12 has averaged 68.9 points per game, while New Mexico, over the last 6 years, has averaged 72.8.
Going out on a little bit of a limb, also, is to perhaps project Alford playing even faster at UCLA than he did at New Mexico. He will undoubtedly be able to get a higher-level of player and athlete at UCLA, and it's easy to assume that he'd recognize, when you do have a more talented team, getting more possessions is to your advantage. So, perhaps the stats he established at New Mexico aren't entirely applicable to what he'll do at UCLA.
The bottom line: Generally the perception of whether programs run more or not is not based in fact; and when it is based on fact, the statistics that support it are often less than overwhelming.
It gets tiresome when you hear recruits time and time again say they want to play in a fast-paced environment, and then reel off a list of programs that don't utilize a fast pace. Of course, most recruits will never put in the time to do the research, and are bound to believe what college coaches sell them in the recruiting pitch. But perhaps the smarter ones will get it, and those are the ones you want in your program anyway, right?