It's hard to overstate the value of excelling in the half court game at this time of year. A strong transition game can undoubtedly yield regular season success and in many instances carry a team in the postseason, but the ability to perform in a grind it out contest consistently proves fruitful in the college game.
Over the last two seasons Butler has managed this practice better than almost anyone, riding their formidable ability to exact their pace on opponents to back-to-back Final Four appearances. For fans of the Bulldogs the last two weeks may not have visually looked all that different from the regular season as Brad Stevens club keeps things slow as it is, ranking 270th nationally in adjusted tempo. The fact remains though, Butler has drawn things out to an almost snail-like pace in their four NCAA Tournament games, capitalizing on their strengths as an offense and augmenting their defensive efficiency to an almost otherworldly degree.
It may be this fact above all others that has Matt Howard and Co. back on college basketballs biggest stage.
Just as a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with tempo-free statistics, pace is the average number of possessions a team has on a per game basis, with a possession being a play that ends with a shot, offensive rebound, turnover or trip to the free throw line. During the regular season the Bulldogs averaged just under 65 possessions per game, again a mark that puts them in the bottom third nationally. For a point of reference, Alcorn State was the fastest team in the country averaging 77.6 possessions per game while Denver was last with a tempo of 57.9. So as you can see, the spread isn't all that big when we consider that a little less than 20 possessions per game separates a total of 345 teams.
In Butler's four games in the NCAA Tournament they have managed an incredibly slow total pace (average number of possessions for the Bulldogs and their opponents) of 59.4, which over the course of the season would have left them as the second slowest team in the country. That fact in it of itself isn't a statistically relevant as two of Butler's opponents - Wisconsin and Pittsburgh - are among the slowest teams in the nation and the Bulldogs defeated both on their way to Houston. But why is that the case?
Offensively there's no question a half court game favors the Bulldogs in an overwhelming number of games as they excel in this facet of scoring the basketball. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Butler scores nearly .94 points per possession in their half court offense, the 21st highest mark among all Division 1 teams. Furthermore, this is where they spend the overwhelming majority of their time, as over 90% of their possessions come in this manner, the remainder being in fast break sets - a fact reflected in their overall pace.
Their defensive effort has been even more impressive, as Butler has significantly stepped up it's efficiency at this end of the floor over the last four games. During the regular season 9.2% of their opponents possessions were classified as in transition, not a particularly high mark, but certainly not among the absolute lowest either. Since the NCAA Tournament began the Bulldogs have more or less stifled any attempt by opponents to consistently run as just 7% of total possessions against (a minuscule 20-of-285) have been considered in transition.
Furthermore, when teams have run against the Bulldogs in March, they have been completely shut down. Butler already defended the break well during the season, ranking 29th nationally by allowing .92 points per possession on 44.2% shooting, numbers that have plummeted to .55 points per possession and 31.3% shooting, both of which would have led the nation by a mile.
The single biggest catalyst for this dramatic rise in defensive production has been nothing more than simple hustle and effort. Butler isn't producing more steals, forcing more turnovers or blocking a greater number of shots, rather they're retreating to their half of the court so quickly that opposing teams are forced into taking poor shots. Of the transition possessions the Bulldogs have defended in the last two weeks, 40% of them have resulted in an opposing player attempting a three-pointer, a remarkably high rate for a play type that so often yields shot attempts with a higher success rate.
Continuing to play in this manner may or may not ultimately yield a National Championship for Butler, but playing up to their strengths certainly puts the Bulldogs in the best possibly position to win the final two games needed to reach that point.