SALT LAKE CITY —
It’s not St. Mary’s. It’s Saint Mary’s. That’s because the Gaels take so long on every possession that you have time to doodle, dawdle and add three letters to their official identification.
Twice this season the Gaels won games in which they ran a mere 51 possessions. That’s not slow. That’s a glacier melting.
In the agonizing Elite Eight overtime loss to Wisconsin in 2014, Arizona had just 55 possessions, its lowest total in a game in the last 15 years.
Saint Mary’s averages 59 possessions per game, which is 350th of 351 Division I teams. Or, if you prefer, No. 2 of all the clock-killers.
But there’s a method to coach Randy Bennett’s basketball madness. If you kill the clock, if you play smart with a minimum of mistakes, you might kill a basketball giant.
No one appears to be more impressed with Saint Mary’s than the master of basketball math, Ken Pomeroy, the Ace of Algorithms, whose data processing lists the Gaels as a 2.4-point favorite over Arizona in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game.
Kenpom.com gives Arizona just a 46 percent chance to beat the Gaels. This data has triggered a nervous tic among many Tucsonans, whose superstition/karma quotient each March defies sanity.
Saturday’s game is Salt Lake City’s Tortoise vs. the Hare clash of styles. Sean Miller’s Wildcats have increased their tempo, reaching 70 or more possessions in their last four games. That might not sound like much, but Miller’s Arizona teams have never put together five straight games of 70-plus possessions, and the UA hasn’t done so since Lute Olson coached in 2005.
No one knows more about this convergence of wills than Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who on Friday described his conference rivals’ sometimes-painful approach to the game as “a Ph.D. in ball-screen execution.”
In the modern era of college basketball, metrics wiz’s such as Pomeroy have become so valued that he estimates about 300 schools employ his numbers in their scouting system.
“How many of those actually use it in a meaningful way is another story,” he told me Friday.
One program that uses Kenpom.com diligently is Arizona. UA assistant director of basketball operations Austin Carroll knows those numbers the way he learned his multiplication tables in the third grade.
“Kenpom is the statistical bible,” he said Friday.
Carroll’s knowledge of the Gaels goes far beyond pace of play. He knew, without prompt, that SMC is No. 1 in the nation in defensive rebounding, at 21.6 per game.
“They are 22-0 when they out-rebound you,” he said. “Kenpom is usually the first source I track.”
Carroll is responsible for the organization, breakdown and presentation of Arizona’s scouting operation. And it’s likely no one in the UA system has learned more about a team like Saint Mary’s than Carroll.
While a senior forward at American University in 2014, Carroll was part of an NCAA Tournament team that, gulp, was matched against mighty Wisconsin in a first-round game.
American scored 35 points. It’s offensive efficiency was 59/100ths of a point per possession, the lowest in the NCAA Tournament that season, and close to a record. Wisconsin, as Arizona fans can’t forget, was such a clock-killer in the Bo Ryan years that it led the NCAA in fewest possessions in 2011 and 2012.
Those Wisconsin teams that eliminated Arizona in 2014 and 2015 averaged 21 seconds per possession, and ranked 342nd and 350th in pace of play.
Saint Mary’s averages 20.6 seconds per possession. That’s Wisconsin-esque.
Of course, there doesn’t seem to be a Sam Dekker or a Frank Kaminsky on the Saint Mary’s roster, which often makes the metrics no more meaningful than yesterday’s price of lettuce.
The reason Pomeroy values the Gaels is because their defensive efficiency matches their offense. That’s why his system ranks Saint Mary’s No. 14 overall. Arizona is No. 19. But it’s so close it’s ridiculous.
Arizona averages 1.18 points per possession, Saint Mary’s 1.19.
Arizona limits opponents to 0.95 points per possession, Saint Mary’s 0.94.
Sometimes you can get cross-eyed studying the numbers. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned gut feeling? There’s a vast difference between assembling those numbers in the Pac-12 versus the West Coast Conference.
To some, Saint Mary’s doesn’t always pass the “eye test.” That’s where Carroll and Kenpom step in.
“There’s something to be said for going with your gut, but knowledge helps,” Pomeroy told Sports on Earth this week. “Analytics can help a little bit, too. The bottom line is, you have to have fun with it. Don’t take it too seriously, or you can make the whole tournament not as watchable.”
If there are any flaws in Pomeroy’s work, it’s that his data doesn’t include the extended absence of Allonzo Trier and he doesn’t mess with the “quality loss” and “bad loss” component. He leaves that to the suits in the NCAA.
But partly because of his work, Arizona won’t enter Saturday’s game with any feeling of entitlement.
“Saint Mary’s believes in their system,” Miller said Friday. “They believe in their coach. They believe in each other. They’re a team. They don’t beat themselves.”
First one to 60 wins, right?