Yesterday, I covered the obvious things to know about this Final Four. Now? Let's delve into some of the not-so-obvious. Here's an unorganized batch of statistical trends and tempo-free markers to watch for in this year's Final Four. File these away. Come Saturday night, when your buddy says something like "Duke is unathletic, and they can't rebound," you can put him in his place immediately. Do it politely, though. Nobody likes a smart-aleck.
(Before we begin, a tip of the cap, as always, to Ken Pomeroy, who maintains this indispensable data, and John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus, whose years of writing on the topic has made this sort of stuff popular, digestible and downright fun.)
1. Offensive rebounding percentage. This one's easy and obvious and we covered it Sunday night, but that doesn't mean we can skip it now. Quite simply, offensive rebounding percentage is the big winner among all of the tempo-free statistics -- not that statistics have "winners," necessarily -- in this year's tournament. The Elite Eight was packed with top-10 offensive rebounding percentage teams. Three of the Final Four's teams (Duke, Michigan State, and West Virginia) all rank in that top 10. What's more, of all the advanced statistics that many of us out here in the college basketball Internet have been using for years (and some much longer than that), offensive rebounding percentage seems to gaining the most traction. It's a lot harder to explain what effective field goal percentage is to your average college basketball fan, but analysts like Len Elmore and statisticians on "SportsCenter" have been dropping offensive rebounding percentage -- which, as the number of your team's misses that you rebound, is exactly what it sounds like -- into broadcasts and recaps with increasing frequency.
The timing is notable: When West Virginia plays Duke on Saturday night, both teams will rely heavily on offensive rebounds to create much of their offense. If all you look at is field goal percentage, neither team looks particularly stellar on offense. But if you look at offensive rebounds, you see that both teams have generated points by not turning the ball over, by getting open looks from the perimeter, and by grabbing those looks back once they bounce off the backboard. WVU-Duke will be slow, plodding, physical and won or lost on the offensive -- or, if you prefer, defensive -- glass.
Oh, and that's not all. Offensive rebounding percentage will be in play on the other side of the bracket, too. Michigan State does not have a particularly good offense. It commits far too many turnovers, doesn't get to the free throw line regularly and is just an average shooting team. But what the Spartans do do is rebound their misses. Against Butler, they'll have to. The Bulldogs are not a defense you want to trifle with. They harass opposing guards for 40 minutes, they don't allow good looks at the rim, and they take great care of their defensive glass, where they rank No. 13 in the country in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage. It's a tough matchup for the Spartans. But offensive rebounding could be their salvation.
(Note: If that doesn't work, I'm sure Tom Izzo will gaze into his all-seeing Eye Of Heathcote or whatever magical orb he carries on the sideline and will cast some sort of appropriate spell. That's the only explanation for this.)
2. Do you like up-tempo basketball? Then, um, sorry? It is one of the few core tenets of my basketball-watching philosophy never to complain about live college basketball. The season is too short, the offseason too interminable, to whine about teams playing a boring, plodding brand of hoops. This goes double for the Final Four, which is amazing in and of itself, obviously, and which is also the last real, live college basketball we get to watch until October. Don't take it for granted.
That said, if you like up-tempo basketball -- if you liked watching Kansas State fly up and down the floor, as I did -- then this year's Final Four is going to disappoint you. The average adjusted tempo (in other words, the number of possessions) of the four teams in Indianapolis this weekend is 65.5. The Division I average for 2009-10 is 67.3. Duke averages 66 possessions, West Virginia 63.7, Butler 64.5 and Michigan State 66.4. Yes, you read that right: The fastest team in the Final Four hails from the notoriously sluggish Big Ten. These are going to be three very slow, half-court games, and all four teams will be just fine with that.
For what it's worth, Michigan State plays at an utterly breakneck speed compared to Butler, and the Spartans would do well to use the speed of guards Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers to get the ball down the floor as quickly as possible. Kansas State couldn't pull it off, but the Wildcats' legs were demonstrably exhausted from their double-overtime win over Xavier two days earlier. Michigan State will have had the time to rest, and Butler's half-court defense is too good.
3. Don't try to shoot threes against Duke. It doesn't really work. For a team that's been somewhat unfairly maligned much of the year as "unathletic," Duke sure defends like an athletic team. The Blue Devils play man-to-man defense starting at half court. They rarely allow effective penetration. And their best defensive feature is their perimeter defense, where they're ranked No. 8 overall in opponents' effective field goal percentage. Effective field goal percentage is simple: It works just like regular field goal percentage, but it takes into account the fact that 3s are worth a point more than two-point attempts (which, duh). Duke just so happens to be the best team in the country at making its counterparts miss from outside. Duke opponents average just 27.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Duke is no slouch inside the arc, either, but that perimeter defense makes it imperative that you not get behind in a game with Duke. It's very difficult to come back.
4. Fire away, Spartans. Over the course of the entire season (including tournament play), Michigan State devoted 26.3 percent of its total field goal attempts to three-point shots. That was the 309th-most in Division I, which is to say, not very much. During that same stretch, the Spartans shot 34.3 percent from 3, or about average. Since the tournament began, though, Michigan State has ratcheted up the long-distance action; the Spartans have devoted 35 percent of their field goal attempts to 3s, and are making 41 percent of them in tournament play. Which means that while Michigan State's main strength is still offensive rebounding, it has become offensively dangerous for both its sudden willingness and ability -- Summers' sudden ability, especially -- to consistently make long-range shots. Expect more of the same against Butler. And if Butler's defense does the same thing it did to Kansas State and Syracuse, expect many of these possessions to be one and done.
5. Don't be surprised by Butler's defense. Butler's defense deserves much, if not all, of the credit for putting the Bulldogs in position to make their unlikely run to the Final Four, but it's not as if Butler started playing defense this way on March 18. Quite the contrary: The Bulldogs have been this good all year, and the end result is a defense ranked No. 6 overall in defensive efficiency. What you've seen the past two weeks is what Horizon League teams saw all season. No wonder Butler went undefeated.