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How the Other Half Plays

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has an article on Washington State's defense which held its two previous opponents to 40 and 41 points, in games than included a 19-point first half from Notre Dame and an 11-point second half from Winthrop. Needless to say, the paper isn't looking for the Heels to have a third straight 100+ point game. But it got me wondering: How good is WSU's defense? And how successful are they at controlling the tempo?

On the season, Ken Pomeroy has the Cougars with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 0.866 OPPP, compared to 0.907 for the Heels (7th and 28th in the country, respectively.) For the more reliable in-conference numbers, WSU's 1.01 OPPP is actually worse than UNC's 0.99, but under either metric they're both good defenses.

Of course, the main tactic Washington State uses to keep the score down is its plodding pace, which at 58.5 possessions per forty minutes is the slowest in a major conference. Carolina runs the fastest offense among the bigs, unsurprisingly. So what happens when the tortoise meets the hare?

There's very little basis for comparison. The slowest ACC team (N.C. State) is behind only two Pac-10 teams (Washington and Cal) in pace. When you combine that with the Cougars' creampuff nonconference schedule, you don't find many uptempo teams of any discernible talent that WSU has played. There's Baylor and Notre Dame, both with a pace of 72.2 in-conference, and that's about it. For shits and giggles, I'll toss in Big West powerhouse Boise State, with an overall pace of, again 72.2 so we'll have three games to look at.

How did Wazzou do? They won all three, naturally. Boise State was the fastest game the Cougars played all year, with 68 possessions. It was also one of their worst defensive performances in a win, giving up 1.08 PPP. Baylor was also a bit more rapid than normal, with 62 possessions. With the Notre Dame game, as anyone who watched on Saturday can attest, was played the way WSU likes it, with only 58 possessions and a depressing 0.69 OPPP.

UNC hasn't played a game that slow all year. In fact, they've only played four games with under 70 possessions, and one of them was Sunday's game against Arkansas, where UNC coasted for most of the second half. The slowest teams UNC has faced are Ohio State (63.5 poss/40 min in conference), Kentucky (63.4), Rutgers (66.3) and Old Dominion (64.4 overall). Those games had 70, 76, 80, and 66 possessions, respectively. In all four games, UNC dictated the pace - the ODU match was another one where UNC had a double-digit second half lead and could coast - and the closest margin of victory was nine points. The Heels similarly didn't have much of a problem with N.C. State's game, winning by 14 and 29, or with the next slowest team Florida State.

Washington State might believe they can slow the Heels down. But I'd give the edge to Carolina until I see otherwise.