For a hidden key to Final Four success, keep an eye on the shot clock

After several days of prepping for this weekend’s Final Four, there isn’t much that would surprise these coaches. Every tendency has been highlighted and every flaw has been exposed. So how can one of these coaches gain a small yet significant advantage? By exploiting their opponent’s efficiency based on how much time is left on the shot clock.

Controlling the flow of a game is arguably a coach’s greatest attribute upon reaching the Final Four. How a team runs its sets and caps off its offensive possessions — regardless of shot-clock constraints — largely determines whether that squad is going to contend for the national title. The four teams that meet this Saturday are among the best in Division I at capitalizing on their offensive advantages while not kowtowing to defensive pressure, so the two teams that can exact 40 minutes of sheer offensive execution while avoiding defensive disruption will dance into Monday’s title game.

Michigan’s offense functions best when it attempts a shot within the first 20 seconds of the shot clock, posting an effective field goal percentage of 53 percent that ranks in the top 100 of the Hoop-math.com database. But that efficiency falls off a cliff the longer Coach John Beilein’s team has to run its offense. The Wolverines’ eFG% drops significantly to 48 percent in the final 10 seconds of a possession. And per Synergy Sports, the Wolverines average only seven-tenths of a point per attempt in the shot clock’s final four seconds (184th in Division I, and the lowest rate of any Final Four team), as compared to one point per possession (39th in Division I) when the team is running its half-court offense.

Loyola Chicago’s average defensive possession length is 18.3 seconds (11th lowest in the tournament field), and the Ramblers will be the first team in March that will make Michigan run its offense for that long. Michigan won only one of its three games vs. Purdue this season, a team whose defensive possession length averaged 18.8 seconds. On the other end, the Ramblers’ offense improves the more time it drains from each possession. Loyola’s eFG% is 53 percent during the final 10 seconds of the shot clock (16th in Division I). As Michigan’s opponents typically don’t shoot until 18 seconds have elapsed, Coach Porter Moser’s team could find itself operating within its comfort zone on Saturday night.

Each Villanova player can handle the ball on the perimeter and create for himself. That offensive versatility enables the Wildcats to drain the shot clock, putting undue strain on opposing defenses. According to Jeff Haley of Hoop-math.com, who provided exclusive data to Fancy Stats, the squad is its most potent as the shot clock winds down, notching an eFG% of 61 percent during when 16 to 20 seconds remain on the shot clock. That percentage drops slightly to 55 percent in the final 10 seconds.

The Wildcats are so adept running their offense that it’s rare a defense can contain the team — just 5 percent of Villanova’s possessions reach the final 10 seconds of the shot clock, according to Synergy. Even at that point, the team is efficient, averaging 1.03 points per shot, an uptick from the dismal 0.8 points per possession last season and comparable to the squad’s overall half-court rate of 1.08 points per possession.

Kansas is the outlier of this group. Bill Self’s teams typically prefer to attempt a field goal at least 15 seconds into a possession. Now that the team has become more perimeter oriented, if a possession drags into the latter half of the shot clock, chances are a Jayhawk will attempt a three-pointer — the team has attempted 447 three-pointers during that time frame, and connected on about 40 percent. This tracks with how Kansas has performed from beyond the arc through the first half of the shot clock, attempting 505 three-pointers and converting 40.2 percent. Though Villanova might extend the shot clock on offense, the Wildcats don’t often defend for more than 16 seconds, which could be beneficial to Kansas.

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