March Madness: The 5 Fastest NCAA Tournament Teams in the Field of 68
In the NCAA Tournament, style of play is one of many factors that comes into play as unfamiliar opponents clash. While some teams prefer a slow, grind-it-out pace (a la Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers), others like to get up and down the floor and imitate the uptempo approaches we see in the NBA today.
Quantifying this style of play has become quite simple in recent years. Not only do sites like Sports Reference track pace -- estimated possessions per 40 minutes -- but we here at numberFire have taken that over a percentile rank. If you're new to it, what does that mean exactly?
Among the NCAA ranks, the teams that have played at the fastest pace come in at or close to 1.000. In other words, that team's tempo is faster than all others. A team in the 95th percentile is faster than 95% of all other schools.
With speed, though, we sometimes see a lack of offense from certain teams. It's for that reason that we'll also refer to each team's consistency -- our measure of a team's predictability from game-to-game -- as well as Sports Reference's adjusted offensive and defensive ratings (points per 100 possessions, adjusted for regular season opponent). The lower the number, the more consistent a team has performed. Whereas, a higher offensive rating speaks to a more efficient offense and a lower defensive rating to a more efficient defensive squad.
Knowing that, these five upbeat, high-energy teams are ones to watch as the Big Dance gets underway this week.
5. Buffalo Bulls (13 Seed, South Region)
Percentile Rank: .937
After going 17-15 and missing out on the tournament a year ago, the Buffalo Bulls advance to March for the third time in four years. They haven't made it past the second round, but their 5.82 nERD -- our proprietary metric that measure's a team's overall efficiency and estimates a team's score differential against a league-average team on a neutral court -- is their best since 2014-15 (8.01 nERD), according to our models.
The Bulls went 26-8 on the year and capped it all off by taking the MAC Tournament. And, unlike many higher-paced squads, what you see is what you get. Buffalo's consistency comes in at .148, meaning that their style and performance doesn't change much from night to night or week to week. The downside is that the Bulls' adjusted defensive rating (101.26) ranks outside the top 100 schools. Because of that, they've allowed 75.9 points per game, including 14 games of at least 80 points against.
Of Buffalo's eight losses, six have come in games in which they've given up more than 80 points. But, on the other side of the coin, the Bulls are undefeated in their nine highest-scoring games and have lost only three games when scoring at least 80. Their adjusted offensive rating is 54th in the nation with the Bulls putting up 84.8 points per game (seventh nationally) over 74.1 possessions.
Set to face an Arizona Wildcats team averaging nearly 81 points per game, the Bulls will need all the points they can get in the First Round.
4. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (14 Seed, East Region)
Percentile Rank: .940
Much like Buffalo, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks have become accustomed to making the NCAA tournament. Prior to a down year in 2016-17, the Lumberjacks made three straight appearances under then-coach Brad Underwood. This year, the Southland champs reloaded and finished the regular season 28-6 with 14 wins in conference and close losses to Mississippi State and fellow tourney team Missouri in non-conference play.
In their two losses to those major conference teams, the Lumberjacks played at a pace of 73.1 and 70.5 possessions, respectively. Surprisingly, those fall below their average of 73.9 possessions per 40. What's not so surprising is that they've lost only one game when playing at a pace at or above their season average. Lack of high-end competition could play a factor there, but the Lumberjacks are a tournament team for a reason.
Stephen F. Austin's .452 consistency is in the middle of the road. That doesn't tell us much, but the Lumberjacks' adjusted defensive rating (98.5) sets them apart form a lot of higher-paced teams. In fact, their offensive efficiency is lower on the national ranks, despite having three players scoring 13 or more points per game.
Their first-round opponent, the Texas Tech Red Raiders, are similar in a number of ways, but their style of play places them in the 27th percentile. It will be a clash of approaches come Thursday night.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd (13 Seed, East Region)
Percentile Rank: .992
You're probably starting to see a trend here with the lower-seeded teams. They come from mid-majors, play at a high pace and have little experience against major conference teams. The Marshall Thundering Herd aren't very different. While they have wins over non-conference opponents, the Conference-USA winners went 0-2 against teams from the Big East and Big Ten.
In Round 1, the Herd will play a step up in competition once again. The Wichita State Shockers are no stranger to playing the overmatched underdog, but they're now a proven powerhouse and hail from the American Athletic Conference. But they shouldn't be overlooking Marshall.
Sports Reference has Marshall as the eighth-fastest team in the nation, and they're averaging 84.3 points on the offensive end. When adjusted for strength of opponent, however, their offensive rating drops from 109.1 to 107.49 points per 100. Still, the Herd are used to playing at a high pace, as evidenced by their .159 consistency. They have played in 11 games with a pace of 80 or higher this season.
Wichita State operates at a pace higher than only 51.1% of teams, and they've played at a pace of 80-plus just four times. They lost one of those to Oklahoma -- the only team of the four to advance to the Tournament.
2. Oklahoma Sooners (10 Seed, Midwest Region)
Percentile Rank: .994
Speaking of Trae Young and the Sooners, they are the second-fastest team in the entire 68-team field and, by far, the highest-paced major conference school. Their 76.7 pace is 3.2 possessions higher than that of the Auburn Tigers. But has it been to their advantage or detriment?
While Oklahoma's been rather inconsistent (.867), they've been a lot more comfortable when playing fast. At or above their season average, the Sooners are 12-4 compared to 6-9 when operating at a pace below what they're used to. As a matter of fact, five of their six straight losses in February ended in a pace below 76.7.
The Sooners are very good at what they do. En route to 85.2 points per game (fourth in the nation), they own college basketball's 27th-ranked offense after taking their competition into consideration. A large portion of that stems form the outstanding play Young. The Wooden Award finalist is top dog with 27.4 points, 8.7 assists and 29.3 points produced on a per-game basis.
On defense, the Sooners are much more susceptible to an early-round exit. Their 81.6 points against rate 336th of 351 teams and, according to our numbers, they're the third-worst defensive team in the entire field. In what should be a close 7/10 matchup, the Rhode Island Rams could prove problematic as the 55th-ranked offense in the land.
1. Lipscomb Bisons (15 Seed, West Region)
Percentile Rank: .995
Of the teams taking part in this year's edition of March Madness, the Lipscomb Bisons are the Usain Bolts. Their average pace of 77 possessions per 40 minutes is fourth among all teams and faster than 99.5% of all teams, both in and not in the field. The only three teams faster went a combined 44-52 this season.
To say that Lipscomb hasn't excelled against big-time competition is an understatement. The Atlantic Sun tournament winners enter the tournament 23-9 with 10 wins inside the conference, but they went winless in their four games against the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC. They were outscored by 87 combined points and lost three by at least 22 points.
By raw points, the Bisons rank 21st (82.6 points) on a per-game basis. But, after averaging just 64.5 points in the four games mentioned above, their adjusted offensive rating sits at 101.23 points per 100 possessions. That's outside the top-200 nationally and below that of the other four high-paced squads on this list. And when you add in a 163rd-ranked defense, it's easy to see why they're a 15 seed.
In their first round matchup, Lipscomb will be severe underdogs. They draw the reigning-champion North Carolina Tar Heels inside their home state of North Carolina (Charlotte, to be exact). Against the sixth-ranked team in our power rankings, the 167th-ranked Bisons will have a tough time keeping the Tar Heels from hitting 100 if they keep up their lightning fast pace.