March Madness: The 5 Fastest NCAA Tournament Teams in the Field of 68
College basketball is a unique sport all its own, and one of the main reasons why is style of play. It is one of many factors that come into play throughout the season, but it's even more evident from here on out as unfamiliar opponents clash in the Big Dance.
While some coaches prefer a slow, grind-it-out pace (like Virginia's Tony Bennett and Wisconsin's Greg Gard), others like to get up and down the floor, let their talented players operate in space, and imitate the uptempo NBA offenses we see today. In recent years, the contrast in styles has been on full display.
There are a number of sources for points per game and pace (possessions per game), but two of the best measures are KenPom.com's adjusted tempo -- which is taken over 40 minutes and accounts for opponent -- and our own in-house percentile ranks, which give a more raw idea of how quickly a team plays in comparison to the rest of the country.
To give you some baselines, the average adjusted tempo for all teams was 67.7 possessions per-40 minutes this season with Virginia holding down the lowest mark at 59.3 and 19-13 Florida International (not in the tournament) topping all teams at 77.4. By percentile, Virginia sits in the 2nd percentile and FIU the 100th percentile along with only one other team. So, the higher the pace, the higher the percentile (and closer a team is to 1.000), which basically says that a team in the 95th percentile operates at a pace faster than 95% of all NCAA teams.
However, we have to note that teams like FIU aren't exactly successful in their approach. There are teams that have managed to do more damage with their speed, though, and those are the ones that have cracked the field this year. We'll examine and evaluate them using their efficiency ranks -- on both offense and defense -- and the consistency (our measure of a team's predictability from game-to-game) with which they play.
For all these reasons, these five uptempo teams are those to either favor or watch out for when filling out your bracket this March.
5. Murray State Racers (12 Seed, West Region)
Adjusted Tempo: 69.0
nF Percentile Rank: .820
The Murray State Racers live up to their nickname, playing at a pace 1.4 possessions above average and quicker than 82% of teams. When adjusted for opponent, they are 98th by KenPom's standards, but that overlooks the fact that they have really excelled at a high pace against quicker opponents.
Coming out of the Ohio Valley Conference, four of their conference foes averaged more possessions, with one -- Eastern Kentucky -- averaging the second-most on a per-game basis. Murray State won both meetings against them, bringing their record to 6-1 with a margin of victory of 22.5 points in their six wins against those teams.
Overall, the Racers have proven themselves vulnerable despite finishing the year at 27-4. While they have racked up 23 wins in the 24 games they scored 73-plus points, they lost three of the seven in which they failed to do so. For what it's worth, that does include losses to two top-60 teams in our rankings: Belmont and Alabama.
Behind star guard Ja Morant, the Racers finished the year 41st in adjusted offensive efficiency and averaged the 11th-most points per game (83.3). Morant and the Racers have done a ton of damage at the rim, taking 45.8% of their shots at the rim and converting them at a rate of 66.6%, both top-25 numbers, according to Hoop-Math.
In the first round, Murray State is a threat to take down Marquette in one of those scary 5/12 matchup. The Golden Eagles average 68.6 adjusted possessions a game, so this could be a high-scoring game, which plays into the hands of the Racers.
4. Yale Bulldogs (14 Seed, East Region)
Adjusted Tempo: 70.7
nF Percentile Rank: .882
In upsetting Harvard for the Ivy League title, the Yale Bulldogs capped their year with a 21-7 record and a 10-4 mark within league play. They are just 80th in our rankings and 82nd by KenPom's adjusted efficiency margin, but they should scare opponents with their ability to pile up points, averaging 80.6 points per game behind the nation's 44th-ranked offense.
Yale is 19th in the nation in effective field goal percentage (55.9%), as they shoot a high rate from both outside (37.0%) and inside (56.0%) the three-point arc. At their high pace, the Bulldogs average 7.8 made threes on 20.9 attempts per game. Making that even more volatile, they had nine games with double-digit threes and 13 games below their season average.
Yale is susceptible on the defensive end, where they surrender 103.1 points per 100 possessions and 72.8 per game. They have allowed 80 or more points in eight games, five times doing so against non-conference foes.
Their first hurdle is in the form of 3 seed LSU, who are a high-scoring team all their own. At a pace in the 64th percentile, the Tigers average 81.4 points per game and 80.7 points against teams outside the SEC conference.
3. Duke Blue Devils (1 Seed, East Region)
Adjusted Tempo: 72.2
nF Percentile Rank: .941
After earning an ACC tournament title and the number-one overall seed in the Big Dance, the Duke Blue Devils find themselves the betting favorites (+190) to win it all over at FanDuel Sportsbook. As most everyone knows, they are chock-full of NBA talent, with presumed top pick Zion Williamson and running mate RJ Barrett leading the way. That's helped to produce what is one of the nation's most NBA-like attacks in an offense averaging 83.5 points per game (eighth) and 120.1 per 100 possessions (sixth).
With the floor spaced and their talent showing at peak form, Duke has taken 33.6% of their initial field goal attempts in transition, where they have an effective field goal percentage of 59.7% and a conversion rate of 72.6% at the rim. That's even 3.6 percentage points higher than their field goal percentage (69.0%) at the rim in all circumstances -- a number that positions them seventh of all teams.
Undoubtedly, Coach K and the Blue Devils will quite literally be looking to run their way to a title this year. And while their first-round opponent is undecided, advancing to the second round seems like a sure thing. A potential second-round clash looms against the winner of the 8/9 game, VCU or UCF. Both are outside the top 125 in adjusted tempo, so Duke could have a bit of a challenge in getting up to their preferred pace. The same could be said for what could be an Elite Eight bid against 2 seed Michigan State, a team in the 35th percentile in pace and just three spots back of Duke in our nERD-based rankings.
2. Buffalo Bulls (6 Seed, West Region)
Adjusted Tempo: 73.8
nF Percentile Rank: .968
Since their time under Bobby Hurley, the Buffalo Bulls -- now under Nate Oats' direction -- have seemingly become a staple in this article after also making the cut a year ago. This year, though, they have increased their tempo from last year's ranking in the 93rd percentile to the 96th percentile this time around. They are but one of two tournament teams to average at least 73 possessions per game, and you bet they're in search of a few more wins this time around.
Last year, Buffalo -- a then-13 seed -- got past Arizona with 89 points in the Round of 64 only to lose to a tough Kentucky team in the second round (they scored 75 in that one). But in 2019, junior C.J. Massinburg -- 18.3 points per game -- is another year wiser, and behind his leadership, the Bulls have gone 31-3 against a strength of schedule in KenPom's top 100. Their 84.9 points a game are fifth in the nation while their offensive efficiency is 19th.
But that isn't the scary part.
Much like the peak Golden State Warriors, these Bulls defend, having held opponents to 70.5 points per contest. When adjusted for opponent and taken over 100 possessions, their 94.7 defensive rating is 28th of all teams. Only two other teams -- Duke and North Carolina (that's some company) -- can say that they too are in the top 30 in all of pace, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency.
Like many mid-majors before them, Buffalo got a very tough draw from the selection committee. They will get the benefit of facing a tired play-in winner in either Arizona State or St. John's, but both are in the top 50 in pace and have some firepower on the offensive side. And barring an upset, Texas Tech and their second-ranked defense will await Buffalo in the second round.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels (1 Seed, Midwest Region)
Adjusted Tempo: 74.3
nF Percentile Rank: .993
Not so shocking to anyone who has followed games this season, North Carolina joins their rivals on this list. After all, the Tar Heels are the fastest team in the field, having ended the regular season behind only four teams in both possessions per 100 and percentile. By nature, their consistency (82nd percentile) is lacking because of their high-paced play, not to mention the youth at key positions in the lineup.
Still, it is quite difficult to keep up with this Roy Williams-led squad averaging 86.1 points per -- the third-most in the country -- with three players averaging at least 14.7 points a game and another three averaging eight-plus. UNC's depth can go as much as 10 deep, and therein lies their advantage in pushing the ball up and down the floor.
And just in case you think your team or underdog pick is going to throw them off, consider this: in only 11 of their 33 games were the Tar Heels kept from pushing the pace to at least their average (unadjusted) for the year. In the 22 games they hit or exceeded that, they were an incredible 20-2 with an eight-point loss to Kentucky and a three-point loss to Texas -- both on neutral courts. In their last nine games alone, they have gone 8-1, with six of those games at a pace of 75 or faster.
Top dogs in the Midwest, they will take on Iona in the first round. The Gaels have become known for their high pace, averaging a respectable 70.6 possessions, but for UNC, a 100-spot is in the cards if Iona isn't mindful to slow this one down a bit. Carolina's biggest challenge in the region could be an improved Kentucky team, one that already beat the Heels at their own game back in December.