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The transition offense of college basketball's top 10 teams

Who likes the fast break? And who does not? A look at the contrasting transition styles of America's top 10 teams.

Indiana loves to run.
Indiana loves to run.

The contrast of styles among teams is part of what makes college basketball so much fun. There are 347 teams in Division I, and each one plays differently. There isn't one "right" way to play basketball, as teams have success with all sorts of styles.

While there are many aspects to styles of play, tempo is perhaps the most striking. Even among the very best teams in the nation, there are substantial differences in just how much teams look to score on the fast break. For example, the up-tempo Indiana Hoosiers and the more half-court focused Florida Gators have two of the best offenses in college hoops.

There are three different types of transition opportunities that occur in a basketball game. The first and most common type of transition opportunity comes when a team rebounds an opponent's miss. Here, we see large differences in playing styles from team to team, with some teams pushing the tempo after rebounds, while others often choose to walk the ball up the floor. The second type of transition opportunity comes when a team inbounds the ball after their opponent has scored. While it is more difficult to run in these situations, it still happens. The third type of transition chance comes off of a steal. Virtually all teams try to score quickly after steals.

The plot below highlights the differences in how the AP top 10 teams look to push the tempo. It uses data taken from Transition opportunities are defined as any shots that occur within the first ten seconds of a possession. The horizontal axis of the figure measures the percentage of initial shots coming after a defensive rebound that occur within the first ten seconds of a possession. The Division-I average for this rate is around 41 percent, which is indicated by a vertical line. The vertical axis, labeled "Opp score transition rate," is the percentage of initial shot attempts after an opponent made basket that occur within the first ten seconds of a possession. The Division-I average for this rate is 14 percent, and this average is indicated by a horizontal line.


Indiana likes to run. The Hoosiers get over half of their initial shots after defensive rebounds within the first ten seconds of a possession, and shoot just under a quarter of their initial attempts early in the possession after an opponent score. At the other extreme in this plot is Miami. Jim Larranaga's team takes only 28 percent of their initial shots after a defensive rebound in transition, and rarely shoots quickly after a made basket by an opponent.

The remaining top 10 teams fall somewhere in the middle between the extremes of Indiana and Miami. For the most part, teams that look to run after a rebound are also more likely to shoot quickly after an opponent make. One exception to this trend is Michigan. The Wolverines aggressively push tempo after a rebound, but seldom shoot quickly after their opponent scores.

What happens on those transition shots is also important. The plot below summarizes how each of the top ten teams do in non-steal transition situations, as well as in situations where they must rely on their half-court offense. To evaluate the shooting percentages in half-court situations, I have included initial shots of a possession that occurred either more than ten seconds into a possession or at any point in a possession after a dead ball turnover. The plot below shows each team's effective field goal percentage in transition and in the half-court. Division I averages are indicated by the horizontal and vertical lines.


Louisville stands out in that figure, with below average effective field goal percentages both in the half-court and in non-steal transition possessions. This figure presents an unfairly negative view of the Louisville offense, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, this figure does not include transition opportunities that come off of steals and Louisville steals the ball a lot. Fourteen percent of Louisville's initial shots are transition attempts after a steal, and Rick Pitino's team has an effective field goal percentage of 72 percent in these situations. Additionally, the Cardinals are also very good at avoiding turnovers and getting offensive rebounds, both of which help the offense, but neither of which directly affect shooting percentages. On the whole, Louisville's offense is good, but the plot above highlights things that the Cardinals do poorly.

Gonzaga is the only top 10 team that actually has a higher effective field goal percentage in half-court situations than it does in non-steal transition possessions. Gonzaga works hard on offense to get the ball inside, with just under a third of their initial shot attempts in half-court situations coming at the rim, compared with the national average of 27 percent. Mark Few's team is smart to get the ball inside, considering that they have made 70 percent of their attempts at the rim this season, which is one of the ten highest shooting percentages at the rim in the nation.

Michigan's offense is great in both half-court and in transition, while teams like Kansas would probably benefit if they could get out and run more. Kansas runs off of rebounds at a rate near the national average. The Kansas defense is so good that a high proportion of their initial shots come after defensive rebounds; 41 percent of Jayhawk initial shots come in possessions after rebounding an opponent miss, compared with a national average of 34 percent. With such a good defense and a relatively high conversion rate in transition, Kansas would likely benefit more by speeding up the tempo than would most other top teams. A great defense combined with an aggressive and successful fast break can be a winning formula -- just ask the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats.

As you watch games the rest of the year, try to keep in mind just how much this battle over tempo affects the outcome of a game. For example, slowing down Indiana's fast break could make a big difference for a team looking to pull an upset. Of course, that is probably easier said than done.