Road to the Final Four: The 10 Most High-Strung Teams in America

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Road to the Final Four: The 10 Most High-Strung Teams in America
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Firing three-pointers at will in transition, forcing turnovers, 75 possessions per game, and 90 points on the scoreboard are some of the characteristics of high-strung teams.

They are the teams looking to score before the defense is set and dial up the defensive pressure to keep the opponents from settling into their offense.

The 10 teams that stand out are the most high-strung teams for a variety of reasons.

Some will operate during the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, while others will press teams into submission.

Some have no concept of walking the ball up court, and some will gamble frequently defensively, looking to get two the other way.

Southern teams typically play the more high-strung styles, as the South typically has the best athletes (think SEC and Big 12 speed to the speed of the Big Ten in college football). That's the case here again, as seven of the 10 teams on the list have recruiting bases in the South.

 

10. Washington

Why they are high-strung: Washington already motored up and down the court with one of the best backcourts in the country. Now they add super recruit point guard Abdul Gaddy to the mix.

The Huskies play a style of basketball unknown to the Pac-10. West Coast teams have suddenly dropped off in the speed of their games, but Lorenzo Romar's club has picked things up.

Playing a dramatically different brand of basketball has helped Washington differentiate itself from other Pac-10 clubs.

Telling Stats: Only two teams other than Washington in the Pac-10 rank in the top 100 in pace.

Washington ranked seventh last season and has routinely been in the top 10 during the last half-decade.

The Huskies also ranked ninth in the country in defensive efficiency. At the pace they play, if the opponent doesn't score early, it will be looking at a big deficit very early.

Key player that dictates Washington's tempo: Isaiah Thomas. The 5'8" guard was in charge of the offense last season and will likely do the same in 2010. He's the team's leading returning scorer but should share some of the scoring load with incoming freshman Gaddy.

 

9. Georgia Tech

Why they are high-strung: Georgia Tech is going to resemble somewhat of a street ball team this year, and for anyone who has seen street ball, you know they don't spend too much time on one end of the court at a time.

Having a dominant center like Derrick Favors might slow Tech down a bit, but the Yellow Jackets will likely pump up the tempo in the usually fast ACC.

Telling Stats: Georgia Tech ranked 18th in the country in possessions per game at 71.5.

Most high-strung teams are usually dominant on the offensive end of the floor, but Tech does it with their defense.

The Yellow Jackets never let their opponents get comfortable; as a result, their scrappy defense posts a solid 91.9 defensive rating.

Key player that dictates Georgia Tech's tempo: Iman Shumpert. As only a freshman last year, Shumpert ran the point for coach Paul Hewitt. He'll be in charge this year to make sure Georgia Tech's many post options get their touches.

 

8. Baylor

Why they are high-strung: It's all about the offense and nothing about the defense for Baylor.

It makes for high-scoring and exciting games, but not always wins. Baylor found that out last season, taking a major step back after experiencing a breakthrough in 2008.

The Bears slowed things down last season, but the offense and defense didn't really improve.

Scott Drew has a more athletic lineup this season, so expect the Bears to be out and running again like it is 2008 all over again.

Telling stats: In 2008, the Bears averaged almost 72 possessions per game.

When forced into a halfcourt game, Baylor struggled mightily in 2008. So what happened in 2009? Baylor slowed things down, played halfcourt games, averaged 66.6 possessions per game, and ended up in the NIT.

Key player that dictates Baylor's tempo: LaceDarius Dunn. The man with one of the best names in basketball also will be Baylor's main man in 2010. Dunn can slash and shoot in transition or in the halfcourt. He's more athletic than his predecessor Curtis Jerrells and will have Baylor moving in 2010.

 

7. Siena

Why they are high-strung: The best way for a mid-major team to make up for the lack of size common in mid-major schools is to run and gun. That's exactly what Siena does.

Siena lost one of the three players capable of bringing the ball downcourt and running the offense, but Edwin Ubiles and Ronald Moore won't have any trouble picking up the slack.

Telling Stats: Siena ranks 16th in the country in tempo at 71.7 possessions per game, as the Saints are constantly pushing the ball. They've got to push the ball in order to use their biggest strength—their speed.

Siena's weakness—its size—is evident when looking at the school's adjusted height. Last season, Siena was 2.2 inches shorter than the average school, which ranks 302nd in the country.

Key Player that dictates Siena's tempo: Ronald Moore. The easy choice is Siena's best player, Ubiles, but more often than not, it is the point guard Moore's job to get the ball across the time line as quick as possible. From there, Moore can give the rock off to Ubiles and let the superstar do what he does best.

 

6. Missouri

Why they are high-strung: The Tigers won games by tiring out their out opponents with pressure and depth. Missouri always had a sub for the starter, and sometimes it seemed like Mizzou had another sub for its subs.

Missouri's trap defense actually increased the tempo of its games rather than slowed it down a bit like most pressure defenses do.

Missouri also had the perfect group of players to run its offense and defense. All the forwards aren't bound to the halfcourt game, but the two starters that were key to Mike Anderson's system graduated.

Missouri may not have all the right personnel to operate the way the team last year, but the Tigers will still be exciting to watch.

Telling Stats: Missouri only has 6.1 percent of its possessions end in a blocked shot, which ranks 15th in the country. For an undersized lineup, that means the Tigers consistently move the ball in transition quick enough to beat the opponent's big men down floor.

Mizzou also ranks third in the country in defensive steal percentage, as the Tigers end 13.8 percent of their opponents' possessions in a steal.

Player that dictates Missouri's tempo: J.T. Tiller. The Missouri guard is great across the board. He makes good decisions on offense, distributes the ball well, can anticipate the passing lanes, and frequently gets to the line. He's a great catalyst for Anderson.

 

5. Clemson

Why they are high-strung: Combine intense, nonstop defensive pressure with an offense looking for the next huge dunk to excite the Littlejohn Coliseum Crowd. The Tigers mix together depth, freaky athleticism, and some actual half-court chemistry to constantly keep the tempo up and losses down.

Clemson lost some of the parts that made the Tigers so energetic, but incoming freshman wings will keep Oliver Purnell's club in a position to never let the other team relax.

Telling Stats: When Clemson took on rival and fellow high-strung squad South Carolina, the two ran a track meet with a basketball rather than a basketball game.

The Tigers took the game 98-87 and scored with great efficiency with 84 possessions in the game.

Both schools scored with ease, but eventually Clemson's constant pressure was too much for even South Carolina's shifty Devan Downey-run offense.

Key player that dictates Clemson's tempo: Trevor Booker. The senior wing's strength and mobility allows him to wreak havoc when Clemson presses. He is also a thunderous dunker that can jump-start the Tigers' offense and the suddenly rocking atmosphere in Littlejohn.

 

4. South Carolina

Why they are high-strung: The Gamecocks will attack the basket at any point of the game. Devan Downey could have nine players in front of him on the court and the ball on his baseline, and you can bet his first thought is to go straight for the basket as fast as possible.

South Carolina is built to run with slashing guards, athletic big men, and a deadly three-point shooter on the wing.

Downey and Brandis Raley-Ross can move the ball up the court, where forwards Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow will likely be waiting. Evaldas Baniulis will also be camping out on the wings waiting for a kickout.

Telling Stats: Darrin Horn's teams play at a rate of 73.5 possessions per game, ninth quickest in the country.

They also rank seventh in turnovers forced, which means the Gamecocks gamble routinely, looking to run in transition.

They also rank 301st in defensive rebounding, another indicator USC is looking to run rather than rebound.

Key player that dictates South Carolina's tempo: Devan Downey. Few players are as quick as Downey in America. The ball is always in his hands as he plays a part in the final product of almost 60 percent of the team's offensive possessions when he's on the floor. With his speed, you can imagine how little time South Carolina wastes off the shot clock.

 

3. Louisville

Why they are high-strung: From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Louisville is going to press teams from baseline to baseline. The Cardinals have two different full-court pressure systems they employ before falling back into a man-to-man trapping defense or a 2-3 zone defense to create turnovers in the passing lanes.

If teams can beat the pressure without turning the ball over or taking too many bad shots, teams typically tire out down the stretch. Louisville is known for going on big runs late in games when its opponents are flat out of gas.

Telling Stats: Louisville's overall pace of play at 67.6 possessions per game is middle of the pack, but that doesn't mean the Cards aren't high-strung.

Louisville tends to take its time when in the half-court offense, and the team's pressure makes the game frenetic but also slows it down at the same time.

Rick Pitino's team ranks 12th in the country in defensive field goal percentage and 43rd in turnover percentage.

Few teams rank in the top 50 in both, making Louisville one of the toughest teams to score against.

Key player that will dictate Louisville's tempo: Jerry Smith. With the two wing players Earl Clark and Terrence Williams gone, Pitino will rely on the senior guard to lead the pressure against helpless opponents. Smith is also a deadly shooter that can burn teams in transition.

 

2. Kentucky

Why they are high-strung: Remember John Calipari's Memphis teams? They typically tried to get to the basket with the dribble-drive offense and forced a lot of turnovers and bad but quick shots on the defensive end of the floor.

Remember when Calipari had an ineligible stud freshman point guard by the name of Derrick Rose? That team was even more high-strung, as Rose could push the ball in transition. 

In his first year at Kentucky, Calipari has all the pieces (minus a three-point shooter) to run his dribble-drive offense and same dominating pressure defense. He's got the freshman stud point guard in John Wall and a variety of big men to clog the real estate inside the arc on defense.

Telling Stats: One for two reasons. The first is Kentucky returns several starters, but one Patrick Patterson will likely remain in the starting lineup. Calipari brings in a handful of recruits that are mostly his players and fit his system; they will make up the rest of the starting lineup.

One is also the number of times Calipari's Memphis teams finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency during the past four seasons.

That one season they finished outside the top 10? They were 11th.

Memphis won with defense, more specifically its relentless defensive pressure. The Tigers got in your face to dictate the way the game was going to be played.

Key player that will dictate Kentucky's tempo: John Wall. The freshman point guard could easily be the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft because of his ability to change games. He'll be the one that makes Calipari's system go with the freshman's ability to get to the basket and operate efficiently in transition.

 

1. Virginia Military Institute

Why they are high-strung: Could any other team really be the most high-strung team in America? You'd find the Keydets' gameplan under "frenetic basketball" in a basketball encyclopedia.

VMI does everything a high-strung team typically does: The Keydets push the ball, shoot threes in transition, and gamble for every turnover.

Usually VMI's absurd pace doesn't stop talented teams that can exploit the Keydets' usual lack of efficiency. That changed last year when VMI shocked Kentucky 111-103 in its season opener.

Telling Stats: VMI plays at a pace of 80.1 possessions per game, which ranks first in the country.

VMI has been first in the country in possessions per game two of the past three seasons and averaged an eye-popping 90 possessions per game in 2007.

108.2 is the Keydets' defensive efficiency. That number ranks towards the bottom of the country, and it is worse than their offensive efficiency, meaning they score fewer points than they allow per possession.

Opponents rebound 44.3 percent of their own misses, a ratio that is the highest in the country. It's an indictment against VMI's own system, as the team is trying to get out into transition rather than rebound the ball.

Key player that will dictate VMI's tempo: Austin Kenon. The junior guard was third on the team in scoring last season at 15.3 ppg. With three senior starters departing, Kenon will be relied upon as the team's top scorer and tempo setter.

 

For more on college basketball, follow Jameson on Twitter.

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