When Wisconsin plays Duke for the men’s college basketball championship on Monday night, the coin flip of a game will be decided by a series of countdowns. Each time one of the teams gains possession, it will have up to 35 seconds to shoot. The team that uses its allotted time — or eschews some of it — better than its opponent will win. Each team uses the shot clock differently, in ways that should make for many interesting games within the game. Here’s what to watch for:
Early in the shot clock. Transition opportunities are the best opportunities in basketball. Teams get to attack the basket at a high pace, with more space and fewer defenders. The average Division I team is better in transition than it is overall, scoring 0.88 points per possession generally and 1.03 points per possession in transition.
Both finalists execute really well in transition. Wisconsin scores 1.22 points per transition possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology stats. That’s fifth best in the country (of 351 teams in Division I). Duke ranks seventh, scoring 1.21 points per transition possession.
But Duke pushes the ball, getting into transition much more than Wisconsin does. The Blue Devils were in transition in 18 percent of their offensive possessions, which puts them in the top 20 percent of Division I teams. Wisconsin ranks dead last, at 7 percent.1
Duke transition possessions could be a trouble spot for Wisconsin’s defense, which often wilts against the fast break. The Badgers are a pretty good defensive team in the half court, but below average in transition.
In the middle of the shot clock. This isn’t as good as transition opportunities, but is a much better place for an offense to be than the dying seconds of the shot clock, because ball handlers have lots more options besides shooting.
The middle of the shot clock — not transition, but with more than four seconds left — is the terrain where most of a typical basketball game is contested, and especially Wisconsin games. The Badgers ended 87 percent of their possessions in this middle ground, running half-court sets without the pressure of needing to shoot right away. That ranks third in Division I, behind Bucknell and Virginia. And they are very dangerous in these sets, scoring 1.05 points per possession — nearly 0.2 points better than the average team in this situation. That means Wisconsin’s half-court set is so good, it’s better than the average transition offense.
Duke defends well against these kinds of shots, allowing 0.05 points per possession less than average — 38th best in Division I. But that’s unlikely to faze Wisconsin much, since it just played Kentucky. The Wildcats are the best in the country against half-court offenses shooting before the very end of the clock, allowing 0.16 fewer points per possession. Yet the Badgers beat Kentucky playing primarily in the half court.
Duke’s offense also is really good in these bread-and-butter plays, ranking ninth in the country in efficiency. But it plays this style at a below-average rate, just 79 percent of the time.
The final seconds of the clock. Teams try to avoid holding the ball this long. Short-clock offense is about as bad as transition offense is good. Teams average just 0.71 points per possession with no more than four seconds left on the shot clock. No wonder they do all they can to avoid the deadline pressure, facing the countdown on fewer than 4 percent of plays.
For most of the season, Kentucky avoided these plays even more than the average team, and for good reason: The Wildcats are well above average at transition offense and a solid half-court team, but they stink late in the shot clock, scoring just 0.61 points per possession, well below average. Their drop-off in efficiency from the middle of the clock to those final seconds was among the biggest in Division I.2 Yet they inexplicably milked the shot clock on a futile string of possessions late in their game against Wisconsin, contributing mightily to the Badgers’ win.
Duke is as loath as Kentucky to let the clock tick down, but is far better when it does, scoring 0.91 points per possession. These are small sample sizes: Just 100 plays during Duke’s entire season occurred that late in the clock.
Wisconsin has more experience living on the edge, getting near the end of the shot clock on 6 percent of its plays, in part because it plays so little transition O. But it’s not quite as efficient as Duke when it does. The Badgers should avoid letting the clock run down on Monday night, and not only because they’re so good with more time to work: Duke ranked 13th in the country in defending late-clock plays, allowing barely half a point per possession.
Neil Paine contributed to this article.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the difference between plays in the middle of the shot clock and short-clock plays. Plays with exactly four seconds left on the shot clock count as short-clock plays, not as plays in the middle of the clock.