There are a lot of different ways to score in college basketball. Some teams play at a slower pace, operating more in the half-court (e.g. Virginia), while others try to push the tempo and get out in transition (e.g. Memphis).
Despite there being different ways to have success, transition offense is generally the most efficient. Per hoop-math, the median effective field goal percentage (eFG%) this season on transition plays is 53.7%, compared to 48.8% on non-transition opportunities. This makes sense, as transition offenses often encounter defenses that are scrambling to get back. Turnovers can generate easy opportunities as well.
Teams Most Reliant On Transition
Some teams may rely a bit too much on transition baskets. It’s not always easy to generate these opportunities in every game/matchup, and when these squads are forced to operate largely in the half-court, the offensive drop-off can be significant. Below are the teams with the largest differences in transition and non-transition eFG% (notable teams highlighted).
For reference, only 38 teams in college basketball have a transition effective field goal percentage greater than 60.0% (median transition eFG is 53.7%). Each of Northern Iowa, Illinois, LSU and Kentucky fall in this category, indicating they have some of the most efficient transition offenses in the nation
Also for reference, the median % of shots in transition” is 23.3%, so three of the four (excluding Northern Iowa) get out and run at an above-average frequency. Northern Iowa on the other hand, has the 8th-lowest transition rate in the nation, indicating it tends to play at a slow pace (303rd in tempo per KenPom). In the relatively small sample size where the team has pushed the pace, however, it has been very successful.
Although each of Northern Iowa, Illinois, LSU and Kentucky have significantly better transition eFG%’s compared to non-transition, this doesn’t necessarily mean these teams are underperforming in the half-court. It’s possible that they’re so elite in transition that their non-transition efficiency pales in comparison.
Among 353 teams, the median non-transition eFG% is 48.8%. While Northern Iowa and LSU have maintained above-average offenses in non-transition opportunities (53.1% and 50.1.% respectively), Illinois and Kentucky fall below average to 46.8% and 47.2% respectively.
Both the Illini and Wildcats have played very well as of late, but it will be interesting to monitor whether they underperform against teams that slow the game down and limit transition opportunities. That being said, neither Illinois nor Kentucky operate in transition at extremely high rates (although still above-average), so perhaps this won’t be too significant a concern.
Heaviest Transition Teams
Which teams operate in transition the most? Do they perform worse in the half-court, and if so, is their reliance on transition concerning? Again for reference, the median percentage of shots in transition” is 23.3%.
Notable teams that operate heavily in transition include Gonzaga, Penn State, St. John’s, Auburn, Michigan State, and Memphis. Whereas Gonzaga, Auburn, and Memphis are operating at above-average efficiency in transition, Penn State, St. John’s and Michigan State are performing below average (median transition eFG is 53.7%).
This doesn’t mean these squads should necessarily scale back their transition possessions, however. As previously noted, transition opportunities tend to be more efficient compared to the alternative (53.7% transition, 48.8% non-transition). Penn State and St. John’s for example, still have better transition eFG %s than non-transition.
Michigan State, however, is one of the rare teams that actually has a better non-transition eFG% than transition eFG% (51.4% vs. 52.9%). Only 41/353 (11.6%) of teams meet this criteria, including Ohio State, Duke, Rutgers, San Diego State, and Colorado). This is likely more of an interesting oddity than actual concern for any of these squads.
How will these “transition-heavy” teams fare if they’re forced to play slower? Could this especially hinder the teams that have performed really well in transition (Gonzaga, Auburn, Memphis)?
In the Spartans’ recent three-game home winning streak, Tom Izzo’s squad pushed the pace offensively, generating a lot of quality looks. Against a strong Purdue defense that slowed the game down to 60 possessions, however, (fewest of any MSU game this season), the Spartans really struggled, putting up a season-low 42 points. Michigan State still likely has one of the better offenses in the country, but its performance is slower, “grind-it-out” games is worth monitoring.
Penn State/ St John’s
Penn State can struggle to shoot the basketball (31.4% from three) and clearly prefers to get out in transition to generate some easy buckets. St. John’s is in a similar boat (28.8% from three) and uses turnovers to get out and run. The Red Storm have especially struggled when not in transition, posting an eFG% of 43.2% that is among the worst in the sport. Both teams definitely seem susceptible to lower possession games that operate largely in the half-court.
Auburn has been better outside of transition than both Penn State and St. John’s, but it’s also struggled to shoot well from downtown (30.9%). If these shooting woes continue, getting easy scores in transition might become even more important for the Tigers.
As one of the least experienced (and arguably one of the more talented) teams in the nation, it makes sense that Penny Hardaway’s squad has embraced fast-paced basketball (15th in pace per KenPom). Generally speaking, younger teams have a harder time executing half-court sets efficiently, and Memphis’s speed/athleticism can shine in transition. In slower games, these advantages could be marginalized.
What about Gonzaga? The Bulldogs have excelled both in-and-out of transition, but is its “transition-heavy” approach a concern when it finds itself in slower-paced games? Perhaps, but it doesn’t make sense to “penalize” Mark Few’s team for trying to push the pace. If a team can pull off this higher efficiency brand of basketball, why not?
It’s conventional thinking that the pace-of-play slows down in the NCAA Tournament. Whether or not this is actually true, some teams will be especially adept at limiting possessions. It’s worth being aware of how much teams play in transition and which are most effective in these situations. A certain level of reliance on transition opportunities isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s possible it could prove to be a concern for some teams down the road.