Newsflash: turnovers are bad.
Newsflash: that previous newsflash isn't news to anybody, of course turnovers are bad. Basketball is a game of possessions. Some coaches try to play with a fast pace so that they can have as many possessions as possible. Other coaches try to slow down the game, opting to be as efficient as possible with the possessions they do have. Neither strategy is necessarily wrong. Either is a viable option and which one a coach selects will depend on the players at their disposal. Most land somewhere in the middle of the examples given, but all will agree that turning the ball over is the severest of sins in basketball.
Another newsflash: not all coaches are created equal. Once again, this is old news. Some have the knack for leading a team to success, and others don't. In this specific context, there are some coaches who are able to convey the value of possession to their players more effectively and consistently. Good news for Red Raiders fans is that Chris Beard has coached teams that consistently have low turnover totals. Beard’s last three seasons at the helm of a college basketball program has seen every season end with an 11.8 turnover per game rate or less. As the old Moscow rule goes, “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.” Freshest in our mind is last season, when the Red Raiders averaged 11.06 turnovers per contest. This ranked them 29th in the country in that statistical category. The only Big 12 team to fare better was Iowa State. Even during conference play, which is a significant uptick in competition, Beard’s squad only gave the ball up 11.44 times per game. As good as last year’s Tech team was at holding onto the ball, Beard’s UALR 2016 NCAA tournament team was even better. The Trojans averaged just 10.14 turnover per game that year, which was a better showing than any team in the Big 12. The season previous to that, Beard was coaching at recent exhibition opponent Angelo State. The Rams finished with a 28-6 record that year, and, once again, was a team that did a good job of not giving the ball up, averaging only 11.8 turnovers per game.
Texas Tech has gotten off to a similar start in their two exhibition matchups so far. Against Angelo State, the Red Raiders coughed it up 13 times (4 times by senior Tommy Hamilton alone). They settled down and only turned the ball over 10 times against New Mexico State, putting them right at 11.5 turnovers per game.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that no matter the pace that a team plays at, turnovers are still a coach’s worst enemy. While that is true, using metrics that don’t adjust for pace don’t shed light on the whole story. A team that plays at a fast pace will have more possessions than a team that plays at a slow pace. It’s likely that the team with more possessions is going to have more total turnovers, even if they are actually more efficient than a slower paced team. The way we adjust for pace is by using a metric called turnovers per possession. This tallies the ratio of turnovers against the total number of possessions that a team has. Now let’s see if Beard’s impressive turnover numbers as a D1 head coach tread water when adjusted for pace. In his first season at Texas Tech, Beard’s team turned it over on 16.3% of their possessions. That was good enough for 53rd in the country, which was lower than their turnover per game ranking. However, this still landed Texas Tech as second best in the Big 12 with Iowa State again being the only team in conference more efficient with the ball. His one season at UALR still looks good under this light as well. The Trojans only turned the ball over on 15.2% of their possessions, landing them at 27th in the nation. The only Big 12 team more efficient than that was Texas.
Texas Tech faithful, while perhaps upset at his leaving for Memphis, are in general agreement that Tubby Smith is a good college basketball coach that was good for the program. Good enough, anyways, to lead the Red Raiders to their most recent NCAA tournament appearance in 2015-2016. For comparison, let’s take a look at his turnover numbers while in Lubbock. His team was most efficient with the ball during his last season in town while leading the Red Raiders to the NCAA tournament. That team turned the ball over 12.03 times per game, only good enough to be ranked 95th in the country. The turnovers per possession didn’t look any better at 17.3%, which was 147th best in D1 basketball. The numbers in Tubby Smith’s two seasons previous to that are, as one might expect, worse. The turnovers for those two seasons were 21.2% and 18.3%. That placed Texas Tech at 319th and 215th in the rankings, respectively. Neither of those seasons produced a winning record for the Red Raiders.
Obviously, there is more to being a successful team than simply not turning the ball over. This is shown by the fact that the 2015-2016 team reached the NCAA tournament despite having inferior numbers in regards to turnovers per game and turnovers per possession than last year’s team, which did not make the tournament. However, there is a direct correlation between teams that are efficient with the basketball and teams that win a lot of games. Coach Beard’s coaching history proves that he understands that and, even more important, can get his teams to understand that. Led by returning starter PG Keenan Evans and an otherwise senior-laden team, I expect yet another season where Coach Beard’s squad can claim to be one of the most efficient in the country. If they fail to do so, this season will turnover into a disappointing one.