Seemingly every year, teams with high-octane offenses and superb shooting enter March Madness with high expectations, and seemingly every year the three-point well dries up and the chaos of the single-elimination tournament claims victims.
In 2018, No. 3 seed Michigan State met No. 11 seed Syracuse in the second round. Michigan State averaged 41.3 percent from deep for the season, fifth-best in the country, and posted 81 point per contest. The Spartans shot 8-of-37 (21.6 percent) from behind the arc in that game and lost 55-53.
In 2014, No. 3 seed Creighton entered the tournament as the best three-point shooting team in the country at 42.1 percent and averaged 79.5 points per game. In the second round against No. 6 seed Baylor, the Bluejays proceeded to shoot 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from outside and were shellacked 85-55.
In 2010, No. 1 seed Kansas was fifth-best nationwide from three at 40.9 percent and scored 81.8 points per game. In the second round against No. 9 seed Northern Iowa, though, the Jayhawks were 6-of-23 (26.1 percent) from deep and fell 69-67.
These are only three examples, and plenty of teams known for shooting have done well in the tournament. But teams that rely on it heavily often hear and experience the old adage, “live and die by the three.”
It begs the question: if a lid on the basket can send a prolific offensive team packing, is defense more reliable? How well do teams that “live and die by defense” perform?
KenPom has made his advanced data on college basketball available since 2002. With those questions in mind, I compiled information on every team that finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency from 2002-2018, looking into seeding, performance, the quality of non-champions’ conquerors, offensive efficiency and overall KenPom ranking.
Of the 170 teams through the 17 years, only 19 did not play in the NCAA Tournament, which includes two teams banned from the postseason (2010 USC and 2016 Louisville). Of the 151 to participate in March Madness, 90 made it to the second weekend, meaning 33.09 percent of teams to reach the Sweet 16 in that time frame were top 10 in defensive efficiency.
What happened to the teams that lost in the first two rounds or didn’t make The Big Dance at all?
Let’s take it step by step: 16 of the 17 teams that were eligible but didn’t earn a spot in the tournament had an offensive efficiency ranking above 100, with 2010 Dayton the only one to finish in the top 100 at 86 (and would go on to win the NIT that year).
Twenty-seven teams lost in the first round. The average offensive efficiency ranking among those teams is 98.04. Now let’s add some context.
Two of those teams, 2004 Richmond and 2005 Minnesota, lost to other top 10 defensive teams. If you remove them from the average, it becomes 95.8. Now consider that six of the original 27 were 10 seeds or worse, meaning a first-round win would have required an upset.
Looking at the teams seeded 9 or better and excluding No. 8 seed 2005 Minnesota, essentially the top 10 defensive teams either in a toss-up game or the favored seed to win only in games against non-top 10 defensive teams, the average rises to 80.9. Only five of those teams (2002 Florida, 2016 West Virginia, 2018 Virginia, 2007 Duke and 2006 Kansas) were ranked in the top 50 offensively for their respective seasons, and no team was better than 19.
Now focusing on the teams that lost in the second round, we see a significant increase in offensive ranking, with those 34 teams averaging at 52.68. Six of those teams lost to other top 10 defensive teams and two more lost to the eventual national champions. Of the remaining 26, only eight were outside of the top 50 offensively, and most of those eight lost to much higher or similarly seeded squads. In addition, 12 of the 34 were ranked in the top 25 offensively, including second-ranked 2010 Kansas and seventh-ranked 2002 Cincinnati, both No. 1 seeds.
Does Defense Equal Championships?
Looking at it from the opposite direction of the most successful teams, 10 national champions since 2002 finished in the top 10 in defense. Nine finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, too, except 2014 Connecticut, which managed to win the program’s fifth national title with the 39th-most efficient offense.
There’s an offensive drop off in top 10 defensive teams that lost in the National Championship Game, with only two of those 11 teams finishing in the top 10 offensively (2005 Illinois and 2008 Memphis). In fact, six of those teams managed to come within one game of winning the whole thing without a top 25 offense, with 2010 Butler and its 49th-ranked offense bringing up the rear.
Of the 151 top 10 defensive teams to qualify for the tournament, 35 made the Final Four. Only three of them finished outside the top 50 in offensive efficiency: 2006 LSU at 62, 2017 South Carolina at 91 and 2012 Louisville at 112. Push it back to the Elite Eight, coming to a total of 58 top 10 defensive teams, and only one extra team made it that far without a top 50 offense: 2015 Louisville at 66.
Go back another round to include the Sweet 16 (jumping up to 90 teams) and all but 10 were top 50 in offensive efficiency.
From the data provided since 2002, it seems that in most cases, top 10 defensive teams need some amount of offense in order to make a deep run. If your team is too imbalanced toward defense, you have a great chance of not making the Sweet 16, or worse, not even making the field of 68. There are outliers, and in a tournament known for mayhem and unpredictability, there’s no question it will happen again. But for every 2012 Louisville and 2014 Connecticut, there are more like 2018 Virginia, 2013 Georgetown, 2016 West Virginia, 2002 Florida and 2004 Stanford.
While teams heavily reliant on defense can make deep runs in March, teams with some firepower on offense as a supplement have fared better since 2002.
This isn’t to say that having great defense doesn’t help. Every year since 2002 except 2010, more than half of the top 10 defense teams that made the tournament advanced to at least the Sweet 16, and in that lone year exactly half of the top 10 made it. But that doesn’t change the overall data.
This season (as of Sunday, Feb. 17), Texas Tech (64), VCU (201), Kansas State (105) and Florida (99) are currently top 10 defensively in KenPom with offensive rankings outside of the top 50, some much further from the mark than others. While we learned that no team can truly be counted out for a run in March, I have some advice for those heavily defensive-reliant teams: practice offense.
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