NCAA Tournament Narratives: Defense Wins Championship

Posted by on March 19, 2014

The following is part of a series of NCAA tournament posts. You can find the intro to the series here.

Narrative: Defense wins championships.

In order to win a basketball game, you simply have to score more points than the other team. You do this through the combination of offense and defense. Some teams are very good at one, but the best teams are very good at both.
There happens to be quite a few top tier teams with very good offenses and very average defense this season. Creighton, Duke, Michigan, Wisconsin and somehow even a Bill Self Kansas team all fit this criteria.  Stat geeks have consistently noted that the majority of Final Four teams rank in the top 20 in KenPom’s AdjO and AdjD. However, there are two issues with limiting yourself to teams only in top 20 on offense and defense. First, KenPom’s stats are from after the NCAA tournament. All the Final Four teams have most likely increased their efficiency numbers by winning four in a row. Second, there aren’t extremely dominant and balanced teams this year. Being great at one thing is probably sufficient.
Going back to the initial narrative, I took a look at how both offensive and defensive efficiency affect NCAA tournament success. Take a look at the graphs below:
Creighton Graph
Just last year, Michigan became the worst defensive team (5-seed or better) to advanced to the national championship game in the last 10 years. In fact, pre-tournament offense correlated slightly better than pre-tournament defense with an r-value of .35.
We also have an example of a relatively bad offensive making the Final Four in Louisville. The Cardinals had the third worst offense of any team seeded 5 or better since 2004, but still won four tournament games.
“Defense wins championships” probably originated from coaches motivating their teams to play hard on that end of the court. While “the combination of defense and offense wins championships” sounds extremely obvious, it’s a more realistic view.

Team: Creighton

Creighton currently ranks 1st in AdjO, but 134th in AdjD on KenPom. Put the two together and you get the 9th best team in the country. Compare those numbers to fellow Big East member Villanova. The Wildcats are 17th in AdjO and 16th in AdjD, good for 7th overall in the country.
Should we be more concerned about Creighton due to their lack of balance?  Here’s a look at 10 teams with similar situations to Creighton since 2004:
Creighton Table
Overall, these teams have performed worse than expectations. Based on seeding alone, the group of 10 teams above were expected to win 20 tournament games. They actually won a combined 14 games. The results for Creighton-esque teams were even worse prior to Michigan’s Final Four run last year.
If there was a year for an unbalanced team like Creighton or Duke to make a run, this might be the one. No team ranked in the top five on offense is ranked even in the top 50 on defense. Still, past results indicate balanced teams like Wichita State and Villanova have a leg up on Creighton beyond simply point different.

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