March Madness: The Top 5 Defenses in the NCAA Tournament
The tournament's list of top defenses is a mixed bag of title contenders and long-shot Cinderellas -- without much in the middle. While this season featured an offensive surge, the strongest defensive teams in the nation were nearly locks for the tournament. Of the top 12 teams in College Basketball Reference's defensive rating -- points allowed per 100 possessions -- nine of them made the tournament, with the other three nearly winning their conference tournament.
Defense does not always win championships, but last year a strong defensive rating was a constant for Final Four teams. Three of the Final Four squads were in the top 24 in defensive rating, with the other participant, eventual national champion North Carolina, ranking 49th in the nation.
If you are looking for some teams that can wreak havoc and lock down teams defensively, this is the list for you.
We start our list we the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin -- the automatic qualifier out of the Southland Conference -- who will face Texas Tech in the 3-14 matchup in the East Region. Stephen F. Austin is the opposite of any other team on this list, ranking in the top five of defensive rating while coming in at 69th in points allowed per game. This is a direct result of their 25th-ranked pace as they are averaging 74 possessions per 40 minutes. They are the only team on this list that ranks in the top half of the country in pace -- with three of them ranking outside the top 300.
Their defensive efforts, like in past years, is centered around speeding up the game and turning over other teams, which is a similar style to West Virginia. The Lumberjacks lead the country in defensive turnover percentage, forcing opponents to cough the ball up on 24 percent of their possessions.
UNC Greensboro comes in at fourth the country in defensive rating and earned a 13 seed in the West, where they will face Gonzaga on Thursday. The Spartans rank 6th in the nation in points allowed per game -- holding opponents to 62.4 points -- partly due to their 304th-ranked pace.
Their average of 66.8 possessions per 40 minutes allows a team that is not especially great in regard to field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage defense -- ranking 56th and 21st, respectively -- to limit the scoring output of their foes. The Spartans have held opponents to 55 points or less in 10 of their 34 contests this season.
New Mexico State put together a 28-5 season that has landed them in the NCAA Tournament via the automatic bid out of the Western Athletic Conference, and they are the 12 seed in the Midwest region. Their defensive prowess -- along with their first round draw of Clemson -- makes them a popular upset pick in the first round.
New Mexico State ranks 6th in the nation in opponents' effective field goal percentage -- a stat that is adjusted for threes being worth more than twos -- and 12th in opponents' offensive rebound percentage. That combination helped the Aggies allow just 63.8 points per game, which came in at 10th in the country this season.
If you know anything about Virginia basketball, then it is not a shock that they find themselves on this list, but their spot at number-two probably has you scratching your head. Defensive rating is strictly based on points per possession over 100 possessions and does not adjust for schedule. When their opponents are taken into consideration, like on Kenpom, the Cavaliers are the top-ranked defensive team in the nation.
Virginia leads the nation in points allowed per game -- giving up 53.4 -- and have allowed 64 or more points only four times this season. To put this into perspective, UVA has held teams under 50 points (12) more times than their opponents scored over 60 (9) in a season where the average team scored 74 points per game across Division-I. They are also one of only two teams in the nation to hold teams under 60 points per game.
While it is no surprise that Cincinnati finds itself in the top two nationally in respect to defense, it runs contrary to the narrative we have heard all year about Virginia being the top defensive team. However, this team absolutely backs up their claim of the top spot in defensive rating. When looking at Kenpom's Adjusted Defense, Cincinnati is nearly as dominant as UVA and outpaces the third-ranked team -- Texas Tech -- by a wide margin.
The Bearcats ranked second in opponents' field goal percentage, holding teams to just 37 percent shooting from the floor. Additionally, Cincinnati ranks 20th in turnover percentage, 9th in rebounding percentage, and 5th in block percentage. This is a very well-rounded defense that has earned the top spot in this regard, and it is most definitely one of the top-two defenses in the nation by any measure.