The 2014 NCAA Tournament: Defense Wins Championships

A look at the role of good defense in setting the Sweet 16 field.

The old adage, often attributed to Bear Bryant in the context of football, that “offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” may prove true in college basketball this year. At the very least, defense has certainly been a key factor in setting the field for the Sweet 16. Of the teams left competing for a national title, four rank in the top five in the country in adjusted defense. If you look further into that statistical category, half of the remaining teams left are ranked in the top 25. No teams left in the tournament are outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive ratings.

It's natural for fans of college basketball to enjoy high-scoring, up-and-down games that produce gaudy stat lines for star players. But when it comes down to choosing winners, a good defensive game plays a plays a major role. Here, we look at the top five defenses among the remaining contenders, as well as some individual players whose contributions on that end of the floor often go unheralded.

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Arizona Wildcats

Arizona is the top seeded team in the West Region, and the top team in the country in adjusted defense, allowing only 87.2 points per 100 possessions. This is particularly impressive in light of the fact that the Wildcats play out of the Pac-12, a conference where high-scoring, fast-paced games are all but expected. Arizona plays a tough man-to-man defense, and the contest everything their opponent tries to do. Their defensive prowess was on full display in their most recent game against Gonzaga, where they forced an amazing 21 turnovers en route to an 84-61 victory.

The Wildcats are anchored defensively by freshman forward Aaron Gordon, who has an individual defensive rating of 88.0, good enough for 13th in the nation. He's also fourth in the country in defensive win shares (3.1). T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson both rank in the top 15 nationally in defensive win shares as well, with numbers of 3.1 and 2.9 respectively. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson ranks 15th in the country in individual defensive rating (88.6). There are no holes in the Arizona defense, which has enabled them to remain one of the best teams in the country, despite the mid-season loss of key contributor Brandon Ashley.

Florida Gators

Florida is ranked number one overall in the nation, and has advanced to the Sweet 16 despite not having a single player that the casual college basketball fan could even name before the tournament. Florida’s offense is evenly distributed, with four players averaging more than 10 points per game. Where they really excel, however, is on the defensive end of the floor.

They rank second in the country in adjusted defense (88.8), led by NBA prospect and physical specimen, Patric Young. But even defense is a true team effort for Florida. Featuring a tenacious full-court trap press, no contributor on the Gators roster has an individual defensive rating above 94. Through use of the press, Florida forced 10 steals while knocking off Pitt 79-61 in the last round, despite a relatively poor shooting performance from everyone but Guard Scotty Wilbekin.

Louisville Cardinals

When you think of Louisville, it’s easy to think about their fast-paced offense (64th tempo in the country), and highlight plays by Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell. Just looking at that side of the floor would cause one to look over what Louisville does best though.

The Cardinals are third in the country in adjusted defense (89.4) - Smith and teammate Chris Jones are 20th in the country in steals (73). Most telling, however, is the fact that Louisville boasts four players that rank top 20 in the country in individual defensive rating. Harrell’s defensive rating is fifth in the country (86.4), and he is joined in the top 20 by Stephen Van Treese (7th, 87.1), Jones (11th, 87.8), and Smith (18th, 89.0).

Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia has had doubters all year long. Many claimed they won the ACC regular season championship due to a weak conference schedule, while others claimed they didn't deserve their number one seed in the tournament despite their win over Duke in the conference championship game. Their slow, plodding style (346th nationally in adjusted tempo), combined with a lack of offensive firepower has a tendency to create skepticism. But amidst all the doubts, Virginia just keeps winning.

The key reason behind their success has been excellent defense, as the Cavaliers rank fourth in the country in adjusted defense (89.9). Senior forward Akil Mitchell ranks 10th in the country in individual defensive rating (87.6). Guard Malcolm Brogdon ranks 12th nationally in defensive win shares (2.9). But much like their overall efforts, Virginia’s defense is a true team effort. The just go out, control the ball, and keep their opponent from scoring points.

Adjusted Defensive Ratings: The Rest of the Field

San Diego State, 90.3 (7th); Connecticut, 93.2 (11th); Tennessee, 94.2 (17th); Kentucky, 95.9 (25th); Stanford, 96.4 (36th); Michigan State, 96.7 (41st); UCLA, 97 (45th); Wisconsin, 98.3 (55th); Iowa State, 98.8 (59th); Dayton, 99.9 (73rd); Baylor, 100.2 (77th); Michigan, 101.1 (96th).