Breaking Down the Top 10 Defenses in College Basketball
On Sunday, I watched Utah demolish USC. On Monday, I saw Virginia overcome a halftime deficit in Chapel Hill and completely dominate North Carolina en route to a big conference victory. And just last night, I watched Kentucky, Wisconsin and Oklahoma all earn victories against their own conference opponents.
Oklahoma bested West Virginia -- a good defensive team in its own right.
So, after hearing a lot of talk from analysts about each team's particular style of defense and its effectiveness, I started to wonder which of these six teams are actually very good defensively. And after a quick glance at just a few numbers, I noticed a connection between the six: they're all among the top defenses in the league.
I quickly learned that each of the six teams have a different method by which they defend with great efficiency. So, without delay, I dove into the numbers to see other teams that were just as effective, and how each of them found themselves among the best of the best.
When I emerged from the numbers, I came out with a round number -- 10. The 10 best defenses in the country.
But, before I unveil this top 10, I want to quickly explain how I ultimately came up with the rankings.
First, I took the top-10 teams in terms of numberFire's defensive efficiency metric, which refers to the percentile of that team's efficiency. A score of 99% would mean that a team's defense is better than 99% of all NCAA teams. However, I only pulled the teams from the major power conferences -- the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, PAC 12 and SEC. What this gave me was the above teams, save for North Carolina, along with Louisville, Arizona, Oklahoma State and Villanova.
After figuring out what teams I'd be working with, I compiled defensive metrics and statistics for each team from three different sites, including our own, to get the list. Starting with number 10 and ending with the very best defensive team in the country, let's take a look at the best defenses in college hoops.
10. Villanova Wildcats
Defense Percentile: 94.4%
Jay Wright's Wildcats are first in the Big East with a record of 19-2, and they find themselves in the eight spot in our power rankings with a nERD (our in-house metric that estimates a team's score differential against a league-average team on a neutral court) of 16.85. Villanova's proficiency on defense has surely helped them climb the rankings. The Wildcats do a pretty good job of turning over their opponents, as they rank 71st in the nation in turnovers forced and 44th in steals.
However, the Wildcats allow their opponents to shoot over 41% from the field, and therefore give up over 60 points per game to their opponents -- which shouldn't happen. Villanova's schedule hasn't been all that tough. They've only played one current AP top 25 team (VCU), and their opponents have an average adjusted offensive efficiency of 103.5. Villanova's a solid defensive team, but they haven't proven that they could hang with the big boys yet. We'll have to wait and see if they can.
9. Wisconsin Badgers
Defense Percentile: 95.2%
With a record of 20-2 and a nERD of 19.41, the Badgers are the third-ranked team in our power rankings. But, when it comes down to just defense, the Badgers aren't quite in the elite category. The Badgers give up just 56.5 points per game, but that number can be misleading.
Wisconsin struggles to turn over its opponents and, just like Villanova, allows over 41% shooting from the floor. That's why their Adjusted Defensive Rating (a rating adjusted to account for opponents) of 96.7 points per 100 possessions is so high compared to the other nine teams that make up this list. So what gives? The Badgers' snail-like pace (288th in the country) keeps their opponents from scoring a high amount of points per game. But, nonetheless, their style of defense works for their team as evidenced by the 20 in the win column.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Defense Percentile: 95.7%
I don't know about you, but this is a surprise. With a record of 14-7 and a nERD of just 11.31, the Cowboys don't seem like they belong with teams like Wisconsin and Villanova. But the truth is that OK State is a better defensive team than both of them. The Cowboys have an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 91.3 and allow 59.6 at a fairly average pace (141st fastest in the nation). They are also top 30 in opponent field goal percentage (38.4%), total blocks (110) and total steals (181).
Oklahoma State, however, is exactly what they are -- an above average team with a pretty good defense. Their opponents' adjusted efficiency rating is just 102.9 and they don't really force many turnovers outside of steals. While the Cowboys aren't a great defensive team, they are really good on a consistent basis. That's why, despite their lackluster record, they find themselves at number eight.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers
Defense Percentile: 96.0%
West Virginia basketball teams haven't always been known for their defense. This year is different. Coach Huggins has his Mountaineers playing some great opportunistic defense, and it's helped them to a record of 18-4. How's that? The Mountaineers give up 64.0 points per game and allow their opponents to shoot nearly 45% from the field. That's why West Virginia is outside the top 10 (14th) in Adjusted Defensive Rating.
So what has West Virginia done to earn a spot in our top ten? They've cranked up the pressure. Huggins utilizes his team's depth to his advantage by using full-court pressure to produce steals and force turnovers. In fact, the Mountaineers are first in the nation in both steals and turnovers forced. They know how to exploit their advantages and have seen their defensive game rise as a result.
6. Utah Utes
Defense Percentile: 96.0%
Despite having the same defensive efficiency percentile, Utah edges out West Virginia for the number six spot. But they do so for good reason. As West Virginia welcomes a high pace with steals and turnovers galore, the Utes play a more generic but super-effective form of defense -- and it shows. The Utes have the highest consistency rating (91.0) of the 10 teams who make up this list. They play defense night in and night out.
Utah gives up just 56.3 points per game (eighth in the nation) on just under 38% shooting -- earning them an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 88.4 (seventh in the nation). The Utes don't necessarily turn over their opponents very often, as they are 266th in that category. But, the defense is centered around and anchored by one of the best all around defenders in the country -- Delon Wright. Wright is ninth in the nation in defensive win shares with 2.0, and is 19th in the nation with a Defensive Rating of 84.8. He's why Utah is one of the best defenses in the country.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
Defense Percentile: 96.6%
Yet another Big 12 team cracks the top 10, and yet another does so despite its 7 losses. Though the Sooners play at a very high pace (24th fastest in the nation) and give up just under 61 points per game to their opponents, they have been pretty consistent this season on the defensive end. Of the 10 teams on this list, the Sooners have faced the highest average of its opponent offensive efficiency ratings (106.1).
However, the Sooners have earned an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 87.2 by allowing their counterparts to shoot just 37.3% from the floor (9th in the nation) and by blocking 118 shots on the season -- good enough for 19th in the nation. And it doesn't hurt that all five starters have contributed 1.5 to 1.9 defensive win shares a piece. Oklahoma's style of defense is a total team effort to force its opponents into tough shots.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Defense Percentile: 97.1%
Now we enter into the upper echelon of defenses, where each of the top four teams are in the 97th percentile or higher. The Wildcats have proven themselves as the best defense in the PAC 12, over the previously mentioned Utah Utes. They may give up more points per game to their opponents (58.2) on nearly 40% shooting, but the Wildcats excel in their own way.
Arizona welcomes a fairly average pace (113th), which in turn has given them more opportunities to feed off their opponents. The Wildcats are in the top 50 in the nation in both steals and forced turnovers and have thus earned themselves an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 86.8. How? They're really good at what they do. They are able to get into ball handlers' space with their athleticism and versatility. Having players like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson definitely helps. At 6'6" and 6' 7", respectively, both forwards can defend multiple positions on the floor with their quickness and athleticism.
3. Louisville Cardinals
Defense Percentile: 99.1%
The Cardinals separate themselves from the pack as they are better than over 99% of defenses in the nation. It doesn't come as a surprise to NCAA basketball fans. With a consistency rating of 85.1, the Cardinals defend every night they hit the hardwood. Even at an above-average pace (53rd in the country), the Cardinals give up just 59 points per game and have earned themselves an adjusted defensive rating of 87.6.
How they do it though is really impressive. Whether their opponents are dribbling or looking to take a shot, the Cardinals absolutely smother them. The Cardinals are seventh in steals and 18th in forced turnovers on the season. But they're are also 10th in the NCAA in blocks and 11th in opponents field goal percentage, giving up just 37.5% shooting. They do this with really good, experienced defenders. With one junior and two seniors in the starting lineup, Rick Pitino's bunch defend with intelligence. That's why they are considered one of the very best defenses in the country.
2. Virginia Cavaliers
Defense Percentile: 99.7%
As good as Louisville is, Virginia is even better. The ones Virginia fans call the Hoos are without a doubt the second best defense in the country. They own the third-best Adjusted Defensive Rating (85.9) and are first in points allowed per game in the whole nation. The Cavaliers give up a mere 50.9 points per contest on just over 35% shooting to their opponents.
Surprisingly though, Virginia doesn't do anything in the way of turning over its opponents. They're ranked 308th in steals and 342nd in forced turnovers nationally. But steals and forced turnovers are not part of the system. Tony Bennett and his father's pack line defense doesn't call for ball denial. On the contrary, it's all about filling gaps, keeping the offense in front of you and forcing the opposing team into contested jumpers. It's team defense at its very best.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Defense Percentile: 100%
After reading that last line, you may be wondering, "How's that team defense at its very best if they're second?" Well, what Virginia does with great team defense, Kentucky makes up for with size and athleticism. It's not all about players defending as a collective within the system, but it's about being possibly the best players and athletes in the country. Kentucky's average height of players playing 13-plus minutes per game is 6'8" -- and that's 10 players deep. Compare that to Virginia's average of 6'6" with only 7 players.
That's why the Wildcats are second in the nation in blocked shots and first in opponent field goal percentage (32.9%). But not only do they alter shots, Kentucky's defenders can pressure the ball as well. They're 58th in steals and 27th in forced turnovers. So you shouldn't be caught off guard when I tell you that Kentucky is second in points against per game and boast the nation's best Adjusted Defensive Rating, with a rating of 82.1.
Kentucky's length and athleticism is what makes them the single best defense in the country. But it's very interesting to see how each team excels as a defensive unit. It shows that there's so many different methods for becoming a top-10 defense in college basketball -- and that's what makes the sport so great.