8 Players Who Will Impact the NCAA Tournament on Defense
In the NCAA tournament, sometimes we're just looking for the teams that have a star player who could take them further into the tournament than they really should go. Most of the time, those players are offensive juggernauts or matchup nightmares who just can't be stopped by many -- if any -- teams in the tournament.
I said most of the time.
This year, there may be a few of those players -- D'Angelo Russell, Seth Tuttle and Jerian Grant first come to mind, but there seems to be a lot more defensive juggernauts this year. And if you didn't read my earlier article on why 2015 is a year of defensive dominance in college basketball, you might not know why.
If you did, you know exactly what I'm talking about, and you know why these eight players will have such a huge say in their teams' NCAA tournament runs. In fact, six of the eight are on four of the top-10 defensive teams in the country, according to our power rankings.
With that being said, let's look at the NCAA tournament's most elite defenders and how they'll put their stamp on this year's big dance.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky is the best defensive team in the country -- there's no denying that. They give up just 54 points per game on 35.5% shooting from the floor, which is first in the country. Why? They're second in the nation in blocks and eighth in the nation in steals. And Mr. Cauley-Stein is a big reason why. He's swatting 1.6 shots per game and 2.6 per 40 minutes, but he's also tallying 1.3 steals per game as a big man.
As a product of his great shot blocking and stealing abilities, Cauley-Stein is second in the nation with a Defensive Rating of 78.5 and fifth in Defensive Win Shares with a total of 3.1 on the season -- first among all players in the field of 68. He may be the best defender in the nation and the most impactful one going into the postseason tournament.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky Wiildcats
Cauley-Stein isn't the only frontcourt Kentucky player making a case for the best defender in the field, as Karl-Anthony Towns is a great shot blocker in his own right. Towns is averaging 2.4 blocks per game and 4.5 per 40 minutes while blocking 12.3% (10th in the nation) of his opponents' shots while on the court.
His influence near the basket is as good as any other player's, if not better. He owns the single best Defensive Rating (77.0) of all NCAA players and is 19th in Defensive Win Shares, despite playing just over 20 minutes per game in Kentucky's loaded rotation. Towns and Cauley-Stein are the most feared frontcourt in America and will make it tough for any team to stand in Kentucky's way en route to a perfect championship season.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona Wildcats
T.J. McConnell is only one of two guards to make it into this group of elite defenders, and rightfully so. The Arizona point guard is the leader of the NCAA tournament's fourth-best defense, and puts a lot of pressure on his fellow ball-handlers. McConnell is averaging 2.1 steals per game and has a steal percentage of 4.2% on the season -- that's 17th in the nation.
McConnell's pressure in the backcourt has contributed to a total of 2.8 Defensive Win Shares (seventh in the nation) and a Defensive Rating of 86.4, which is 17th in the country. McConnell might be the best defensive point guard in all of college basketball.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona Wildcats
Much like the duo of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, T.J. McConnell has a lot of help on the defensive end of the floor. His biggest help comes in the form of 6'7" forward, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Hollis-Jefferson can guard any position on the floor, and is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the country. He should have won the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and the numbers back that up.
RHJ averages about a steal (1.2) and a block (0.9) per game in 28.4 minutes per game. Accordingly, he ranks 10th in the country in both Defensive Rating (85.4) and Defensive Win Shares (2.8). Hollis-Jefferson is a big reason why the Wildcats rank third in Adjusted Defensive Rating and are in the 99th percentile defensively.
Darion Atkins, Virginia Cavaliers
Some of you might be saying, "Atkins? Who's Darion Atkins?" I don't blame you. A senior forward, Atkins is a severely underrated players for the Virginia Cavaliers and their elite defense. A lot of people talk about his teammate, Anthony Gill, but Atkins' numbers are even better. In fact, they're among the best in the nation.
The 6'8" forward averages just over one block and nearly one steal per game in 23.8 minutes. Over the season, Atkins has tallied a Defensive Box Plus Minus of 9.5 and 2.3 Defensive Win Shares. The most important stat, however, is Atkins' Defensive Rating of 82.4, which trails only Towns and Cauley-Stein of all players in the country.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin is a great defensive team -- the key word being team. They're in the 92nd percentile in defensive efficiency and allow their opponents 56.1 points per game. As a unit, the Badgers are great, so the only player that stands out at all defensively is the favorite to win the Wooden Award, Frank Kaminsky.
When it comes to Kaminsky, the numbers don't say everything he does defensively -- like hedging screens and taking up space in the paint -- but they're pretty good nonetheless. Kaminsky averages 1.6 blocks per game, has a Defensive Rating of 88.8 and has earned 2.8 Defensive Win Shares. That ranks ninth in the nation and fifth among players dancing in this year's tournament.
Delon Wright, Utah Utes
Delon Wright is the only other player representing the guards in this list of elite defenders. At 6'5" and with a lot of length, Wright's not your everyday point guard, though. With his size, Wright possesses great defensive versatility, can guard any position from point to forward and he's the main cog in Utah's 10th-ranked defense.
Wright is averaging 1.0 block and 2.1 steals per game while posting a Defensive Rating of 87.1, which falls just short of the nation's top 20. The senior does, however, rank sixth in the nation and first among tourney-bound guards with 2.9 Defensive Win Shares. Wright does it all for the underrated Utes.
Myles Turner, Texas Longhorns
Myles Turner, much like Darion Atkins, is one of the most underrated and unnoticed defenders in the country. That's partly because of who he plays for -- the 11-seeded Texas Longhorns -- and his inability to find playing time. The freshman is averaging a mere 22.4 minutes per game behind upperclassmen Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert and Cameron Ridley, but I'd look for him to play more if the Longhorns want to make a run.
Turner has been a big contributor to the Longhorns defensive efforts. He is tied for 14th in the nation in blocks (88), and tied for 19th in the nation in blocks per game, with 2.7 blocks per game in his limited minutes. On a per-40 basis, Turner is averaging 4.8 rejections while blocking 12.4% of opposing teams' shots -- good enough for ninth in the nation. Get the kid more minutes!