College Basketball: The 5 Best Defenses in the Country
While “defense wins championships” is probably more cliche than fact-based statement, defense certainly won the night in Monday’s marquee showdown.
Louisville, ranked third in our Defensive Efficiency ratings, took down North Carolina and the ninth-most efficient offense in the country in a 71-65 win.
In doing so, the Cardinals held the Tar Heels to 0.92 points per possession and a meager 37.1% Effective Field Goal Percentage.
The win moved Louisville (the fourth-best team in the country by our nERD ratings) a game behind North Carolina in the ACC standings, continuing a strong defensive campaign for Rick Pitino’s squad.
Here is a closer look at the teams that join the Cardinals at the top of our opponent-adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings.
nF Defensive Rank: 1
Raw Points Allowed Per Possession: 0.87 (1st)
eFG%: 42.4% (4th)
Turnover Rate: 17.3% (t-90th)
Defensive Rebounding Rate: 76.8% (8th)
Free Throws Attempts Per Field Goal Attempt: .366 (181st)
Bryce Drew’s squad owns the top defense in the country, thanks to downright nasty play inside. Opponents are shooting only 40.5% from two-point range (the third lowest rate in the country), and according to Hoop-Math, they are only shooting 49.8% at the rim (14th-lowest).
6'10" center Vashil Fernandez has been one of the main catalysts here, as the senior leads the nation in Defensive Rating (81.1) and eighth-highest Block Percentage (11.5%), while also owning the Horizon League’s sixth-best Defensive Rebounding Rate (21.0%).
Frontcourt mate Alec Peters has a played a key role here as well, as he is second in the Horizon League in Defensive Rating (87.9) and is 10th in the conference in Defensive Rebounding Rate (19.0%).
nF Defensive Rank: 2nd
Raw Points Allowed Per Possession: 0.891 (t-3rd)
eFG%: 46.6% (t-66th)
Turnover Rate: 24.5% (1st)
Defensive Rebounding Rate: 78.2% (5th)
FTA/FGA: .592 (351st)
The West Virginia defense might be the most unique unit in the country, featuring a manic press that has yielded the highest Turnover and Steal Percentages (14.5%) in the country.
A byproduct of this style has been allowing the nation’s highest Free Throw Attempt Rate, but it’s a drawback the Mountaineers can live with.
Aside from the obvious benefits in terms of keeping opponents off the scoreboard, WVU’s Steal Rate is also a boon for the offense. Per Hoop-Math, the Mountaineers are tied for 191st in Effective Field Goal Percentage in the half-court (48.3%) but tied for 60th in terms of eFG% in transition (60.0%, incidentally).
12.3% of their initial field goal attempts come within 10 seconds after a steal, the highest rate in the nation, and West Virginia has an eFG% of 69.0% attempt on these shots.
When the Mountaineers do allow a field goal attempt (not often, given the ridiculously high rates they force turnovers and send opponents to the free throw line), they rarely allowed second-chance opportunities, thanks to the nation’s fifth-best Defensive Rebounding Rate.
nF Defensive Rank: 3rd
Raw Points Allowed Per Possession: 0.890 (2nd)
eFG%: 42.7% (5th)
Turnover Rate: 18.8% (t-35th)
Defensive Rebounding Rate: 69.5% (t-215th)
FTA/FGA: .415 (t-287th)
The aforementioned Cardinals blend some of the best things about the two teams ahead of them in our Defensive Efficiency rankings. Louisville boasts an elite two-point defense like Valparaiso and a high Turnover Rate like West Virginia (unfortunately they also have the high Foul Rate that comes with it).
Opponents are shooting 41.4% on their two-pointers against Louisville (14th in the country), and just 27.8% on two-point jumpers (fifth-lowest in the country according to Hoop-Math). The Cardinals have swatted away 14.0% of these jump shots, which ranks 10th in the country.
Center Chinanu Onuaku has led the defense with the ACC’s best Defensive Rating (82.0), third-highest Block Percentage (9.3%) and fourth-best Defensive Rebounding Rate (25.5%).
On the perimeter, while guard Damion Lee gets headlines thanks to his offense (17.0 points per game, 62.9% true shooting percentage), he is third in the ACC in Defensive Rating (91.1) and fifth in Steal Percentage (2.9%).
nF Defensive Rank: 4th
Raw Points Allowed Per Possession: 0.905 (6th)
eFG%: 42.9% (t-6th)
Turnover Rate: 13.4% (t-329th)
Defensive Rebounding Rate: 73.9% (t-56th)
FTA/FGA: .283 (31st)
Purdue may not have the flashy Turnover Rate or Block Rates like the teams ahead of them, but they excel at the most basic and important factor on defense: keeping opponents from putting the ball in the bucket.
The Boilermakers are ninth in two-point defense (41.2%) and excel at preventing the two most efficient shots: those at the rim and those from beyond the three-point arc.
Only 26.5% of opponents shots have come at the rim according to Hoop-Math, which is tied for the 15th-lowest rate in the country. They are also 41st in Three-Point Attempt Rate (.309 three-pointers per field goal attempt).
As a results, 42.6% of opposing shots have come on two-point jumpers (sixth-highest in the country), and 13.0% of these shots have been blocked while just 30.3% have gone in (tied for the 20th lowest rate in the country).
nF Defensive Rank: 5th
Raw Points Allowed Per Possession: 0.891 (t-3rd)
eFG%: 43.7% (12th)
Turnover Rate: 19.5% (t-20th)
Defensive Rebounding Rate: 67.9% (t-269th)
FTA/FGA: .357 (t-165th)
The Trojans from the Sun Belt are here, crashing the high major party, bringing both a strong defense and major red flag.
The good news is that Little Rock (ranked 71st in overall nERD, dragged down by an offense in the 63rd percentile) has been dominant at the rim, allowing opponents to shoot just 48.2% from this range; only three teams have been better.
The bad news is that they have also allowed over 40% of opposing shots to come from beyond three-point range (the national average is 35.2%). While the Trojans have not been burned yet (allowing just a 30.9% three-point shooting percentage), they are clearly playing with fire.
Ken Pomeroy has illustrated that, while Three-Point Attempt Rate is very consistent for defenses, three-point shooting percentage is not.
Then again, while regression is coming, the Trojans’ strong two-point defense and Turnover Rates should help soften blow, as the squad looks to remain in first place in the Sun Belt and parlay this into a trip to the NCAA tournament.