The 10 Best Offensive Teams in the NCAA Tournament
Why care about offense when the old adage is that it's defense, in fact, that brings home the championship trophy in the end?
Because the old adage isn't exactly true. Plus, offense is much more fun than defense, and if you disagree, yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man.
But what isn't opinion is that offense really does matter when it comes to winning the NCAA Tournament. For four years straight, the champ has ranked inside the top-10 in adjusted offensive rating, via Sports-Reference.com. Last year's best offense -- the Villanova Wildcats -- won it all.
Defensively, just one of those squads ranked inside the top 45 during their winning season. This means that six of the past nine tournament champions have graded out inside the top 10 of the nation offensively -- out of 351 schools, mind you. The other winners ranked 87th, 23rd, and 43rd. Obviously, a great offense is just part of a great team, but efficiency matters.
So, which tournament teams were best offensively this season?
10. Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils make the cut for our purposes, thanks to an offensive rating that grades out in the 95th percentile, via our metrics. Per KenPom.com, Duke's adjusted offensive efficiency ranks 6th, and via Sports-Reference, they rank 19th.
The offense flows through three players primarily. The first is Zion Williamson, who led the nation in player efficiency rating (PER) of 42.0 and effective field goal percentage of 71.7%, via Sports-Reference. Williamson posted a 28.2% usage rate this season. R.J. Barrett's usage rate of 32.4% is paired with a 23.5 PER and a 50.9% effective field goal percentage. Cam Reddish notched a 13.4 PER on a 25.9% usage rate.
Duke does rank 339th in three-point field goal percentage (30.2%) but are 7th in field goal percentage (69.0%) at the rim, via Hoop-Math.com.
Overall, the Blue Devils are the top team by our nERD metric, which measures expected scoring differential over an average team on a neutral court.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech doesn't spend a lot of shot allocation on two-point jumpers (294th in the nation in mid-range frequency) and use a slow pace (347th) plus a three-point-heavy offense (35th in three-point attempt rate) to net such an efficient offensive unit (97th percentile).
A fairly balanced offense, they have four players with a 20% usage rate or greater: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (27.0%), Kerry Blackshear Jr. (26.4%), Justin Robinson (24.9%), and Ahmed Hill (20.0%). Robinson missed 12 games due to a foot injury but will return for the tournament.
8. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue sits 8th among tournament-bound teams in offensive rating, 5th in KenPom's metrics, and 13th via Sports-Reference. The slow-paced Boilermakers grade out 38th in three-point attempt rate and 68th in three-point field goal percentage.
They grab offensive rebounds at the 19th-highest clip in the nation and are 28th in total rebounding rate. They're 17th in turnover avoidance, making them a balanced team that can avoid disaster and earn second chances.
Carsen Edwards' 319 three-point attempts ranked him fourth in the country on the season, and his 37.0% usage rate ranked fifth.
7. Murray State Racers
The Ja Morant-led Murray State Racers posted a 97th percentile offensive rating this season. They bump down to 41st in KenPom's adjusted efficiency but were 8th in Sports-Reference's ranks.
Morant was the only player in the nation to post double-digit assists (10.0) and nobody else topped 7.7 per game. Overall, Morant (33.6% usage rate) ranks ninth in PER and first in assist rate and points produced per game.
The Racers like to get to the rim, as they're 5th in the country in shot frequency at the rim and 23rd in conversion rate on such shots. They are near the bottom in mid-range jumpers, ranking 324th. Overall, they're 30th in combined shots either at the rim or from three-point range, making them a team to love if you like analytics (you're reading this on numberFire, so you probably do).
The Racers live up to the name in transition, too, shooting the 6th-best effective field goal percentage at the 64th-fastest pace.
6. Michigan State Spartans
The Michigan State Spartans combine a 98th-percentile offense with a 90th-percentile defense to grade out top-five overall in our nERD metric. They're ninth in Sports-Reference's adjusted offensive rating and fourth, per KenPom.
Sparty leads the nation in assisted field goal rate at the rim and are 15th in overall effective field goal percentage. Despite grading out 207th in pace, they rank 11th in rate of field goal attempts in transition, via Hoop-Math.
The Spartans are a balanced squad, ranking 10th in true shooting percentage, 6th in rebounding rate, and 1st in assist rate.
The key cog is Cassius Winston, who ranks ninth in the nation in offensive win shares, second in offensive box plus/minus, and second in assist rate. Junior forward Nick Ward gets his shots up, with a 30.9% usage rate and nearly 60% of those shots coming at the rim.
5. Belmont Bruins
The Belmont Bruins face the Temple Owls in a play-in game, and they'll need to rely on a great offense to advance to face the Maryland Terrapins. Belmont's offense grades out in the 98th percentile, while their defense is in the 75th percentile, via our metrics.
The Bruins rank 18th in pace, 47th in three-point attempt rate, 5th in assist rate, and 4th in effective field goal percentage. They limit turnovers (23rd-best) but don't get to the line (276th in free-throw attempt rate).
Belmont really stands out from a shot selection standpoint, as 85.3% of their field goal attempts come at the rim or from three-point range, 10th-highest in the country.
Belmont has two seniors (Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain) and a freshman center (Nick Muszynski) with usage rates of 23.8% or higher. Windler is 10th in boards per game (10.7) and 7th in effective field goal percentage (65.7%)
4. Tennessee Volunteers
The Tennessee Volunteers have a hyper-efficient offense, and it's despite a shot profile that would make an analytics believer (heyo) cringe. The Vols are 266th in shot frequency at the rim, 325th in three-point attempt rate, 15th in mid-range jumper rate, via Hoop-Math. Yikes. Now, they're second in field goal percentage on those mid-range jumpers and 18th at the rim, so it's not all bad.
The potential issue could be grading out just 121st in three-point field goal percentage. If they fall behind, they don't profile as a catch-up team. Of their four players who have attempted at least 100 threes, just one has a percentage better than 36.8% (Admiral Schofield at 40.6%). The main producer for Tennessee is Grant Williams, a junior forward with a 26.7% usage rate. Williams ranks top-10 in win shares, win shares per 40 minutes, offensive box plus/minus, and player efficiency rating in the country.
Efficient? You betcha. Ideal? Maybe not. Regardless, the Vols grade out sixth in our nERD metric overall.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
The Virginia Cavaliers, the top seed in the South region, sure don't push the pace (they're the slowest team in the country), but that doesn't mean they aren't a good offense. Despite scoring only 71.8 points per game (166th), they grade out as the third-best offense to make the tournament. Virginia actually sits second by KenPom's metrics.
Virginia grades out 10th-best in turnover avoidance, and part of that stems from the fact that they don't push the tempo. They're 352nd in transition shot frequency (though 15th in effective field goal percentage on those attempts). The Cavaliers are middle of the pack in three-point attempt rate (172nd) but third in free-throw percentage. It's a rather punishing profile: few turnovers, a suffocating pace, and elite efficiency on top of it.
Virginia has three 40% shooters (among players with at least 75 three-point attempts): Kyle Guy (46.4% on 224 attempts), Ty Jerome (40.8% on 147 attempts), and De'Andre Hunter (48.1% on 77 attempts). They share the ball, and six qualified players had between a 17.9% and 24.2% usage rate this season.
2. Wofford Terriers
A great mascot and a great offense, the Wofford Terriers grade out as the second-best offense in the country, according to our metrics. They're also second in Sports-Reference's adjusted offensive rating and 12th in KenPom's offensive efficiency.
Wofford is very much a sharpshooting team, ranking 2nd in three-point field goal percentage and 65th in three-point attempt rate. By comparison, the Terriers rank 223rd in the nation in shot frequency at the rim. Fletcher Magee paced the nation with 151 three-point field goals made this season (nobody else topped 135), and Nathan Hoover ranked ninth in three-point field goal percentage (45.7%).
Senior forward Cameron Jackson ranks third in PER and fourth in win shares per 40 minutes and led the Terriers in usage rate at 31.0%.
One possible red flag in their profile is the infrequency with which they get to the free throw line. Wofford ranks 313th in the nation in free-throw attempt rate. But with elite three-point shooting and a slow pace (204th), they could jack up variance in a given game and pull off some upsets even in the later rounds.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Could it be anyone else? The Gonzaga Bulldogs' adjusted offensive rating of 124.1 is a full 4.2 points per 100 possessions better than any other offensive unit in the nation. That's about as big a gap between they and Wofford and Wofford and Michigan State, ninth in the nation. That margin is a little closer via KenPom's metrics, with the Zags owning a 125.3 adjusted offensive rating and Virginia at 123.7.
Either way, the Bulldogs are the 100th percentile offense in the nation, via our metrics. Their 62.7% true shooting percentage is one of two marks better than 60.6% in the country, they're 13th-best in turnover rate, and they're 21st in rebounding rate. They do a lot right, and that makes them a tough team to defend.
Gonzaga ranks 252nd in percentage of shots that are two-point jumpers, instead ranking 31st in shots at the rim (and just 261st in three-point attempt rate).
The offense flows through Rui Hachimura (27.7% usage rate) and Brandon Clarke (23.4%) down low, as each attempt at least 54% of their shots at the rim. Clarke trailed only Zion Williamson in PER and effective field goal percentage this season.
Paired with a 98th-percentile defense, the Bulldogs grade out second overall in our power rankings.