March Madness: The Top 5 Defenses Of The NCAA Tournament
March Madness draws ever closer!!!
While there was that exploration into which top-seeded teams have the easiest or hardest road in their region, the focus now shifts to defense.
That is right. Defense! Defense wins championships. The adage rings tried and true. Teams need to make stops late in games to advance in tournaments. Defensive metric in a pandemic season has been telling along with how teams are playing going into the tournament.
Anyway, let's dig into the five best defenses. This will not guarantee tournament success but it cannot hurt.
5. Grand Canyon (17-6, 15th seed)
The Grand Canyon Antelopes were a bit of a surprise and then one realized who was coaching them in Bryce Drew. Simply, that name resonates in the NCAA Basketball annuls forever. Getting back to the Antelopes, Drew had them playing some elite defense during this pandemic season. Grand Canyon ranked tied for fourth overall in our defensive metric among tournament teams. Also, they ranked fourth in opposition offense rating. Now, some will argue their strength of schedule was not the greatest (-5.78) and it was not. However, they went 9-3 in the Western Athletic Conference and won their conference tournament.
Grand Canyon did what they had to do. They yielded a mere 61.1 points a game to their opponents. The Antelopes let a team shoot 50% from the field against them just once. Their starting five has four seniors who play well as a team. Their final three wins saw them allow an average of 55.7 points per game. While no one can slow down a game quite like the Princeton Tigers could, the Antelopes' defense can drive opponents nuts. Iowa is a team that might get tested early if Drew's strategies and team defense can get to the Hawkeyes.
4. Utah State (20-8, 11th seed)
Alas, the Utah State Aggies got to the NCAA Tournament behind their defense as well. They finished 20-8 and 13-4 in Mountain West Conference play. The Aggies fell to San Diego State (6th in Defensive Metric) in the Conference Final but showed their defensive acumen throughout the season. They ranked tied for fourth in most defensive metrics including our advanced stats rating (0.695). Utah State was fifth in the NCAA in opposing offensive rating at 89.5 among tournament teams. Their strength of schedule was a little better at 0.79. The odd thing was the Aggies defeated San Diego State twice in the regular season while holding them to an average of 52 points in the two meetings. Those games were in January but an indication of what Utah St. could do when at their best.
Utah State yielded just 62.3 points per game to their opposition. After their first two games, the Aggies held opponents to under 50% from the field in every other game but two. Their defense stiffened as the season went on. Texas Tech is not going to have an easy time on Friday afternoon as Utah State's frontline could be a wildcard here and put Texas Tech in a bind. If Texas Tech comes out early as San Diego St. did in the Conference Final, then that is the only concern with the Aggies.
3. Houston Cougars (24-3, 2nd seed)
The Houston Cougars are one of those teams that come in playing rather well into the tournament. They won seven straight games including the American Athletic Conference Tournament. Houston had one hiccup against the Memphis Tigers but pulled through late. In the conference tournament games, they yielded 60 points per contest, and overall on the season, Houston gave up just 57,9 points per game. Their defensive metric was third in the nation among tournament teams at 0.743. Among the five best defensive teams, Houston enjoyed the balance of having one of the more gifted offenses in the nation as well. They ranked fifth in that metric.
Balance is the key to Houston going forward in the tournament. Again, the concern lies in that Memphis game. Now, the Tigers were one of the better teams that did not make the NCAA Tournament but Houston had a tough time containing much of anything at times in that game. When Houston was at their worst, they could be beaten by anyone. That is the problem in a one-and-done tournament. At their best though, Houston could easily stifle most any team aside from maybe Gonzaga, Michigan, and Illinois.
2. Loyola Chicago (24-4, 8th seed)
Again, Loyola (IL) Ramblers has been here before. They enjoyed an excellent regular season while going 16-2 in the conference and winning the Missouri Valley Conference crown. They never were in real danger of losing any game in their tournament and won each game by double digits. The Ramblers were consistently one of the best defensive teams all season and finished second in defensive metrics. Loyola has a balance offensively which helps them very much defensively. They control half-court teams extremely well and can slow down their opposition just enough -- even some of the top teams. For a half against Wisconsin Badgers, they looked pretty good before faltering. Most forget that game was before Christmas.
This is a different Loyola team now than then. They yielded just 55.5 points per game on the season. While they should advance past the first round, the matchup being anticipated is the one with top-seed Illinois. Can Loyola's three-guard rotation contain err slow down the Fighting Illini and their up-tempo game? Loyola's pace is just 0.36 which is the third slowest among tournament teams. That is the biggest question of the first weekend in this tournament. The next question will be how Cameron Krutwig fares against the bigs of Illinois. If he can stay out of foul trouble, then Loyola's defense has a chance to keep things interesting. The defense never rests at Loyola and the Ramblers do come in on a winning streak where they have opponents off the scoreboard better than many.
1. Abilene Christian (23-4, 14th seed)
So, who are these guys? The Abilene Christian Wildcats went 13-2 in their conference (Southland) and had the best defensive metric in the nation and of every tournament team. That is no misprint. The one thing that will stick out is their strength of schedule which is one of the worst in the nation nevermind the tournament. Another aspect is their first-round opponent who will be Texas. The game is a huge step up for Abilene Christian in terms of competition. No one expects too much from them other than maybe an early burst.
What the Wildcats did during the regular season was very impressive, however. They held opponents to an opponents offensive rating of just 83.5. No other college was below 85 this season. Their defensive metric of 0.805 represented the only college above 0.775. The Wildcats let a team shoot 50% or greater from the field just twice in 27 games. One was a rout over Lamar where the game was well in hand. Their conference final against Nicholls State may have been their best performance of the seasons. Abilene Christian held the Colonels to just 45 points, 29.7% shooting, and 14.3% from three-point range.