Defense wins championships.
Or at least that’s the cliche of all sports cliches.
But is it really true? Is a great defense better than a great offense? Wisconsin and venerable coach Bo Ryan might have the most beguiling answer.
The Badgers (30-7) take on Kentucky (28-10), a matchup of top offensive teams, in the second game of the Final Four on Saturday night in Arlington, Texas. Baskets won’t come so easily in the first game, when tournament favorite Florida (36-2) meets upstart Connecticut (30-8). Monday night, a top 10 offense will challenge a top 10 defense for the national title.
Ryan’s first 12 teams, most of them of the plodding, Big Ten-as-a-dinosaur variety, were defense-first, defense-second, defense-always. For 11 seasons, from 2002-03 to 2012-13, the Badgers ranked in the top 12 in scoring defense 10 times (and gave up fewer than an average of 60 points per game, nine times).
Ryan took all 12 of those teams to the NCAA tournament – none reached the Final Four, seven failed to get out of the first weekend and two lost their first game.
But this Wisconsin team, which edged No. 1-seeded Arizona 64-63 in overtime in the West regional final, has Ryan in the Final Four for the first time. The Badgers’ scoring defensive rank? It’s still a respectable 37th (63.7 points per game), but what’s different about this Wisconsin team is it’s Ryan’s highest-scoring team ever.
“I just think that our team, we have this stigma about Wisconsin as a type of program or certain type of way that there’s only one way we play,” junior point guard Traevon Jackson said after the win over Arizona. “I think this year we’ve broken a lot of barriers.”
Point is, offense wins, right?
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has a theory about why offense wins in the NCAA tournament, and he has two national titles to prove it.
Williams, who addressed the eternal offense-vs.-defense question before the start of the tournament, put it this way.
“Everybody is going to play a lot harder when it’s a play-hard-or-go-home kind of thing,” Williams said last month. “Earlier in the season, you may be able to face somebody and they don’t play as hard or they don’t guard as well, and you can just win the game.
“Well you’re not going to win the game just by playing hard because everybody is doing it. So you do have to be gifted and talented enough to put the ball in the basket.”
To Williams’ point, all 11 national champions during the span of college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency data (from 2003 to 2013) went into the tournament ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO), compared with just six in the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD).
Pomeroy’s metric takes out tempo, which for teams that historically play at a slower pace like Ryan’s, gives a more accurate measure of how a team performs (specifically per 100 possessions).
This season, Wisconsin averages 73.5 points per game, the most of any of Ryan’s Wisconsin teams. They started the tournament ranked fifth in the country in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
Since 2003, the Badgers have entered the tournament ranked in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency eight times but had failed to break through. This is the third time Ryan’s team has ranked in the top 5 in offense, and all three have at least made the Sweet 16.
The Badgers’ adjusted defensive rating before the tournament began was 59th.
Wisconsin hasn’t been the only team to advance through the tournament with an efficient offense. Florida (17) and Kentucky (19) both ranked in the top 20 when the tournament started, and 11 of the Sweet 16 teams ranked in the top 30 (compared to seven teams ranked in the top 30 in defense).
There have been 60 tournament games since the First Four in Dayton, and the team with the better AdjO rankings won 42 of those games, or 70 percent. That’s compared with 36 of 60 (60 percent) by the team with the better AdjD ranking. There have been 29 games when one team has had the better adjusted efficiency rating in both categories, that team has won 23 times (79.3 percent).
Florida (which entered No. 17 in offense/No. 5 in defense) has such an advantage over UConn (80/11), while Wisconsin has the offensive edge over Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal games.
But balance can be fickle, too. Just ask Wichita State (which entered 8/10) and Louisville (10/6) or Villanova (16/14), all of which fell short of the Final Four.
Florida has the most balanced profile of the four remaining teams. Both of coach Billy Donovan’s national title teams at Florida, in 2006 and ’07, entered the tournament in the top 20 in both efficiency categories, just like this year’s team.
“I don’t know if you can just get to this point in time in the season unless you’re really a complete team,” Donovan said earlier this week at a press conference at AT&T Stadium.
No ‘bad’ defensive team won it all
Pomeroy’s numbers can change dramatically during the tournament. Williams’ second title team in 2009 started the tournament at No. 49 in AdjD but after six dominant wins finished No. 21.
In 2009, the Tar Heels ranked No. 1 in AdjO. That team had “firepower,” Williams said.
“I preached defense and we worked on defense, and they just looked at me and smiled, but deep down inside it was: ‘We’re going to outscore them; why don’t you leave us alone’ kind of thing,” Williams said.
“And then all of the sudden we got to the NCAA tournament, and they bought into it. And for six games, that was about as good of defense as I’d ever had a team play.”
Seven of the 10 UNC teams Williams has led to the NCAA tournament have ranked in the top 10 in AdjO. This year’s team ranked 58th, or last of those 10 teams. The Tar Heels were eliminated by Iowa State, which entered the tournament 15th in AdjO.
“I’ll put it to you this way, which may answer it: I’ve never seen a bad defensive team win a national championship,” Williams said. “Every team I’ve seen win a national championship could guard you, but they also could score.”
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this report.