There’s a good-news, bad-news situation in college basketball these days, one that exists because of the scoring crisis the sport faced not too long ago. The good news: rules changes to bring about more scoring – to create more fluidity for offenses – have, in fact, worked.
And now here’s the bad, and this season N.C. State fans have perhaps come to understand this better than anyone: It has become more difficult to stop teams from scoring, and defenses, at times, have looked as lost as ever.
Indeed, these are not great times to be a college basketball defense, but that was sort of the point of those changes that were designed to clean up contact and make the game more free-flowing – not to mention the 30-second shot clock that went into effect last season.
Now we’re in the second season with that shortened clock, and we’re at least three seasons removed from the nadir of offensive futility (“offensive” carrying multiple meanings there) in college basketball. The differences between now and then are stark.
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Consider this: Entering Sunday, three of the ACC’s 10 most efficient offenses since 2007 are playing this season, according to kenpom.com. Those offenses belong to North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke.
Wake Forest, you say? Indeed, Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons have made significant strides under Danny Manning and yet nobody would believe that per possession they’re scoring as well (or even better) than UNC’s 2009 national championship team. But, believe it.
The Tar Heels in 2009 led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency – a kenpom.com metric that essentially measures points per possession, adjusted based on the competition. UNC’s offensive efficiency rating that year was 119.8, which means it scored nearly 1.2 points per possession.
A team scoring at the same rate this season would barely rank among the nation’s top 15 most efficient offenses. Florida is another example. Ten years ago, during the Gators’ 2006-07 national championship season, they led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (118.5).
Their efficiency rating is the exact same this season, and yet now it’s good enough for 20th in the country. And so, for offenses, the line of demarcation for greatness has shifted upward. What was the standard for excellence years ago is no longer.
The primary side effect of the offensive renaissance is that defenses sometimes look worse than ever. The Tar Heels’ 103-100 loss against Kentucky earlier this season is a good example, though an extreme one, of how college basketball has changed.
In that Dec. 17 game in Las Vegas, neither team could stop the other. The Tar Heels and Wildcats aren’t that bad defensively, but both teams prefer an up-tempo pace that thrives on transition scoring. And both teams happened to play especially well offensively, even when the other’s defense was in position.
And so it was a perfect confluence of circumstances for two teams to combine for 203 points. It was also a lot of fun to watch – the kind of entertaining, high-scoring, up-and-down game that had all-but-gone extinct from the sport for a number of years before those rules changes.
Still, the simple reality of “better offense equal worse defense” hardly eases the pain for coaches who are trying to figure “some way, some how,” as UNC coach Roy Williams put it recently, to lead a defensive uprising. January was an especially rough defensive month for the Tar Heels, and their schedule only becomes more daunting this month,
And then there’s N.C. State, which has managed to stymie the power of adjectives that dare try, often futilely, to describe the Wolfpack’s defensive misery. Bad, porous, abominable, dreadful – those words all fit N.C. State’s defense. And yet they don’t quite do it justice, either.
From the 2006-07 to now, there have been 144 ACC teams. According to kenpom.com only one – 2013-14 Boston College – finished a season with a worse defensive efficiency rating than N.C. State’s current 108.1 (meaning the Wolfpack allows about 1.08 points per possession). The Wolfpack still has seven regular-season games, too, to make some dubious history.
Even so, the Wolfpack has plenty of company. Not in the ACC, necessarily, but nationally. After an 84-79 loss on Saturday against Miami – the Hurricanes hadn’t scored that many points since Nov. 16 – N.C. State ranks 213th nationally in defensive efficiency, meaning there are about 140 worse defensive teams.
Boston College in 2011, Wake Forest in 2012 and Virginia Tech in 2013 and 2015 all ranked lower nationally in defensive efficiency than the Wolfpack does now. On a per possession basis, though, none of those defenses were quite as bad as what we’ve seen in Raleigh during the past three months.
Is N.C. State the ACC’s worst defensive team in recent memory? It’s arguable. But keep in mind, too, that widespread good defense – the kind that received so much scrutiny not long ago amid years of ugly games – has become much more of a rare commodity.
▪ Duke’s chances to reach its potential: Don’t look now but the Blue Devils have won three consecutive games since losing to N.C. State at home for the first time in 22 years. Perhaps tales of Duke’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
▪ Greensboro nostalgia: It was, as UNC’s Williams said, a “weird” set of circumstances that led the Tar Heels to the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday. But it turned out to be a fun, cool experience – especially for the fans. Shame on North Carolina lawmakers for creating a mess that could keep ACC and NCAA tournament games out of the Coliseum, and other state venues, for the foreseeable future.
▪ Faith that Mark Gottfried is the right man for the job at N.C. State: The victory at Duke seemed like it could have been a season-saver. Now, after three consecutive losses, it seems like forever ago. Things can change but the future looks bleak for coach Gottfried and his program.
▪ Notre Dame as a league championship contender: A snapshot of life in the ACC: One day you’re 5-0 in the league, rolling along. The next you’ve lost five of six games, and four in a row. This is still a team that no one will want to face in the postseason.
ACC’s four best defenses, according to kenpom.com, since 2007 – and what those teams did:
1. 2010 Florida State (22-10, 10-6): lost in NCAA tournament first round.
2. 2015 Virginia (30-4, 16-2): lost in NCAA tournament second round.
3. 2011 Florida State (23-11, 11-5): lost in NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
4. 2010 Duke (35-5, 13-3): won national championship.