Rapidly improving defense is so 2018


(Tom Pennington/Getty)

Defense may or may not win championships, but it is true that 75 percent of the teams in San Antonio are showing a remarkably similar performance arc on that side of the ball.

Defense, conference play vs. tournament
Opponent points per possession

              In-conference     Tournament
Michigan          1.02             0.89
Villanova         1.06             0.93
Kansas            1.09             1.02

Loyola Chicago, as always, is an outlier, stubbornly playing a similar level of D (albeit against better competition) as what we saw from the Ramblers in the regular season. They are bold iconoclasts, these lads from Rogers Park.

Now, why are these other three teams suddenly such world-beaters on defense? Good question. Here’s what appears to be taking place, with some null-hypothesis words devoted to Porter Moser’s group for good measure….

UM is both forcing and watching a ton of opponent misses
If one were to rank the defenses in San Antonio in terms of tournament performance, Michigan would be a strong No. 1. Conversely, if those same defenses were listed according to sheer luck, the Wolverines…would again be No. 1 by a healthy margin. Actual performance and mere good fortune living together, mass hysteria, etc.

It has become the March habit to refer to John Beilein’s team off-handedly as one of the nation’s best defenses, but this statistically accurate formulation does the Wolverines a disservice on two counts. First, it undersells the surprise. No one saw this coming from this group of players and this coach.

Second, “one of the nation’s best defenses” doesn’t even do justice to what we’re seeing. Throw out the lopsided shootout against Texas A&M (where UM already led by 17 after the first 10 minutes) and Michigan has held its other three tournament opponents to 36 percent shooting on their twos. That’ll do.

The fact that all four of the Wolverines’ tournament opponents have combined to hit just 26 percent of their threes has been an added stroke of fortuitous circumstance for a great defense that hardly needs it. True, Beilein’s guys get full credit for limiting the number of opponents’ three-point attempts (a number that tracks what we saw from this defense in Big Ten play perfectly). Add “lots of misses” to “few attempts,” and you find that Michigan’s allowed as many made threes over the course of four wins as Villanova hit in the Alabama game alone.

Loyola scoffs at this newfangled suspect “shot volume” stuff
We interrupt these paeans to great defense for a word on the Ramblers (who merited their own post yesterday, by the way). Sister Jean’s boys are getting it done not only with clutch heroics but also with Villanova-level shooting accuracy.

Accurate when it matters
NCAA tournament games only

                  2FG%    3FG%    eFG%
Loyola Chicago    58.7    41.7    60.1
Villanova         49.1    41.4    55.8
Kansas            49.3    40.6    53.9
Michigan          54.8    33.7    53.0

This accuracy has been essential, because Loyola’s been measurably more turnover-prone than any other surviving offense. That plus garden-variety Missouri Valley suspicion of offensive rebounding has meant the Ramblers get very, very few chances to score. So, yes, an off game of shooting should doom Moser’s team.

Then again Villanova just went 4-of-24 on its threes, and the Wildcats are still here. March, am I right?

After an entire season of so-so defensive rebounding, Kansas is now very good at defensive rebounding
The great leap forward that KU’s made on defense in the tournament has been more modest than what we’ve seen from Michigan and Villanova, but, when one of your wins came in overtime, any progress recorded on either side of the ball can be said to have been vital.

Moreover, the defensive improvement exhibited by Bill Self’s guys has been more or less confined to one category in particular:

Kansas defensive rebounding and opponent effective FG%, turnover % and free throw rate

                         DR%   Opp. eFG%   Opp. TO%   Opp. FTRate
KU in conference play   65.5      50.9       17.6        26.0
KU in the tournament    71.8      49.4       16.9        26.0

Udoka Azubuke is the Final Four’s best present-tense defensive rebounder, pulling down 26 percent of opponents’ tournament misses. Holding the other team to one shot with greater frequency than this group was able to do during the regular season has been the wind in the Jayhawks’ defensive sails.

Nor has it hurt matters that KU’s free throw defense has also been pretty good over the past four games. The Jayhawks’ opponents have shot just 66 percent at the line in the tournament. That’s a marked improvement over the 71 percent figure that opposing teams recorded during the season as a whole.

What is this strange new voodoo that Self’s unleashed when the opponent’s at the line? Staring impertinently at the shooter? “Miss it, Noonan!” muttered under one’s breath? Whatever it is, it’s working.

Has Jay Wright now hacked defense the way he did offense starting in 2013-14?
Villanova has held tournament opponents to 42 percent shooting on their twos. If a team can do that and have Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson on offense, that sums to a rather formidable outfit.

True, the Wildcats haven’t exactly faced a murderers’ row in terms of opposing offenses. Nevertheless, holding an offense as good as West Virginia’s to 78 points in a very fast (76-possession) game is a worthy effort, one that highlights the potential defensive benefits of having an insanely good offense.

Hoops analysts in white lab coats term spillover effects such as this the “DeAndre Jordan syndrome.” Jordan recorded mediocre stats as a one-and-done freshman because, we now know, he loathed his coach. By the same token, opposing offenses on occasion post middling stats against Villanova for an equally fundamental yet statistically elusive reason. Basically, it appears that it can be rather dispiriting to try to keep up with the Wildcat offense.