ANAHEIM, Calif. — The self-appointed Lords of College Basketball — the television network analysts who take center stage during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — decreed last year that the college game needed more scoring.
Defense, the Lords said, was boring. The clanging of missed shots was causing viewers to grab their remotes and go elsewhere. To them, the equation was simple: the more points scored, the better the basketball.
Not only was that a slap in the face to sophisticated basketball fans who appreciate things such as defense and passing and the constant clash of styles that makes the college game infinitely superior to the NBA product, it was horribly self-serving. The TV networks need to attract more casual viewers to pay their bills and their paid mouthpieces push an agenda that calls for more scoring? Gee, what a coincidence.
Nevertheless, the Lords were able to pressure the NCAA to alter two rules to further inhibit the defense. A defender using his hands or an arm bar to impede a dribbler was to be called without fail this season. And the charge taken by an off-the-ball defender was all but eliminated from the game by a new rule that stated the defender had to be stationary when the dribbler began his upward motion toward the basket, not when he left the floor.
As we saw throughout the season, the new rules affected the game in multiple ways, some good, some bad. On the plus side, scoring did increase by about three points per game per team. On the minus side, that bump in scoring might be attributed to more free throws since many games devolved into boring foul-a-thons.
“The idea was, let’s get the younger audience, the younger viewers,” said University of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who is no fan of the changes. “Let’s get this game souped up so that we’re scoring more points so we can get the youngsters because of the speed (video) games that all of the kids are playing and all that.”
Unfortunately for the Lords, the rules haven’t reduced the importance of defense one bit. Playing good defense is still vital to a team’s success, particularly in the postseason.
For verification, just look around this weekend’s Sweet 16 sites. Most of the teams still alive in the NCAA tournament are outstanding defensive teams or have improved their defensive play dramatically during the tournament.
By any measure, the most impressive teams through the first weekend of the tournament have done it with stifling defense. No. 1 seeds Florida, Arizona and Virginia, possibly the three best defensive teams in the country, did not allow more than 61 points in their games last week. Other teams that have been consistently strong on defense are Louisville, Tennessee, San Diego State, Michigan State, Baylor and Dayton. Of the 16 teams, only three — Michigan, UCLA and Iowa State — advanced through the first weekend without really relying on their defense at some point.
There are a variety of ways to judge defensive prowess in basketball, but the best is with the adjusted defensive ratings put out by KenPom.com. They measure efficiency on each possession, thereby taking pace out of the equation.
In that key stat, the remaining field is quite impressive. Arizona is ranked first in the nation, with Florida second, Louisville third, Virginia fifth, San Diego State seventh, UConn 11th, Tennessee 17th and Kentucky 25th. Meanwhile, Stanford, Michigan State, UCLA, UW and Iowa State are all in the top 59. Of the remaining tournament teams, only Dayton, Baylor and Michigan aren’t ranked among the top 20 percent of teams in defensive efficiency, and Baylor and Dayton have stepped up their games defensively in the tournament.
The truth is, to advance really deep into the tournament and give itself a chance to win the title, a team needs to be good on both ends of the floor.
Eleven of the remaining teams — Michigan, UW, Baylor, Michigan State, Iowa State, UCLA, Louisville, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida and Virginia — rank in the top 20 in terms of offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, so offense is important, too. But a team has to have more than that. Duke, Creighton, Wichita State, Kansas and Oklahoma were in the top 15 in the adjusted offensive rankings but lost to lower seeds because they couldn’t get stops, something their poor defensive ratings predicted.
Clearly, defense remains a critical component if a team hopes to survive and advance all the way to the Final Four.
“Defense is going to give you a chance every night,” Ryan said. “You’re always not going to shoot the same percentage, but your effort on defense can be something that’s there every night. ... Offense, you can put all the effort in the world in and sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. But defensive teams do survive, percentage-wise.”
Despite all attempts by the Lords to legislate them out of the game, nothing has really changed.