Is It True that Defense Wins Championships in College Hoops? Plus, Who Can Win This Year


The saying is as old as time. Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. We’ve been hearing it for years and everyone just sort of agreed that it’s true. But, what if it’s not? I wanted to look at pre-tournament KenPom rankings and see if there was anything there. I actually started the process by charting the AdjO, AdjD and overall rankings just to see if there was a trend or baseline to go at in terms of seeing who was still alive this year. There wasn’t anything that stuck out right away, except for offensive vs defensive numbers.

Here’s how the numbers look:


Based on that I’ve come to the conclusion that defense does in fact not win championships. It’s the better offensive teams that are getting to that Monday in April. Even with that 2014 UConn outlier the average AdjO ranking for title teams heading into the NCAA Tournament is 10 compared to 15.9 for AdjD. The one thing I will say about that 2014 UConn team is you had Shabazz Napier, that tends to help no matter what your AdjO rating is.

Obviously, there’s still plenty of time to go in the season, but we’re going to look at what teams are sitting inside the magical numbers now according to past history. Those numbers would be top-20 overall ranking and top-22 AdjO. Again, the only team to fall outside of those rankings once the regular season ends is that 2014 UConn team with the 58 AdjO ranking.

But, first I want to focus more on that statement from earlier and why it’s more important to be ranked higher on the offensive side of the ball. The first observation I have is the NCAA Tournament becomes way more of a halfcourt game than the regular season and you’ll see teams take the air out of the ball. This isn’t to say defense isn’t important, but you need those offenses to stay consistent. Essentially we’ve seen defenses improve in the NCAA Tournament – most notably that 2015 Duke team, who put up historic numbers in those six games. That’s the extreme version of improvement though.

The other thing I can conclude from here is simply the fact that if you can score, you’re not getting caught in those droughts. Getting stops is obviously huge in the game, but if you can’t capitalize on those stops they end up being near worthless. There’s no scientific number behind this or any data except watching games, but doesn’t it feel like college teams stall on offense more than they do on defense? Sure, players can look lost at times or hedge the wrong way on a ball screen, but how many times do we see offenses perplexed by a 2-3 zone? What about when a team throws a press out? It’s those teams that can beat the press and attack that you can trust more than the team lining up in that press.

So now what people really want to know is who are the teams that can win the title based on games through 1/16/18? Again, the numbers I’m looking at is a top-20 overall KenPom ranking, top-22 AdjO and we’ll go top-40 AdjD ranking since there’s never been a team outside of the top-40 at the end of the season to win a title. There are currently seven teams within those parameters:

Villanova, Purdue, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Kansas, Wichita State, UNC and Tennessee. I’d think the only two surprises for people would be Gonzaga and Tennessee, but would the rest surprise anyone? If you want someone who can be that 2014 UConn team, the obvious answer is Oklahoma who has similar KenPom rankings, just reversed and the star in Trae Young. Oklahoma is currently ranked No. 20 on KenPom with an AdjO ranking of 14 and AdjD of 52.

Now, it is worth mentioning that some teams who are currently outside of the parameters will fall in by the end of the year and vice versa since these are full season numbers we’re looking at. But, if you wanted to put a future bet in right now, this is a good starting point. I think what’s unique about the teams listed is they all do it differently on the offensive side of the ball. Nova has inverted its offense and posting up Brunson. Purdue runs that four guard set with a monster in the middle with Haas. Gonzaga finds a mismatch and attacks the rim. Kansas looks to drive and kick for threes. Wichita State is diligent and uses Landry Shamet. Tennessee is an excellent offensive rebounding team and uses the extra pass. UNC has adapted to the small ball era now with Cam Johnson.

So I’ll say this again. Defense doesn’t win championships. It helps for sure, but offense not only sells tickets. It wins.