Half the top ten teams lack the balance of overachievers

Back on December 2, I posted a blog asking whether offense or defense mattered more for a deep tourney run. I came to the conclusion that, while defense is important for seed overachievement, winning the title requires a strong offense. I ended the blog by acknowledging that the best teams are solid on both ends of the floor, but I didn’t give a lot of evidence to back that up.

As obvious as the point seems to be, I was surprised at the results of my research this morning—not so much at the strength of balanced teams, but the weakness of imbalanced teams. I compared three types of tourney teams:

  • Teams in the top 15 of the tourney field for both offensive and defensive efficiency numbers (balanced)
  • Teams in the top 10 for offense but outside the top 15 for defense (offense dominant)
  • Teams in the top 10 for defense but outside the top 15 for offense (defense dominant)

The 46 balanced teams owned an overachieving PASE of +.214, reached the Final Four 15 times and won six championships (out of the nine since 2004).

The 60 offense-dominant teams had an underachieving PASE of -.235, and only one team reached the Final Four. But they did cut down the nets. That would be North Carolina in 2009, which had the nation’s most efficient offense, but ranked just 25th defensively.

The 60 defense-dominant teams were also underachievers, but not as significantly as offensive-minded squads (-.026 PASE). They also made six Final Fours. However, none of those teams was crowned champion.

Speaking of champions, it’s telling to look at the Pythag, offense and defense efficiency ratings of the nine winners since 2004. Here they are:

  • 2004, Connecticut (Pythag – 2, OER – 11, DER – 8)
  • 2005, North Carolina (Pythag – 1, OER – 2, DER – 4)
  • 2006, Florida (Pythag – 8, OER – 13, DER – 17)
  • 2007, Florida (Pythag – 3, OER – 3, DER – 10)
  • 2008, Kansas (Pythag – 1, OER – 1, DER – 3)
  • 2009, North Carolina (Pythag – 2, OER – 1, DER – 25)
  • 2010, Duke (Pythag – 1, OER – 1, DER – 3)
  • 2011, Connecticut (Pythag – 17, OER – 17, DER – 23)
  • 2012, Kentucky (Pythag – 1, OER – 2, DER – 4)

I’ve bolded the three champions who’ve had either an offensive or defensive efficiency ranking outside the top 15. That includes Florida in 2006 (17 on defense), North Carolina in 2009 (25 on defense, as mentioned), and UConn (the real surprise with a 17 offense ranking and a 23 on defense).

With these numbers in mind, it’s worth looking at today’s top ten leaders in Ken Pomeroy’s Pythag efficiency rankings and assessing whether they’re balanced, offense- or defense-dominant teams. Of the top ten, these five squads are balanced:

  • 1 – Florida (4 OER, 3 DER)
  • 2 – Indiana (1, 8)
  • 3 – Duke (3, 9)
  • 7 – Kansas (12, 6)
  • 10 – VCU (17, 13)

These are the three offense-dominant squads:

  • 5 – Pittsburgh (2, 17)
  • 8 – Michigan (5, 21)
  • 9 – Ohio State (7, 16)

And these are the two defense-dominant squads:

  • 4 – Louisville (21, 1)
  • 6 – Syracuse (15, 2)

It’s still too early in the season to raise any red flags about the five squads that rely too heavily on one end of the court for their overall efficiency. But if these numbers hold, I’ll definitely have to think twice about these squads come bracket pondering time. Michigan and Louisville are particularly concerning—for opposite reasons, of course. Put it this way: there were 49 teams among the five most efficient on one end of the court, but outside the top 20 in the other. They were -.195 PASE underachievers and only two of them made the Final Four. The Wolverines need to work on their defense, and the Cardinals have to knock down more shots.

I did one last quick study on the offense/defense rankings. It was prompted by the numbers that jumped out at me for Cincinnati. The Bearcats are the 15th most efficient team in the land, but that strength is heavily influenced by their defense. They’re the 54th best offensive team and the fourth best defenders. That got me thinking: which teams are within the top ten of one category…and way, way outside the top 10 of the other? Here are the top four most offensively and defensively reliant squads in the nation:

Most Offense Reliant

  • 37 – Saint Mary’s (9, 141)
  • 27 – North Carolina State (6, 121)
  • 25 – Notre Dame (8, 109)
  • 17 – Creighton (10, 35)

Most Defense Reliant

  • 44 – Texas (183, 5)
  • 19 – Oklahoma State (79, 7)
  • 15 – Cincinnati (54, 4)
  • 18 – Michigan State (47, 10)

I ranked these by the gulf between the offense and defense rankings. Among all these teams, Texas is the most imbalanced, with a 178-position difference in their two rankings. If the Longhorns don’t win on defense, they don’t win. Their inverse is true with St. Mary’s. The Gaels’ offensive standing is 132 positions better than its defense. Don’t expect them to be making too many stops come tourney time.

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4 Responses to Half the top ten teams lack the balance of overachievers

  1. Carl says:

    Is there any correlation between upsets involving severely unbalanced teams? I would expect in a one-game situation the offense reliant teams to have a better chance at an upset than the defense reliant team. Also I would tend to expect if there’s an offense reliant team matched up with a defense reliant team the offense reliant team would spring the upset. Just a thought.

  2. ptiernan says:

    Carl – I haven’t looked into offense/defense imbalance in relation to upsets, but I have done some analysis on frontcourt/backcourt scoring–which I’ll update at some point this season. It turns out that Cinderella seeds (11-14 in round one, 7-12 in round two) spring upsets more often when they get imbalanced scoring, either from the frontcourt or backcourt–mainly backcourt these days. The reason, I surmise, is that in a one-game situation, they manage to exploit their one strength over teams that overall are more balanced.

  3. Jay says:

    I was wondering if/when you evaluate previous season numbers, are you using the data prior to the start of the tournament or are you using the end of season data. In my opinion end-of-season data is biased toward the winner of the tournament.

    • ptiernan says:

      Jay – you’re right on in your assessment. I use pre-tourney data. I spend the last weeks compiling all the stats on teams as they finish the regular season (usually by losing in their conference tourney). Come Selection Sunday, I have the data I need to do my analysis. Those are the only relevant statistics for evaluating the factors that lead to over- and underachievement in the tourney.

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