This year’s Super Bowl appeared to reconfirm the old axiom that defense trumps offense in championship games—at least on the gridiron. A few readers recently asked if this applied to the NCAA tourney and I promised to do a mythbuster on it.
I’ve done this analysis before in a more basic way, but I figured I’d look at the question this time from a few different angles. This first angle compares the performance of the top 10 defensively efficient and offensively efficient teams for the last decade (that’s as far back as my KenPom stats go).
The 100 most defensively efficient teams since 2004 have reached the Final Four 19 times, won seven championships and own a +.091 PASE. Those numbers are slightly better than they are for the 100 most offensively efficient teams, which have one fewer Final Four contender, one less champion and a PASE barely above expectations (+.007 PASE). Score one for defense.
If you’re the kind that likes to look at raw scoring output, defense continues to post better PASE numbers—but notches fewer championships. The top 104 lowest scored upon 1-6 seeds (allowing fewer than 63.1 points per game) have 19 Final Fours, five championships and a +.096 PASE. Meanwhile the 103 highest scoring 1-6 seeds have the same number of Final Fours, but three more tourney crowns, with a PASE of +.028. For this analysis, I’d say the results are mixed.
The next angle I took on the offense/defense debate was to track the efficiency numbers of tournament advancers. The average tourney team comes into the dance scoring 111.1 and allowing 93.4 points per 100 possessions. With each succeeding round, the survivors own better efficiency numbers on both offense and defense, but the offensive numbers improve at a slightly higher rate. Check out this chart:
From the first round to the Final Four, offensive efficiency climbs at a slightly higher rate than defensive efficiency declines—about 1.6% per round versus 1.4%. But then the last two combats and the ultimate champion show more dramatic improvements in offense over defense. The two finals combatants are 1.1% more offensively efficient than Final Four contenders, yet only 0.8% better on defense. And the difference between the last two teams and the ultimate champion is even wider. Champs have 1.7% better offenses and only 0.7% better defenses than Final Four survivors. So if you’re just evaluating which side of the ball is more important in the championship game, these numbers lean toward the offense.
The last angle I took to assess the “defense wins championship” axiom is perhaps the most telling. I examined the value of offensive and defensively efficiency as well as raw scoring in predicting the outcome of head-to-head toss-up games. These are the match-ups in which opponents are within three seed positions of one another. Here’s what I found:
- Teams with better offensive efficiency numbers are 125-92 (.576) and 7-1 in championship games.
- Teams with better defensive efficiency numbers are 105-108 (.493) and just 3-5 in championship games.
- The higher scoring team in toss-up games is 343-268 overall (.561) and 16-6 in championship games.
- The lower scored-upon team in toss-up games is 297-316 (.485) and 8-14 in championship games.
By every head-to-head comparison, offense is a better predictor of close-seed tourney match-ups than defense. And that’s particularly true in the ultimate final game.
Verdict: There’s a reasonable case to be made that offense trumps defense in the NCAA tourney—at least when it comes to crowning the champion. The numbers say that you need to play solid defense. But that will only take you so far. When it comes to the big prize, you better be proficient and prolific at scoring.
Of course, the best teams in the dance are strong on both ends of the floor. For each of the analytical approaches above, the teams possessing high numbers in both offense and defense categories are far and away the top achievers:
- The 22 teams with top 10 offense and defense efficiency rankings have been to 10 Final Fours, won five championships and posted a whopping +.593 PASE
- The 18 teams among the highest scoring (>75.9 ppg) and lowest scored-upon (<63.1 ppg) have been to six Final Fours, cut down four nets and posted a +.449 PASE
- Teams with higher overall Pythag values are 130-86 (.602) in toss-up games and 7-1 in championship games.
Right now, two teams closest to having top 10 offenses and defenses are Louisville and Florida. Are they the 2014 tourney favorites?