Why you should care
Because it’s high time for defense to get some love.
This story first ran in October at the start of college basketball season, but as we get deep into March Madness, it’s time to take another look at why defense matters. Seven of this year’s Sweet 16 are in the top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com: Michigan (3), Texas Tech (4), Syracuse (5), Clemson (7), Duke (8), Texas A&M (10) and Gonzaga (14).
Whenever college basketball season beckons, the talk immediately turns to potential Player of the Year winners and freshmen who can propel school programs into the history books. Typically, this chatter revolves around offensive stars, and the 2017–18 college season is no exception.
Michael Porter Jr. is a freshman phenom expected to transform Missouri into an NCAA tournament team. Returning stars like Duke’s Grayson Allen and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham are expected to turn their schools into contenders, while making a run for National Player of the Year. Even though players like these three justifiably grab plenty of headlines, they epitomize a trend of overlooking defense in college basketball.
I think the five-man is the most important role on the floor.
Corey Evans, basketball analyst, Rivals
In fact, many incoming freshmen and returning upperclassmen on defense will have as much of an impact on their team’s fortunes as those aforementioned players. Defense may not bring in more viewers and tweets, but it brings in more wins. From 2002–16, according to the NCAA, all but one champion had a top 15 defensive rating. The exception? North Carolina, in 2009, which is still ranked 21st. Understanding the importance of defense is key to understanding how college basketball is changing. The recent move to positionless basketball, where players can guard multiple positions, has been made with defense in mind. Hot commodities like rim-protecting centers and wings who can guard multiple positions are now a growing fad in college basketball.
For every freshman like Porter Jr., a teenager ready to change Missouri with his smooth, effortless scoring, more than a handful of players exist who can match Porter’s production with what they do defensively. Mohamed Bamba is the poster boy of this movement. The 7-footer attending the University of Texas at Austin could be the best defensive center in the country, and he may propel the Longhorns to March Madness.
Brandon McCoy could have the same impact at UNLV. “I think the five-man is the most important role on the floor,” says Corey Evans, a national basketball analyst for Rivals, noting how the position anchors a defense.
Several returning big men could change their programs too. Robert Williams can jump out of the gym and as a matured sophomore, he’s capable of carrying Texas A&M through a tough SEC. How? Defense. The same is true of Chimezie Metu at USC, according to Evans. But it’s not just centers. This holds true for guards and forwards who can defend multiple positions. They do the little things so the best offensive player gets better matchups.
USC guard De’Anthony Melton, who was invited to Team USA’s U19 tryouts, and Metu are arguably more important than the entire offensive firepower of their teammates. Those two excelling in defensive roles could be the difference between the Trojans making March Madness and advancing to the second weekend. Dynamic, flexible defenders will have huge says on the title race all over the country. The Big Ten has three such players in combo forwards Ethan Happ of Wisconsin, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Maryland’s Justin Jackson. Mikal Bridges will have the same impact at Villanova, a team that’s poised for another great season.
When Porter Jr. is knocking down big-time threes at Missouri next season, he’ll get the spotlight. When Allen at Duke is dunking his way through the ACC, he’ll get the headlines. But defensive gems are more instrumental to team success than any leading scorer.
History repeats itself: Defense matters. Florida didn’t win back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007 without Joakim Noah. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a winner without a defensive stalwart: That makes them the most important and underappreciated players in basketball.