This year the Big 12 has presented an interesting dichotomy. The top two teams are among the best in the nation on either offense or defense, but they lag behind the national elite on the other side. My question going into this was if it is better to be good at offense and meh on defense, or vice versa?
To characterize Kansas as a purely offensive team would be a bit of a misnomer (but it fit with the title): They are 8th in KenPom in adjusted defense on March 4th, and are 2nd best in the Big 12 in defense in Big 12 conference games. It is a little more accurate to paint Texas as all defensive team however as they are 1st in adjusted defensive efficiency, but only 25th in offense. Though they are 2nd in offense during Big 12 play.
So which has more hope for a National Title?
First of all, it is important to note that in the KenPom era, which dates back to 2003, the lowest ranked offensive team to win a national championship was Syracuse in 2003, which was ranked 11th. The other previous low was UConn in 2004, ranked 4th. All other teams were 1st or 2nd. Defensively meanwhile, the lowest ranked team was, again Syracuse in 2003 (seriously how did we lose to them) who was 19th. Furthermore, two other national champions in this era were ranked outside the top 10.
The averages for the national championship winners going back to 2003 is as follows:
It's worth noting that Kansas is ranked 3rd in offense and 8th in defense currently, putting us right at the average. This would also appear to suggest that offense is more important. Why?
Here's a bit of a hypothesis. And to demonstrate it, a new chart:
(click to enlarge)
This chart shows the offensive and defensive efficiencies in conference play for each of the national champions going back to 2003. It then shows the same numbers during NCAA tournament play. For the NCAA tournament numbers I took only from the Sweet 16 on because the first round games are usually blowouts vs. inferior teams, and the 1 vs. 8/9 game seems to be 50/50 whether it is a blowout or a close game. The goal was to look at what happens to a team when they are in a 100% high stress environment, which is usually the last 4 games.
As we can see, both the offensive efficiencies and defensive efficiencies go down on average during the tournament. This makes sense because the games are against the cream of the crop and there are no bottom feeders to boost your efficiencies against. They also go down virtually the same amount. This is semi surprising, but let's take a quick team by team look and see if we can find out why:
Duke actually got better in the last four games in both offense and defense. It sure lends credence to the theory that Duke got an easy bracket, doesn't it?
This team was when my theory really started to take shape. They were pretty bad defensively in the regular season and although they were clearly the most talented team some people thought they would fall short because of their defense. But I had a feeling they would clamp down (for reasons I'll get to in a sec) in the tournament.
There's really not much to be learned here to be honest. They are the only team since Ken Pomeroy started compiling his rankings to be ranked 1st in both offense and defense at the end of the regular season. Still, it's interesting to note that they got even better in the NCAA tournament defensively.
Another team that began me thinking about this theory (though oddly they got worse defensively in their last four games of the tournament, which I didn't realize until compiling these stats), I'll get to it more below
A team that really came out of nowhere to win the title, Florida had the biggest decrease in PPP allowed from in conference to after the tournament on this list.
I'm not going to go through the final three because there's not a ton to learn from them, but you get the point.
So where does this little theory that it is better to be all offensive than all defensive come from? Well for one it's how the teams who all won national titles were great offensively and a few were less than great defensively. But it also comes from the general psyche of 18-23 year old kids. While it's great to expect 100% effort on the defensive end of the floor every possession of every game, the fact is that is just not realistic. When great teams get big leads, which happens quite a bit, they get bored. When they get bored, they relax and stand up a bit on defense. As a result some of their PPPs allowed are a bit higher than they should be.
But in the NCAA tournament every possession is important. As such, teams just don't relax and clamp down on defense and even when games are basically over they don't give up cheap points like they do in the regular season. I am sure this theory doesn't work for every team but it is a good enough baseline to establish the point that in general offensive numbers are more predictive of NCAA tournament success than defensive ones.
And, as a more specific to KU point, this team seems like the type of team that is prone to some focus and effort issues, like we saw against Iowa State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, etc., but when they get challenged and are in a high pressure environment, they'll clamp down the defense and hopefully in a few years time we'll be examining the defensive improvement of the 2011 champs.