Blog Entry

Mid-Major spotlight: Ten defensive powers

Posted on: December 31, 2010 10:45 am
Edited on: December 31, 2010 9:24 pm

Posted by Eric Angevine

When we think about mid-major teams that have made an impact on the NCAA tournament, we often remember amazing, last minute shots from deep. Dramatic shots give us the skewed perception that offense leads to upsets, but no small school ever hung in a tournament game without playing some tough defense.

With a lot of help from, we can prove it.

Looking at the final adjusted defensive ratings from 2010 , Duke and Butler come out with nearly identical numbers. The Blue Devils were fourth nationally with a rating of 85.9, and the Bulldogs ended up fifth, coming in at 86.2. Operating from that baseline, the teams were competitive right up until the final buzzer.

The 2006 Final Four team from George Mason didn't crack the top ten in the overall defensive stats, but the Patriots were in the top 20 (alongside an impressive number of other mids in that eye-opening year), and balanced their defensive prowess with an efficient offense.

The Southern Illinois dynasty of the early part of the decade featured a black-and-blue defense that made opposing teams feel as if they'd fallen into a wood chipper.

If we assume that no mid can make it to the second weekend of the tournament without a comprehensive defensive effort, it stands to reason that this year's stoppers have tipped their hands after a non-conference schedule full of guarantee games against the Big Six teams.* I'll list each with kenpom's Adjusted Defensive rating in parentheses. For reference purposes, Ohio State leads the category with a stunning 81.0 mark.

1. UNLV (87.4)
2. Temple (87.5)
3. Central Florida (89.0)
4. Stephen F. Austin (89.1)
5. Brigham Young (89.4)
6. UTEP (90.4)
7. San Diego State (90.7)
8. Memphis (91.1)
9. Richmond (91.1)
10. Fairfield (91.6)

For the record, that's three Mountain West teams, three C-USA squads, two A-10 reps, one Southland and one MAAC apiece.

The Rebs top the list in spite of a rather undersized frontcourt, because the backcourt is so adept at creating chaos for ballhandlers. The team is third nationally in defensive turnover percentage and ranks in the top 20 for steal rate as well.

Casual observers will focus ad nauseum on the fact that Michael Jordan's son is an offensive star for the undefeated UCF Knights, but it's blocked shots and team defense that keeps them in the national top 25.

Now, on to the surprises. Stephen F. Austin is actually the nation's top team at creating turnovers and they've been elite-level at defending the perimeter as well. The caveat would be that they've scheduled four non-DI opponents this season, but kenpom's numbers are supposed to take account of schedule strength through some kind of mathemagical formula that I accept on faith.

Now, Fairfield. The Stags might make the Big Dance based on these defensive numbers, which might be good enough to win the MAAC's auto-bid, but it doesn't seem likely. The offense is as bad as the defense is good, in this case. Still, it's an intriguing number.

Two teams that fell just outside the arbitrary number of ten are worth keeping an eye on as well. Drexel (upsetters of Louisville) and Butler (you may have heard of them) are both sitting at 91.8, and those numbers are virtually guaranteed to go down into elite territory once Bruiser Flint and Brad Stevens unleash hell upon the CAA and Horizon League, respectively.

*There are plenty of people who will argue the definition of a mid-major with me, but until leagues like the Mountain West, A-10 and West Coast draw obsessive national attention even in a down year (like last season's Pac-10 did) they're not playing on the same field as the Big Six, so I'm including them here.

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