Real Time Analytics

Does Defense Win Championships In College Basketball?

Steve Mitchell - USA Today Sports

March doesn’t involve as much madness as you’d think.

“Defense wins championships.” It’s a universal truth in sports.

At least, that’s what we think. But the phrase really only tells half the story in college basketball.

It’s no question defense is vital for a championship team, but offense is just as important. Squads with both a formidable offense and defense have the best shot at winning it all.

In the KenPom era – from 2002 to present, the past 16 seasons – we can analyze every team’s adjusted offensive (adjO) and defensive (adjD) efficiency. This goes beyond points per game. It’s a measure of how many points a team puts up and allows per 100 possessions.

Teams that bring home the title usually have top-notch defenses. Fifteen of the last 16 champions posted a top-15 KenPom defensive efficiency. It would seem, then, that defense is a vital ingredient for success in March.

But the numbers don’t end there: the same thing can be said about offense. Thirteen of the last 16 champions were top-15 KenPom offenses.

This means that teams who are talented on both sides of the ball will win. In the past 16 seasons, three out of every four national champs ranked in the top 15 for both adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency. 

Final Four
Won Championship
Top 15 both adjD and adjO
Top 15 adjO only
Top 15 adjD only
Top 15 in neither category


In that same time frame, roughly 22 percent of teams who were top 15 in both categories won the title. Of teams that were only top 15 in one category,  just two percent were crowned champions. Squads ranking in both categories have a much higher success rate in bringing home a championship.

You get the picture. The teams who can do it all survive the longest. Twenty of 64 Final Four teams since 2002 have posted a top-15 defense and a sub-top-15 offense, while only 14 have posted a top-15 adjO and a worse defense. Three strong defensive teams went on to win a title, and one offensive team did the same. This difference is not significant. However, it shows that defense is still a major key to success in the Big Dance.

If you’re trying to make the Final Four, and you’re given the choice between defense and offense, I’d choose defense for their slightly higher success rate. But don’t expect to win a title. Eventually, you’ll face a team that has all the pieces, and it won’t go your way.

There are outliers, of course. North Carolina cut down the nets in 2009 with the 18th-ranked KenPom defense, but they had the best offensive efficiency in the nation to make up for it. In 2014, UConn had the 10th-best defense to protect its 39th-ranked offense. 

It’s very possible, then, to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament with one specialty. Your odds of winning it all just won’t be as good. There are plenty of Final Four teams which had either a dominant offense or a lockdown defense, but in the end it just wasn’t enough.

In 2003, Marquette posted a 120.5  adjO, the second-best mark in the nation. While they reached the Final Four, their high-powered offense wasn’t good enough to compensate for their 109th ranked adjD.

The surprising George Mason team of 2006 boasted the 13th-highest adjD in the nation, and it carried them to the Final Four. Yet, their sub-par offense (66 in adjO) prevented them from getting a shot at the title. In 2012, Louisville rode to the Final Four with the nation’s best defense, but their 112th-rated offense dashed all hopes of a championship.

Just last year, South Carolina took down Duke, Baylor, and Florida with the third-best defense in the country. But their 91st-ranked offense could not overcome Gonzaga’s best defense in the nation.

Besides the outliers, the common trends have major implications for the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers and the No. 3 Villanova Wildcats. Both of these teams are having stellar seasons. The Cavaliers lead the nation in defense and are on pace to break the KenPom-era record for adjD. The Wildcats lead the nation in adjO.

Top 15 adjO
Top 15 adjD
St. Mary’s
Texas Tech
Texas A&M
Michigan State*
Michigan State*
North Carolina
Wichita State
New Mexico State
Ohio State

But both teams have the same problem: they’re really good at one thing, and that usually won’t win a title.

The Cavaliers defense is matched with the 42nd-rated adjO. The Wildcat offense is paired with the 41st-ranked adjD. According to the data, the odds are neither team will make it past the Final Four. When it comes down to it, you have to be great on both sides of the ball.

On the other hand, this bodes well for the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans, No. 6 Purdue Boilermakers, and No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs. They are the only three teams with top-15 adjO and adjD. Virginia and Villanova are dangerous, and they aren’t out of the picture; however, the Spartans, Boilermakers, and Bulldogs are obviously talented teams with the numbers on their side. My bet is on one of those three to win the title.

But then again, what do I know? Anything can happen in March.

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

What is the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament?
Created 2/16/18
  1. 3
  2. 5
  3. 8
  4. 10

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