The Top 5 Defenses in the NCAA Tournament

The Top 5 Defenses in the NCAA Tournament

You know the old saying that’s become a cliché of sorts by now — defense wins championships.

Except, in college basketball, it’s basically true. In the KenPom era since 2002, every single team that has won the national title has been a top-25 squad in defensive efficiency at the end of the tournament. Of course, you have to be able to package it together with offense (all but one was a top-20 team in offensive efficiency, as well), but defensive efficiency is a crucial component.

In an unfamiliar arena, shooting can go cold. Free throws are a box of dynamite. Generally, teams with a better defense are more consistent night-to-night because D is less reliant on conversion.

Which five teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament have defenses that stand above the rest?

Texas Tech Red Raiders

According to KenPom’s defensive efficiency metrics, the Red Raiders have the best defense in college basketball.

They’re allowing just 65.0 points per game this season (11th-best in the nation), and that’s a mark that’s been well tested this year in a brutal Big 12 Conference.

KenPom has Texas Tech holding the 18th-most difficult schedule this season. They limited defending champion Baylor to just 62 and 73 points in their two meetings. They also locked down an efficient Texas offense to just 64 and 55 points in their two contests.

Given that the Red Raiders also play at the 211th-ranked tempo, Mark Adams’ bunch wears down teams and keeps things tight. Their only double-digit loss of the season came against Gonzaga.

With a decent 65th-ranked offense on the other end, they’re primed to go toe-to-toe with quite literally any team in the country.

San Diego State Aztecs

Matchups between 8 and 9 seeds can be coinflips, but our model gives San Diego State a 66.01% chance to defeat Creighton in the first round.

It isn’t based on the Aztecs’ offense; it ranks just 157th in KenPom’s offensive metrics. It’s their second-ranked defense that has them a dangerous out for even the top teams in the tournament.

They just beat 6 seed Colorado State for a second time this season in the Mountain West Conference Tournament. While they did fall to Boise State in the title game, the Aztecs held the Broncos to just 52 points.

Nathan Mensah is a threatening force in the interior for SDSU, grabbing 7.1 boards a game and blocking a whopping 2.2 shots per contest.

Their offense likely keeps them from a deep tournament run, but San Diego State plays slow (268th in adjusted tempo) and keeps games ugly no matter what.

Tennessee Volunteers

The morning-after chatter was that Tennessee got robbed of a 2 seed by Duke. They’ve certainly got the Blue Devils bested on the defensive end.

The Vols are the third-best team in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings, and they’ve overcome the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule to earn that mark.

There is no guessing with Tennessee’s defense. They just won the SEC Championship after holding Kentucky and Texas A&M to fewer than 65 points. In fact, they also held one of this season’s favorites, Arizona, to just 73 points in a win earlier this season.

They play faster (176th in tempo) than plenty of other teams on this list, but the Vols’ 36th-ranked offense — in addition to the lights-out D — makes them a title challenger.

Extra possessions are huge in March, and both Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler average more than 1.5 steals per contest for Tennessee. That’s something to watch for if a matchup with Houston or Villanova comes to fruition.

LSU Tigers

With top teams like Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, and Alabama all coming out as higher seeds from the SEC, LSU might be overlooked after getting roughed up in conference play.

Their record dropped them to a 6 seed, but LSU also had KenPom’s 274th-ranked luck factor in close games. With a few bounces their way, they could very well be sitting with their SEC brethren. They played the Razorbacks tight in the SEC Tournament’s 4/5 matchup, but the close loss was nothing to write home about.

The first two games in the tournament for LSU could be slobber-knockers. They draw Iowa State first, and the Cyclones are 10th in defensive efficiency themselves. Then, Wisconsin — in Milwaukee — is no slouch at 38th in D.

LSU, though, is fourth in the entire country in turnovers forced per game (18.0). Like with the Vols, the extra possessions against non-stellar offenses could potentially carry the Tigers into the Sweet 16.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Have you ever heard of this small pacific northwest school?

There’s a reason Gonzaga is +300 on FanDuel Sportsbook to capture it all. While they do lead the nation in offensive efficiency (again), per KenPom, the defense on this squad may be what finally pushes Mark Few’s squad over the top.

Gonzaga has been top-five in offensive efficiency through their three runs to the Elite 8 (or better), but their defensive efficiency marks were just 16th, 12th, and 11th. This year, the Bulldogs sit seventh in defensive efficiency — their best mark in the KenPom era.

A lot of that has to do with Chet Holmgren. The top prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft is a Giannis Antetokounmpo-esque terror on the defensive end in college. He averages an absurd 3.6 blocks per game and adds 0.8 steals per contest for good measure.

The West Coast Conference also has three top-25 schools in KenPom’s rankings for the first time in conference history.

Holmgren’s NBA-caliber size and some tougher tests prior to the dance are two key reasons that Gonzaga might finally be ready to parlay those gaudy efficiency metrics into a national title.

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