Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
 
Only you can cure DAD (Defensive Attention Deficit)
Preventing your opponent from scoring is half the game. So how come we never talk about defense in basketball?
Last year Notre Dame achieved something truly striking. They combined within one team one of the best offenses in the nation (perhaps only Texas was better) with one of the worst defenses in major-conference basketball (perhaps only Wake Forest and Penn State were worse). Indeed, despite that outstanding offense, the Fighting Irish were unable to even get a bid to the NCAA tournament, much less do any damage there. (The Irish, granted, also had a heaping helping of luck--all bad. See below.) In other words, not even an offense as good as Notre Dame's could overcome a defense as bad as Notre Dame's.

And yet we talk so little about D. In fact, beyond tired bromides about "solid team defense," the attention devoted to defense is woefully out of balance with its actual importance.

Why is that? Three reasons, I think:

1. The game itself. Defense in baseball (for the most part) and in football (utterly and completely) falls within the domain of the specialist--but basketball's the last bastion of the generalist. Baseball gives us celebrated 95 mph pitchers and football gives us celebrated ravenous defensive ends. But basketball gets its D from the same players who contribute the offense--and said players are rarely celebrated for their defense. True, Ben Wallace and his era of Detroit Pistons made defense nominally more hip than it's been in a long while. But Big Ben is actually the exception that proves the rule--celebrated (rightly) as a defensive specialist. College players are for the most part recruited, conversely, for their ability (or potential) to score. Defense, it is thought, can be browbeaten into them once they get on campus.

2. Confusion about the game itself. It's more fun to watch up-tempo games than slow ones. No argument here, surely. The problem is that defense still suffers greatly from a hoary old misconception: that good defense means slow games. This is emphatically and demonstrably untrue, as illustrated beautifully by the 2005 national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. That team played outstanding defense (allowing just 0.90 points per possession in ACC play) and rocketed up and down the court like a track team. They were a pleasure to watch and, believe me, if an Illinois fan can say that, it's true.

(BONUS "contra-positive proves the rule" note! By the same token, slow teams are almost without exception assumed to be good defensive teams. In reality, of course, some are and some aren't. Georgetown, for example, was singled out on the eve of last year's tournament by ESPN.com as a team that "wins its games on the defensive end of the court." Actually, the Hoyas' offense was better than their D--it's just that their games were so wretchedly slow that observers apparently assumed this must be what good defense looks like.)

3. Stats, damned stats. Applying numbers to basketball aids and abets this widespread DAD--and I'm certainly not immune. Look at this blog: I post individual stats for every player in the Big Ten in four different offensive categories. But what about D? While we can record how many blocks and steals an individual records, individual defensive excellence largely eludes our efforts to make sense of it through numbers. The box score doesn't really do justice to defense--you have to see it.

And yet, despite these factors, there are indeed times when we should focus on defense. More specifically, there are teams where defense is where the conversation should start.

Teams of defensive interest
While any team's performance is, of course, the product of equal measures of offense and defense, I think it's fair to say that certain teams invite a defense-first discussion. Most notably, if we try to make sense of your garden-variety "team of defensive interest" without talking about this strange and mysterious thing called defense, we can easily lapse into airy clich├ęs about "winning big games," "playing as a team," etc.

I anticipate that a few Big Ten teams this year will be TDIs. But since I don't want to give away what I'm going to be talking about in the previews over the next couple weeks, let's look instead at some non-Big Ten teams from last year....

The 2006 Fighting Irish....Unbelievably unlucky? Unbelievably bad D? Both!
Last year Notre Dame had perhaps the most agonizing stretch of games that any team has had within recent memory. For those who weren't paying attention in real time, here's how the first 30 days of conference play shook out last year for the Fighting Irish....

Lost in double-OT to Pitt, 100-97
Lost to DePaul, 73-67
Lost to Syracuse, 88-82
Beat Providence, 92-77
Lost to Marquette, 67-65
Lost in double-OT to Georgetown, 85-82
Lost to Villanova, 72-70
Lost to West Virginia, 71-70
Lost in OT to Louisville, 89-86

Over the course of nine games, then, Notre Dame was outscored by a total of just 11 points. And went 1-8. That's not unlucky, that's cursed.

At the same time, this particular cursed team also happens to have been a TDI poster child. Let's look again at those nine games:

Notre Dame defense: opponent points per possession
Pitt (1.13)
DePaul (1.13)
Syracuse (1.23)
Providence (1.20)
Marquette (1.07)
Georgetown (1.19)
Villanova (1.12)
West Virginia (1.14)
Louisville (1.27)
Total for nine games: 1.16

Keep in mind the average defense in the offensively heavy (or defensively light) Big East last year gave up 1.04 points per possession in conference play. So Notre Dame's defense over those nine games was, to be blunt, atrocious. If they had played merely average defense they would have gone 7-2 instead of 1-8. Meaning the Fighting Irish would not only have gone to the NCAA tournament but would have had a sweet seed as well. Defense, specifically the lack of it, spelled the difference between NCAA and NIT for Notre Dame.

The best defense in the country last year
It's a highly subjective honorific, to be sure. But, for what it's worth, looking at the numbers from conference play propels one team to the top of the list--and by a relatively healthy margin....

Best "power"-conference defenses, 2006 (opponent points per possession, conference games only)
1. Kansas (0.88)
2. Texas (0.91)
3. UCLA (0.93)
4. LSU (0.93)
5. Iowa (0.94)

Kansas' interior defense was beyond good--it was sublime. KU was the only major-conference team in the nation last year that didn't allow its conference opponents to make at least 40 percent of their two-point shots. Meanwhile the Jayhawks on the perimeter were busy extracting turnovers from opponents--only Clemson (Clemson?), Arizona, Texas A&M and Iowa State got more TOs from their major-conference foes than did KU.

OK, fine. Kansas had an outstanding defense last year. But when I first looked at these numbers I wondered: how much of this was due to the statistical benefit KU gained from games against the struggling teams at the bottom of the Big XII?

Answer: surprisingly little! On six occasions during the Big XII regular season, KU played what should have been stat-stuffing games against the weak offenses of Baylor, Texas Tech, Missouri, and Nebraska, respectively.

And did the Jayhawks pile up their glittering defensive numbers against these four woeful offenses? Au contraire! Indeed, as KU fans will be quick to remind us guileless Big Ten types, Kansas actually lost one of those six games--and lost it by playing shoddy defense, giving up 1.12 points per possession to Missouri in an 89-86 OT defeat. No, the impressive aspect of the Jayhawk D, the Mizzou loss notwithstanding, is precisely that it was superb against the good teams.

So, yes, Kansas really did have a great defense....But they tanked in the tournament, losing to Bradley in the first round 77-73. How could this have happened? And doesn't it show that defense isn't everything? Let's just say the Jayhawks tanked at the intersection of Justice Street and Fluke Avenue.

The justice: KU's perimeter FG defense all season long was merely mortal--on a team where just about every other aspect of the defense was superhuman. And, lo and behold, the Jayhawks were knocked out of the tournament by an opponent that made 11 of 21 threes.

The fluke: the Kansas game notwithstanding, Bradley rarely shot threes last year--which was a sound strategy because their 3FG pct. was a lowly 33.6. But the stars aligned for the Braves in this game. KU was torched by Marcellus Sommerville in particular, who made 5-of-9 threes against the Jayhawks despite hitting just 36 percent of his threes overall last season.

Lesson: Even one of the best defenses in the country can be struck down in a flash by a precocious run of threes--especially if the perimeter FG defense is nothing special to start with.

Defense won the national championship for Florida
Well, not literally. I just wanted to toss around a pointedly provocative "offense wins championships"-style word-choice for once. (Wow, feels good!) Still, this much is true....

In their six-game run to the national championship, Florida's offense was a little better than it had been during the regular season in the SEC:

Points per possession (PPP)
SEC regular season: 1.10
NCAA Tournament: 1.14

But their defense, somehow, went to a whole new (virtually Kansas-esque) level:

Opponent PPP
SEC regular season: 1.00
NCAA Tournament: 0.89

So Florida had an excellent offense all year long, including and especially in the tournament. Make no mistake, they needed that offense to do what they did. But at the same time it's fair to say that defense transformed the Gators from a very good offensive team into a national champion. (A national champion, I might add, that everyone agreed in retrospect was the best team--but that no one saw coming.)

Lesson: Speaking literally, offense and defense are equivalent factors. A team needs both to go anywhere.

"But, Wonk, what can I do about DAD? I'm just one fan...."
What can you do? Plenty!

1. Act locally. Is your team losing games? Banish meaningless drivel about "toughness" or "discipline" from your sight! Call things by their proper names. Does your team's defense fill you with Edvard Munch-level horror? Then say: "My team's defense fills me with Edvard Munch-level horror." You'll feel better--and your team's coach will compliment you on your hoops savvy!

2. Make a point of publicly mocking commentators who are baffled by the struggles of "athletic" teams. Here's an exhaustively researched and empirically unassailable statement: eleventy-gillion times out of a gazillion, an "athletic" team that's losing games is playing bad D.

3. Help stamp out the mistaken belief that good defense means slow games. Defense doesn't slow games. Certain systems of offense named after certain Ivy League schools do. (OK, with an asterisk: my current thinking is that, with the notable exception of last year's Washington Huskies, being good at defensive rebounding may slow you down a little. The team that fit this profile best last year--good defensive rebounding, slow games--was perhaps St. John's. Aside from the Red Storm, however, the slowest major-conference teams--I'm looking at you, Georgetown, Northwestern, South Florida, and Washington State--were not particularly good defensive rebounding teams.)

And there you have it: a program of action, as it were. I'm looking into ordering "DAD'S ALWAYS WRONG" bumper stickers, oven mitts, commemorative plates, and other collateral materials, but for now....

Astute and dedicated DAD-fighting readers, Wonk salutes you!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Coming soon! The alphabetically-sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each and every Big Ten team begin tomorrow. (Official 11-day motto: "Wildly varying levels of readership since 2005.") So here's a preview of the first preview, written up, naturally, in movie-preview English (MPE)....

In a world without Naismith finalists, where not living up to yesterday means you'll be dead by tomorrow, one man decided to fight back and learned that sometimes to get a call from Ed Hightower you've got to make a call to a higher power. See Bruce Weber in Illinois 2007: To Catch a Chief.

More on the way:

Friday: Indiana
Monday, Nov, 6: Iowa
Tuesday, Nov. 7: Michigan
Wednesday, Nov. 8: Michigan State
Thursday, Nov. 9: Minnesota
Friday, Nov. 10: Northwestern
Monday, Nov. 13: Ohio State
Tuesday, Nov. 14: Penn State
Wednesday, Nov. 15: Purdue
Thursday, November 16: Wisconsin

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