“Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest axioms in sports. We hear it every year in every sport as the postseason approaches, and I’m not here to argue the merit of this belief. Oftentimes, an elite defense proves to be a key component for whichever team reaches the ultimate goal. In the NBA, analytical studies from Harvard bare out that elite offense matters slightly more than elite defense, and basketball bettors lean that way as well. However, at least in college basketball, a top-level defense has become more of a compliment to an offense that runs like a finely-tuned car than the determining factor in crowning a champion.
In the KenPom era (since 2002) 11 of the 17 national championship winners had an offense rated better than its defense. Only three of the last 17 champions finished outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency, while seven were 11 or worse defensively. Four of our last five title winners ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, and three of those four finished top three. Only two were ranked in the top 10 defensively.
Again, this isn’t to discredit the importance of defense to reaching the top of the mountain. Instead, it’s to highlight the fact that when considering the viability of a college basketball team’s championship aspirations, perhaps it’s more prudent to start with the offense.
This bears itself out in our weekly college hoops power rankings, as seven of the 10 teams that have been consistently in our top 10 also boast top 10 offenses. Two of the three just barely missed the mark - checking in at 11 and 12 - while only Michigan (26th offensively) has been led exclusively by an elite defense.
As conference play gets underway and football winds down, many casual fans will turn more of their attention to college hoops and start to think about filling out their brackets come March. It may be wise to fight the instinct to pencil in the stingiest defenses and instead focus on the well-oiled machines offensively.
Obviously the deciding of a sport’s champion is much more complicated than simply looking at offensive and defensive rankings, and we’ll dig into to all of that when the time comes while continuing to look at the trends mentioned above. Still, the data is there to support our theory that offense trumps defense on the college hardwood, and we encourage you to keep this in mind as you watch the rest of the season play out.
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