Defense a top priority, strength for teams this year in college basketball
And now, with Christmas coming, the sound of the season.
That would be errant jump shots making rims rattle, coast to coast. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, gee, the defense is terrific. Through last weekend, 53 Division I teams were allowing less than 60 points a game. Or is it lousy offense? Or both?
Probably the latter, but there seems little doubt we are seeing what happens when those who guard the basket are big and quick and resolute. It ain’t pretty. Getting to the rim can be like trying to crack a Las Vegas casino vault. And we know just where to look first, don’t we?
Kentucky is not flirting with greatness because of its offense. It's because its opponents are scoring only 47.7 points a game, shooting only 30 percent and are often reminding you of deer caught in the headlights.
But then, it has been that kind of season in lots of places.
Harvard needed nearly 24 minutes to hit double figures against Virginia. It took Savannah State 16 minutes to score a point against Louisville.
Texas held its first seven opponents under 60. That hasn’t happened since 1950. The Longhorns gave up only 27 points to Texas State, the lowest since 1946, when Texas played the Houston YMCA.
Wyoming beat Colorado 56-33 in October, the lowest output for the Buffaloes in a game since 1949.
Auburn lost to Tulsa 53-35 in November. The Tigers football team topped that point total seven times this season. “People are going to look at the score,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said that day, “and think it’s halftime.”
Loyola Maryland beat UMBC 45-38 earlier in the season in a game where 104 shots were taken and 85 were missed. There were only 19 field goals, but 38 turnovers. It was the lowest point total Loyola had allowed since 1950.
American has held six opponents under 50 points. That’s how the Eagles could be 349th out of 351 teams in the nation in scoring, but still own a 7-4 record.
CSU Bakersfield missed its first 20 shots in a 51-27 loss to San Diego State on Nov. 20. It was the fewest points the Aztecs had ever allowed as a Division I school. Seventeen days later, San Diego State set another school record -- scoring only 36 points against Washington.
Some of it must be bad execution, bad shooting, bad everything by the offense. But as CSU Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes said after his team managed 27 points against San Diego State, “That was some of us, but most of them.”
Defense, allowing only 33.8 percent shooting, is why Washington is 10-0. And why Wyoming, holding eight opponents under 50 points, is 10-2 and a contender in the Mountain West. The Cowboys somehow are able to stifle the opposition while averaging 13.7 fouls a game.
Defense is why Virginia must be taken very seriously in the ACC. The Cavaliers have held 17 consecutive opponents under 70 points. The meager 27 given to Harvard wasn’t even the low for the season. They gave Rutgers 26.
The Virginia players watched how Kentucky held UCLA to three field goals in the first half Saturday, and decided, according to center Mike Tobey, “That was something that we wanted to do, too.” So they allowed one Harvard field goal in the first half Sunday.
Defense is why 10-1 Texas is getting away with making 4.5 more turnovers a game than the opposition. “If I was on a smaller team,” Longhorn Cameron Ridley said, “I’d be intimidated to look at a lineup with four guys over [6-foot-8].”
Defense is what’s pushing VCU back toward the rankings after dropping out. Havoc had sprung a leak; still forcing turnovers in bunches but giving up too many easy shots. As late as last week, the Rams were last in the Atlantic 10 in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage. VCU? Then coach Shaka Smart redirected some efforts and his team held Belmont to 51 points and Cincinnati to 47.
VCU has often made its vaunted defense look automatic. It’s not automatic.
“We’re coaching human beings. They’re not mechanical robots,” Smart said. “The reality is people vary from game to game, so it’s our job to try to get the guys in a place where mentally and physically we’re able to fly around and do the things we do.
“Where you are is where you are. So we need to grow and I think we have shown some growth. We have a long way to go.”
But the epicenter of what defense means is Lexington, Kentucky, where the numbers have gone from impressive to stunning to frightening.
Of every 20 shots taken against Kentucky, only six go in and three are blocked. The Wildcats have only 14 fewer free throws for the season than their opponents have field goals. They have held 10 of their 12 opponents to season lows, and have allowed more than 52 points only twice.
Bluebloods are not exempt. UCLA managed seven points in the first half against Kentucky; Kansas only 12 points in the second half.
John Calipari is studiously looking for flaws to keep his team hungry. “We are the worst defensive rebounding tall team in the history of basketball,” he said. But if the defensive scoring average holds up, it’ll be the lowest for Kentucky since 1948-49.
And the fear among the rest of the college basketball world should be that it might. We are seeing what happens when a team has size, quickness, depth and fire. Anyone can guard anyone. The perfect defensive storm.
UCLA coach Steve Alford studied at the knee of defensive deity: Bob Knight at Indiana. “I think that was always his dream, that he could get five guys 6-7 or 6-8, and just switch everything,” Alford said, after he had just endured an 83-44 shellacking.
“I really think this is a team that if you guard them well and they score 50 points and shoot 20 percent from the field, they still beat you because they hold you to 35.”
Not many college basketball teams can storm the record books with nobody on the team averaging 11 points a game, but Kentucky might. Behold, the power of defense.
More will be known after this Saturday’s newest Bluegrass Armageddon, when the Wildcats and Louisville compare unbeaten records. The Cardinals recently gave up 59 points -- in two games. So it’s a perfect match for what this season has been.
If you want offense, go to Duke.