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Joe Boozell | | March 2, 2017

What happens when great offenses face great defenses?

  Virginia held high-flying North Carolina to 43 points on Monday night.

You’ve heard both clichés. Defense wins championships. Great offense beats great defense.

So which is it? Truth is, there’s more than one way to win a title. Both ends of the floor are crucial.

But, really. In head-to-head matchups between lethal offenses and stingy defenses, which style prevails most often?

We look at some examples:

Virginia (1st in defense) vs. North Carolina (4th in offense)

Game 1, Feb. 18: North Carolina 65, Virginia 41
Game 2, Feb. 27: Virginia 53, North Carolina 43

It’s reasonable to think that two top 5 units sharing the court would produce some beautiful, high-quality basketball.

Anyone who watched these games would reject that notion. These battles were ugly. The Tar Heels’ win had more to do with the Hoos’ offensive ineptitude than blowing the lids off of Virginia’s top-ranked defense.

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With a split, there’s not much we can glean from which side of the floor is more important. But if nothing else, Virginia forced North Carolina to play its style; UNC scored 43 points in the loss, and even in the win, the Heels scored 20 points less than their average. The Cavaliers lost the game, but the defense wasn’t the culprit.  

Louisville (7th in defense) vs. North Carolina (4th in offense)

Feb. 22: North Carolina 74, Lousiville 63

North Carolina won its only matchup against Louisville by 11, and put up a lot of points despite shooting 37 percent. The difference: Justin Jackson is a Tar Heel, and on that night, there was no stopping him.

Jackson drained 4-of-9 3s en route to 21 points against the Cardinals, and the Louisville interior trees couldn’t faze him – mostly because he didn’t challenge them. Jackson did most of his damage from the perimeter. Louisville has an excellent defensive scheme – Rick Pitino’s matchup zone gives opponents fits, and easy buckets are few and far between against the Cards.

The problem? Jackson’s buckets weren’t easy, but they count just the same. Louisville doesn’t have a lockdown perimeter specialist on its roster, so when a star player like Jackson is rolling from deep, there’s no clear answer.  

South Carolina (2nd in defense) vs. Kentucky (13th in offense)

Jan. 21: Kentucky 85, South Carolina 69

Kentucky won at Rupp Arena with the Malik Monk Show in full effect. Monk scored 27 points on 14 shots and canned four 3s. The Gamecocks are excellent defensively, and it’s not as if the Kentucky super-freshman was getting open layup after open layup.

Against a player like Monk, even good defense sometimes doesn't work. His game defies norms.

It's no wonder that Monk and the Wildcats cruised against South Carolina. He thrives in big situations against outstanding defenders. Playing against Frank Martin’s defense is a chore, but transcendent players can’t be bothered.

Florida (4th in defense) vs. Kentucky (13th in offense)

Game 1, Feb. 4: Florida 88, Kentucky 66
Game 2, Feb. 25: Kentucky 76, Florida 66

Florida got Monk’d Saturday. He was in one of his 30-point half zones, and once again eviscerated the Gators with an array of step-back, contested jumpers that were virtually unguardable. Florida has good perimeter defenders in Devin Robinson and KeVaughn Allen. They had no chance.  

DI Men's Basketball: Kentucky dominates South Carolina

A few weeks earlier, the Gators had their way with the Wildcats. Monk went 4-for-14 with 11 points. Based on Monk’s affinity for contested jumpers, the type of defense he sees appears to affect his performance about as much as what he eats for breakfast. Kentucky’s offense is good, but that’s mostly because Monk is great. When he’s not, neither is Kentucky. Among national title contenders, no team is more reliant on one player.

Georgia Tech (5th in defense) vs. Duke (9th in offense)

Jan. 4: Duke 110, Georgia Tech 57

Georgia Tech has a top-five defense and the 266th-ranked offense. Say what you want about Josh Pastner, but he has the Yellow Jackets going all out. The talent may be suspect, but the effort is not.

Duke smoked Georgia Tech by hitting 16 of 31 3s, with seven guys scoring in double-figures. It was never a figh.

Georgia Tech (5th in defense) vs. North Carolina (4th in offense)

Dec. 31: Georgia Tech 75, North Carolina 63

Georgia Tech stunned UNC on New Year's Eve. At the time it felt like one of the most shocking results of the season. The Yellow Jackets packed the paint and it worked. North Carolina went 5-for-26 from 3, including a combined 9-for-30 dud from Jackson and Joel Berry. The Heels turned the ball over 20 times in the Tech win.

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Here’s what we can take away from these games: When one player is rolling (particularly from the outside, where success has much more to do with the individual than the defense he’s seeing), what the opposition does isn’t particularly important. If a Justin Jackson or a Malik Monk is going to pull up from 30 feet and gets buckets, more power to them. College basketball defenses aren’t geared to stop that.

But as good as Jackson and Monk are, it’s not as if they’re “on” all the time. Or even most of the time. These results prove as much. In no world, not this year, should Georgia Tech beat North Carolina by double digits. The Virginia defense is great, but it's not so great it should hold UNC to 43 points.

At the very least, a top-notch defense gives a team a chance to compete. It’s like having a starting pitcher that gives you a minimum of seven innings of three-run ball every outing. If the opposing starter hurls a shutout, tip your cap. In most cases, great offense does beat great defense. But great offense is much harder to replicate than great defense, so the latter ensures your team has a higher floor.

Anyone else excited for a UCLA vs. Virginia NCAA tournament matchup? Same here. March Madness provides a bevy of intriguing games we don’t get to see during the regular season. The contrasting styles is part of what makes this such a fun time of the year.

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