Does defense win championships? Not in March.
After comparing nine years of offensive and defensive performance to NCAA tournament success to see which matters more, the winner was clear: offense.
To do this, we looked at two key stats for every Division I team this decade: the team’s offensive rating, and the offensive rating of its opponents.
Put simply, offensive rating is a measure of how many points a team would score in 100 possessions.
So, in the past decade, which teams lead in each category?
In offense, it’s Duke. The Blue Devils have an average offensive rating of 116.33, markedly higher than the Division I average of 103.02. While the Blue Devils have never led the country in offensive ranking this decade, they have been in the top 10 in seven years, and never worse than 16, leading to an average ranking of 7.3, almost twice as good as the next best team (Saint Mary’s, at 14). That’s consistency.
|Rk||School||AvG ORtg||AvG ORtg rk||NCAAT wins since '10|
|2||Saint Mary's (CA)||115.61||14.00||3|
On the defensive end, it’s a toss-up for the top team since 2010. On one hand, Stephen F. Austin leads Division I with an average rating of 91.62 — miles ahead of the Division I average of 101.79. But San Diego State has had the most consistently high-ranked defenses, with an average ranking of 19.9.
|Rk||SCHOOL||AvG Opp. ORtg||AvG Opp. ORtg rk||NCAAT wins since '10|
|1||Stephen F. Austin||91.62||20.78||2|
|2||San Diego State||92.27||19.89||6|
|8||North Carolina Central||94.53||64.75||0|
But how does that translate to performance in the NCAA tournament?
Looking at the teams that lead each category should give you some clue. Behind Kentucky’s 28, Duke has the most NCAA tournament wins since 2010 with 23. Stephen F. Austin and San Diego State combine for just eight.
But are those outliers, or marks of a trend? Do the strongest offensive teams have more NCAA tournament success than the strongest defensive teams?
To answer that, we turned to correlation coefficients, which help measure the relationship between two sets of numbers, showing how closely trends in one set match trends in another. For our purposes, those sets were offensive rating/opponent offensive rating and NCAA tournament wins since 2010.
Again, the data here favored offenses, showing that in terms of NCAA tournament success, a team’s performance in offensive rating was approximately 50 percent more important than its performance in opponent offensive rating.
We can see this more simply if we look at all Final Four teams this decade.
The average Final Four team’s offense ranks around No. 39 in the country, and their defense near No. 55. If we focus on national champions, those numbers get even better, at approximately No. 21 for offenses and No. 42 for defenses.
|Year||Team||ORtg (rank)||Opp. ORtg (rank)||Result|
|2010||Duke||115.7 (7)||91.7 (14)||Champion|
|2010||West Virginia||111.4 (23)||97.7 (99)||Lost in Final Four|
|2010||Michigan State||108.7 (50)||96.5 (66)||Lost in Final Four|
|2010||Butler||106.8 (78)||92.4 (18)||Runner up|
|2011||Connecticut||109.2 (43)||97.8 (87)||Champion|
|2011||Virginia Commonwealth||108.3 (54)||101.1 (171)||Lost in Final Four|
|2011||Kentucky||112.8 (14)||95.6 (44)||Lost in Final Four|
|2011||Butler||109 (45)||98.1 (96)||Runner up|
|2012||Kentucky||116.5 (4)||91.2 (14)||Champion|
|2012||Ohio State||111.6 (18)||89.4 (5)||Lost in Final Four|
|2012||Kansas||108.8 (41)||91.4 (16)||Runner up|
|2013||Wichita State||107.5 (49)||94.3 (50)||Lost in Final Four|
|2013||Syracuse||107.3 (53)||89.4 (10)||Lost in Final Four|
|2013||Michigan||116.1 (3)||97.7 (116)||Runner up|
|2014||Connecticut||108.9 (87)||95.9 (24)||Champion|
|2014||Florida||111.1 (63)||91.8 (10)||Lost in Final Four|
|2014||Wisconsin||115.7 (13)||100.7 (94)||Runner up|
|2014||Kentucky||112.4 (43)||100.1 (78)||Runner up|
|2015||Duke||119.4 (4)||96.7 (64)||Champion|
|2015||Wisconsin||121.1 (1)||97.2 (82)||Lost in Final Four|
|2015||Michigan State||109.7 (46)||98.2 (93)||Lost in Final Four|
|2015||Kentucky||115.5 (11)||84.4 (1)||Lost in Final Four|
|2016||Villanova||115.4 (9)||94.2 (15)||Champion|
|2016||Oklahoma||111 (48)||99 (84)||Lost in Final Four|
|2016||Syracuse||106.7 (120)||99.3 (90)||Lost in Final Four|
|2016||North Carolina||118 (4)||99.8 (100)||Runner up|
|2017||North Carolina||116 (10)||97 (48)||Champion|
|2017||Oregon||114.2 (15)||95.2 (24)||Lost in Final Four|
|2017||South Carolina||102.9 (197)||91.8 (4)||Lost in Final Four|
|2017||Gonzaga||116.4 (9)||86.7 (1)||Runner up|
|2018||Villanova||122.2 (1)||99.1 (69)||Champion|
|2018||Loyola (IL)||108.4 (97)||94.7 (12)||Lost in Final Four|
|2018||Kansas||115.3 (14)||101.9 (148)||Lost in Final Four|
|2018||Michigan||110.8 (56)||95.3 (17)||Runner up|
*Louisville's appearances in 2012 and 2013 were later vacated.
All combined, the numbers from the past nine years show an overwhelming trend — offense matters more in March.