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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | March 15, 2018

Virginia has the top-ranked defense in the NCAA tournament, so you shouldn't pick them to win

If you decided to auto-pick your bracket this year, you’d end up with No. 1 overall seed Virginia as your champion.

Be smarter than the auto-pick.

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
Virginia has received lots of (warranted) praise for its defense. Sports Reference’s Defensive Simple Rating System, which ranks teams based on a combination of average point differential and strength of schedule, has the Cavaliers as the best defense in the country.

If history tells us anything, that’s enough reason not to pick them to win the championship.

In the 33-year history of the modern NCAA tournament, no team that has finished with the top DSRS has ever reached the national championship game, and only one has ever been to the Final Four.

What’s more, 24 of the 33 either did not make the tournament, or lost in the first two rounds.

NCAA tournament result Count
DNP 8
Lost in First Round 9
Lost in Second Round 7
Lost in Sweet 16 6
Lost in Elite Eight 3
Lost in Final Four 1

 

On average, teams that finish as the No. 1 DSRS team and make the NCAA tournament win just 1.2 games per tournament, which translates to a loss in the second round.

To be fair, of the 33, few have been ranked as high overall as Virginia. The average seed is just under a 6, and only two others have been a one seed. But who were those two? Both Virginia, of course. In 2014 the 1-seed Cavaliers lost to 4-seed Michigan State 61-59 in the Sweet 16. In 2016, Virginia fell to 10-seed Syracuse 68-62 in the Elite Eight.

Here’s how every one of the past top-ranked defensive teams fared:

Year School NCAAT Seed NCAA touranment result Conf Record PPG Opp PPG DSRS
1985 Illinois 3 Lost regional semifinal Big Ten 26-9 68.9 57.2 16.97
1986 Illinois 4 Lost second round Big Ten 22-10 72.8 61.2 13.92
1987 Notre Dame 5 Lost regional semifinal Ind 24-8 65.1 59.4 17.17
1988 Colorado St. DNP DNP WAC 22-13 62.9 57.3 16.7
1988 Ga. Southern DNP DNP A-Sun 24-7 63.9 55.6 16.7
1989 Saint Mary's 8 Lost first round WCAC 25-5 76.1 57.6 18.64
1990 Princeton 13 Lost first round Ivy 20-7 62.6 51 20.41
1991 Princeton 8 Lost first round Ivy 24-3 62.4 48.9 24.34
1992 Princeton 11 Lost first round Ivy 22-6 59 48.2 22.78
1993 Cincinnati 2 Lost regional final GMWC 27-5 74.5 58.5 17.74
1994 Temple 4 Lost second round A-10 23-8 63.8 54.7 23.02
1995 Temple 10 Lost first round A-10 19-11 62.7 59.7 19.72
1996 Temple 7 Lost second round A-10 20-13 60 58.2 18.23
1997 NC State DNP DNP ACC 17-15 59.8 54.7 19.77
1998 S. Alabama 12 Lost first round Sun Belt 21-7 65 54.5 15.34
1999 Wisconsin 5 Lost first round Big Ten 22-10 62.1 55.2 18.02
2000 Wisconsin 8 Lost national semifinal Big Ten 22-14 59.9 55.8 19.95
2001 Wisconsin 6 Lost first round Big Ten 18-11 59.4 56.6 20.14
2002 S. Carolina DNP DNP SEC 22-15 68.3 61.6 15.16
2003 Air Force DNP DNP MWC 12-16 57.3 57 14.87
2004 Air Force 11 Lost first round MWC 22-7 59.9 50.9 18.54
2005 Wash St. DNP DNP Pac-10 12-16 55.9 56.9 18.26
2006 Wash St. DNP DNP Pac-10 12-16 55.9 56.9 18.26
2007 Michigan St. 9 Lost second round Big Ten 23-12 65 57.2 15.3
2008 Wisconsin 3 Lost regional semifinal Big Ten 31-5 67.3 54.4 16.76
2009 Wash St. DNP DNP Pac-10 17-16 59.2 55.4 17.51
2010 Wisconsin 4 Lost second round Big Ten 24-9 67.1 56.9 15.54
2011 Wisconsin 4 Lost regional semifinal Big Ten 25-9 67.9 58.6 14.52
2012 Wisconsin 4 Lost regional semifinal Big Ten 26-10 64 53.2 18.47
2013 Florida 3 Lost regional final SEC 29-8 71.4 54.4 15.95
2014 Virginia 1 Lost regional semifinal ACC 30-7 66.2 55.7 17.76
2015 Virginia 2 Lost second round ACC 30-4 65.4 51.5 19.6
2016 Virginia 1 Lost regional final ACC 29-8 71 60.1 17.92
2017 Virginia 5 Lost second round ACC 23-11 66.1 56.4 22.12
2018 Virginia 1 ? ACC 31-2 67.5 53.4 25.02

Okay, so it's pretty clear that the top-ranked DSRS teams don't fare well as a whole in the NCAA tournament. But that doesn't necessarily mean that national champions aren't good defensive teams.

So, how exactly did past national champions rank in DSRS?

Not bad, but not great either. The average ranking is 38.2, and only six ranked inside the top 10.

North Carolina in 2009 proved as well as anyone that defense doesn't win championships (by itself). The Tar Heels allowed 72 points per game that season, but still outscored their opponents by an average of 17.8 points per game. Their DSRS was ranked 132 — the lowest ever for a champion.

Here's how all past champions ranked:

Year Team DSRS DSRS Rank PPG OPPG
2017 North Carolina 7.91 47 84.4 70.6
2016 Villanova 14.17 4 78 63.6
2015 Duke 7.69 33 79.3 64.2
2014 Connecticut 11.93 11 71.8 63.2
2013 Louisville 12.04 9 74.5 58.8
2012 Kentucky 10.75 11 77.4 60.6
2011 Connecticut 8.72 26 72.4 64.9
2010 Duke 12.04 6 77 61
2009 North Carolina 1.6 132 89.8 72
2008 Kansas 11.99 5 80.5 61.5
2007 Florida 10.15 20 79.8 62.6
2006 Florida 9.8 16 76.2 63.1
2005 North Carolina 4.9 70 88 70.3
2004 Connecticut 8.47 30 78.8 63.9
2003 Syracuse 4.75 68 79.6 69.6
2002 Maryland 5.3 61 85 70.9
2001 Duke 7.72 39 90.7 70.5
2000 Michigan State 14.97 3 74.1 58.9
1999 Connecticut 13.12 9 77.3 61.3
1998 Kentucky 9.53 19 80.1 67
1997 Arizona 4.01 89 83.9 73.3
1996 Kentucky 7.54 44 91.4 69.4
1995 UCLA 7.28 47 87.5 73.9
1994 Arkansas 3.71 93 93.4 75.6
1993 North Carolina 11.83 13 86.1 68.3
1992 Duke 6.52 63 88 72.6
1991 Duke 9.49 30 87.7 73.4
1990 UNLV 3.44 97 93.5 78.5
1989 Michigan 7.79 50 91.7 74.8
1988 Kansas 13.17 11 75.3 67.9
1987 Indiana 6.81 50 82.5 70.9
1986 Louisville 7.61 33 79.4 69.1
1985 Villanova 8.95 21 68.7 63.9