NCAA Tournament Bracket Tips: Does Having the No. 1 Defense Guarantee Success in March?

Virginia made history last March when the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Not only were they the No. 1 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the ‘Hoos also entered the NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country.

Opponents scored an average of just 84.37 points per 100 possessions against Virginia, adjusted based on competition, according to kenpom.com. The Cavaliers’ games had an average of 59.4 possessions last season, which was roughly nine fewer than the national average, and opponents averaged just 54 points per game.

While Virginia’s first-round upset as a No. 1 seed was unprecedented, a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament by the country’s most efficient defense wasn’t.

Since the 2002 season (the first year of kenpom.com), the team with the No. 1 pre-NCAA Tournament adjusted defensive efficiency has lost in the first round of the tournament in four of the 17 seasons.

[RELATED: Does Having the No. 1 Offense in the Country Lead to Tournament Success?]

The team with the most efficient defense missed the NCAA Tournament altogether two other times and Louisville enacted a self-imposed ban in 2016 that resulted in the Cardinals not competing in postseason play three years ago.

In advance of the NCAA Tournament, we examined how the teams with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency have fared during March Madness.

There’s an old adage that “defense wins championships,” but to what extent is that actually true?

In the 17 seasons of the kenpom.com era, the team with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency prior to the NCAA Tournament has cut down the nets just once. That was in 2013 when Louisville won the national championship, which has since been vacated.

NCAA Tournament Finish Number of Teams
Won national championship 1*
Lost in national championship 1**
Lost in Final Four 1
Lost in Elite Eight 2
Lost in Sweet 16 2
Lost in second round 3
Lost in first round 4
Missed NCAA Tournament 2
Self-imposed postseason ban 1

*Louisville’s 2013 national championship has been vacated

**Memphis’ 2008 national runner-up finish has been vacated

Since 2002, the teams that have entered Selection Sunday with the No. 1 defense have fared worse than the teams with the No. 1 offense. The team with the top offense has won the national championship three times and missed the NCAA Tournament just once in the last 17 years, compared to the team with the best defense having won just one national championship and missing the tournament twice.

Texas Tech recently reclaimed the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency ranking on kenpom.com and the Red Raiders are right in the hunt in the top of the Big 12 standings.

Similarly to how a team better have a top-30 defense to maximize its potential with a No. 1 offense, teams that have the No. 1 defense better have a competent offense. On the morning on Feb. 13, Texas Tech’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranked 110th in the country. On Monday, the Red Raiders had climbed up to No. 47, in large part because of their 49 percent three-point shooting (50-of-102) in their last four wins.

The data table below shows why that’s encouraging for Texas Tech, assuming the Red Raiders continue defending at an elite level, because the five previous teams during the kenpom.com era that had an adjusted offensive efficiency ranking outside of the top 50 on Selection Sunday didn’t make it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Season School With No. 1 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Pre-NCAA Tournament Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Ranking NCAA Tournament Finish
2015 Kentucky No. 6 Lost in Final Four
2002 Cincinnati No. 7 Lost in second round
2013 Louisville No. 17 Won national championship
2012 Michigan State No. 17 Lost in Sweet 16
2011 Texas No. 20 Lost in second round
2018 Virginia No. 21 Lost in first round
2014 Arizona No. 24 Lost in Elite Eight
2008 Memphis No. 25 Lost in national championship
2007 Kansas No. 29 Lost in Elite Eight
2017 Virginia No. 38 Lost in second round
2016 Louisville No. 42 Self-imposed postseason ban
2009 Memphis No. 49 Lost in Sweet 16
2003 Mississippi State No. 66 Lost in first round
2004 Louisville No. 94 Lost in first round
2006 Iowa No. 145 Lost in first round
2005 Washington State No. 261 Missed NCAA Tournament
2010 USC No. 262 Missed NCAA Tournament

 

Having the most efficient defense in the country doesn’t guarantee NCAA Tournament success, let alone an NCAA Tournament berth. As shown in the data table above, Washington State and USC had the best defense in the country during their respective seasons (2005 & 2010) but each school had a woefully bad offense.

Having a top-50(ish) offense to pair with the No. 1 defense is critical if a school is going to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.

Similar to our findings that a school with the No. 1 offense probably needs to have a top-30 defense in order to make a deep run in the tournament, the inverse is also true. A team with the No. 1 defense better have a top-30 offense if it’s going to make it to the Elite Eight or beyond.

However, there’s a larger variance in NCAA Tournament success among teams that pair the No. 1 defense with a respectable offense as compared to the opposite pairing.

Nine of the 17 teams listed above had a top-30 offense:

  • One won the national championship
  • One lost in the national championship
  • One lost in the Final Four
  • Two lost in the Elite Eight
  • One lost in the Sweet 16
  • Two lost in the second round
  • One lost in the first round

 

When analyzing the nine teams that had the No. 1 offense and a top-30 defense, eight advanced to at least the Sweet 16, four made it to the Final Four, three played for a national title and two of them won a championship.

There’s a similar range of outcomes when looking at teams that entered the NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency and a No. 1 seed.

No. 1 Seed With No. 1 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency NCAA Tournament Finish
2013 Louisville Won national championship
2008 Memphis Lost in national championship
2015 Kentucky Lost in Final Four
2014 Arizona Lost in Elite Eight
2007 Kansas Lost in Elite Eight
2012 Michigan State Lost in Sweet 16
2002 Cincinnati Lost in second round
2018 Virginia Lost in first round

 

The six teams that made the NCAA Tournament but earned a seed lower than a No. 1 seed combined for just four wins in the tournament and only Memphis in 2009 advanced past the first weekend.

Season Team Seed NCAA Tournament Finish
2009 Memphis No. 2 seed Lost in Sweet 16
2011 Texas No. 4 seed Lost in second round
2017 Virginia No. 5 seed Lost in second round
2006 Iowa No. 3 seed Lost in first round
2003 Mississippi State No. 5 seed Lost in first round
2004 Louisville No. 10 seed Lost in first round

 

Fourteen of the 17 teams examined made the NCAA Tournament. Half of them lost in the first weekend and 11 of the 14 lost prior to the Final Four, so if you’re wondering how far the team with the No. 1 defense in the country should advance in your NCAA Tournament bracket, recent history says there’s a 50 percent chance it’ll lose in the first weekend and most likely before the final weekend of the season.

MORE: 2019 NCAA Tournament Schedule, Dates, Locations