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Does Defense Really Win. . . Championships?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff


Everyone agrees that defense in an important aspect of college basketball. Everyone has heard the saying over and over: Defense wins championships.

"I think it's really important to be a good defensive team, where everybody's doing the same thing," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "There are going to be nights where the other team is going to shut you down, too, and so the only chance you have to win that game is if you're playing good defense. That's why you try to bring that every game."

Fair enough. But if defense is so important, why don't fans talk about it more often? If defense is so crucial, why do basketball observers have such a hard time quantifying it, especially as compared to offensive accomplishments?

One more thing: Who are the best defenders in the ACC today and in league history, and how exactly should their greatness be measured?


By Al Featherston

February 26, 2008

What is the greatest basketball play you've ever seen?

Chances are, if you grew up in the ESPN era, it's something that has been played and re-played by the sports network a few million times.

It might be Christian Laettner's last-second shot to lift Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, or Lorenzo Charles' stunning slam follow of Derek Whittenburg's airball to carry N.C. State past Houston in the 1983 national championship game.

It might be one of Michael Jordan's many game-winners — maybe his jumper to help North Carolina beat Georgetown in the 1982 title game, or his stop-and-pop to get Chicago past Utah for his sixth NBA title. Or it might be the time Jordan hung in mid-air as he started to go up with the ball in his right hand, but switched it to his left for a gravity-defying dunk.


Whatever the play that impressed you most, the odds are very good that it was an offensive play.

Those are the sequences that get re-played ad infinitum on ESPN. Even when the network dips back into old-school mode — as it has done recently, in a promo that features a particularly memorable drive and dunk by Dr. J — the highlights almost always feature somebody scoring in a spectacular manner.

However, the greatest play I ever saw has never, to my knowledge, been shown on ESPN. For one thing, the only existing film record of the play is in black and white, and ESPN hates showing anything in black and white. More importantly, perhaps, it was a defensive play.

It occurred in the closing seconds of the seventh game of the 1957 NBA championship series. Boston, in the final for the first time ever, was down one with the ball. Rookie center Bill Russell took it at the foul line and drove the left side of the lane. As he galloped past the basket, he threw up a little left-handed shot — kind of a half-hook — over St. Louis center "Easy Ed" McCauley. The ball went in, giving the Celtics the lead.

But that's not the play I'm talking about.

As the ball went through the net, McCauley grabbed it. He quickly stepped out of bounds and rocketed a pass to teammate Jack Coleman, who already was deep in the backcourt. Coleman caught the ball to the left of the foul line extended, dribbled once, then took a long stride to the basket. He laid the ball up for what would have been the game- and title-winning basket.

Only the shot never reached the hoop. Out of nowhere, a black streak appeared and swatted the ball against the backboard.

It was Russell, making the greatest offensive-to-defensive transition play in basketball history.

Remember, as his go-ahead basket fell through the net, he was floating toward his own baseline. Somehow, in the time it took McCauley to throw a bullet pass 75-plus feet, and for Coleman to cover the last 15-20 feet to the basket, Russell reversed his course and covered 90-plus feet — passing eight other players along the way — to catch up with Coleman and block the potential game-winning shot away.

"I was trying to get to Coleman, and (Russell) went by me like he was the Roadrunner," Celtics player Tommy Heinsohn said. "It was the greatest play I've ever seen."

If SportsCenter had been in existence in 1957, I'm convinced that Russell's sprint and block would be burned into our memories like Laettner's basket to beat Kentucky or Jordan's final game-winner against the Jazz. We'd marvel at it as we marvel at Flutie's Hail Mary to Phelan or Montana's throw to Clark in the back of the end zone.

And it might serve to remind us that defense is at the very least as important a factor in victory as offense.


Pundits tell us all the time that "defense wins championships."

But do we really believe it?

"I think that for everybody — from players to when you're recruiting as a coach — the offense always attracts your attention first," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You see a great shooter or a guy who can really post up inside — that impresses you first. But when you get to the ACC level, there are a lot of good offensive players in the league.

"I think it's really important to be a good defensive team, where everybody's doing the same thing. There are going to be nights where the other team is going to shut you down, too, and so the only chance you have to win that game is if you're playing good defense. That's why you try to bring that every game."

Williams learned that lesson from his college coach, Bud Millikan, who in turn learned it from the ultimate guru of defensive basketball, Oklahoma A&M coach Henry Iba.

"Coach Millikan got his fundamentals from Dr. Iba," Williams said. "He taught us. You look at our team that played for Coach Millikan between ‘63 and '67. Joe Harrington became a head college coach. Terry Truax became a head college coach. Billy Franklin was a very successful high school coach for a long time. Billy Jones was at UMBC as head coach for 12 years."

And, of course, Williams himself became a national champion at Maryland.

"Very few teams ever have that many coaches," Williams said. "Coach Millikan was a great guy to play for, because you had to execute fundamentals or you weren't going to play. He really believed in a certain way to play defense."

Williams himself, an offensively challenged guard who averaged 4.5 points per game for his career, earned his playing time on the defensive end.

"I wasn't very good offensively, because my coach wouldn't let me shoot," Williams said. "That's my excuse, and I'm sticking with it. You either played good defense for Coach Millikan, or you weren't going to play. I was a ball-handler and a defensive player. I knew my limitations. I wanted to play."


Williams has taken that defensive mentality with him into coaching.

Mike Krzyzewski, the fabulously successful Duke coach, also was a low-scoring, defensive-oriented guard in his playing days. And Krzyzewski also was mentored by a famous defensive coach — man-to-man guru Bobby Knight.

Over the years, Krzyzewski stubbornly has clung to some version of his man-to-man defense, while Williams usually has preferred to play full-court pressure. But both coaches actually have shared the same basic defensive philosophy.

Confused? Don't be.

Too many fans get hung up over defensive tactics. They debate the merits of zone versus man-to-man defenses. But those distinctions are minor. The real defensive split is between two concepts — protect the basket, and attack the passing lanes.

"There are guys who have different philosophies," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "Who's to say what's right or what's wrong? We don't have those quick, athletic perimeter players like Clemson, those guys who can get out and really knock balls loose. Our guys are not that type of players.

"I believe with the kind of players we have , with the post players we have, we're more of a positioning defensive team. We play the percentages. Most big guys have a better shooting performance because they shoot closer to the basket. We want to take that away and make people shoot away from the basket."

It's natural to think that zone teams represent the "protect the basket" mode, while man-to-man implies defensive pressure. And while there's some validity in those assumptions, they're not always true.

John Wooden's great championship teams at UCLA used a full-court zone press to harass opponents all over the court. Terry Holland's tough Virginia teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s used a physical, man-to-man defense to defend close to the basket without pressuring the perimeter.

Currently, the ACC contains both types of defensive styles. North Carolina, Duke and Clemson all depend on pressure. Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College defend the basket. Maryland, usually a pressure team, is closer to the latter camp this season.

"In previous years, we've really been a good pressing team," Williams said. "Turnovers are a really big play, because a lot of times you score because the defense isn't set on the other team. We haven't been quite the pressing team this year, so we depend more on our drop-back defense. We've worked hard at that to be good."

Williams' team has succeeded. Through their Feb. 20 victory over Virginia Tech, the Terps had held 39 straight opponents under 50 percent shooting from the field.

That's an extremely impressive accomplishment. But it brings up another issue: How can we measure defensive success statistically?


Once upon a time — meaning about a decade ago — commentators were fond of lauding Princeton as the nation's best defensive team. After all, coach Pete Carril's Tigers annually led the nation in fewest pointsallowed.

Only recently have the "experts" caught up with what coaches have long understood: Points allowed is as much a function of tempo as defense. Teams that play slowly give up fewer points. That doesn't necessarily mean they are better defensively than teams that play quickly.

Legendary UNC coach Dean Smith always relied on a measure he called "points per possession." The stat is pretty self-explanatory. It measures a team's offensive and defensive efficiency independent of tempo. A team that allows 75 points in a 100-possession game would show up as a far more effective team than one that allowed 50 points in a 50-possession game.

"I used that (stat) for many years," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "You want to keep your opponent under a point per possession. The three-point shot has kind of screwed that system up. But I still like to keep the points per possession down to .85. Those are great numbers. But anywhere 1.0 or below is a good job."

Ken Pomeroy runs a website (kenpom.com) devoted to breaking college basketball down statistically. He's tweaked the old points per possession formula by factoring in the quality of offenses a team faces. His resulting "Adjusted Defensive (and Offensive) Efficiency Rating" provides a fascinating breakdown of a team's real strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, midway through January, when unbeaten North Carolina was ranked No. 1 and was being touted as a lock to make the Final Four, Pomeroy received a letter from a Tar Heel fan who suggested that UNC was on the same defensive trajectory as in 2005, when the team — according to the much-reported mythology of the time — substantially improved its defense as the season wore on, finally attaining a level good enough to win the national title.

Pomeroy explained that the 2005 Tar Heels actually were a pretty strong defensive team throughout the year, improving slightly from the eighth-best adjusted defense in the country at midseason to the sixth-best at the end.

He warned that 2008 was a different story. Midway through January, UNC's defensive efficiency was fluctuating between the high 30s and the low 40s nationally.

"Since I've been tracking adjusted defensive efficiency, the worst defense to make it to the Final Four was George Mason in 2006," Pomeroy wrote, noting that the Patriots ranked 23rd nationally entering NCAA play. "That's why I don't yet buy that UNC is part of a Fantastic Four that has separated itself from the rest of the country. They may get there, but until the defense improves, UNC is part of the rest."

At the time Pomeroy wrote those words, the Tar Heels already had survived a tough overtime game at Clemson. But still to come were a one-point win at Georgia Tech and a home loss to Maryland, with both games coming before point guard Ty Lawson's injury.

UNC was without its dynamic point guard when the Heels lost at home to Duke, a team that has ranked in Pomeroy's top 10 in defensive efficiency all season. Obviously, it's impossible to define how much of the Blue Devils' 89-78 victory was attributable to Lawson's absence and how much was a result of superior defense by Krzyzewski's team.

However, the postgame comments by the two coaches suggested that defense played a large role in the outcome.

"They got any shot they wanted," UNC's Roy Williams said. "I don't know very many times tonight our defense dictated what shot they got."

On the other hand, UNC shot 40.6 percent from the floor, committed 20 turnovers and missed 14 of 17 three-pointers. It's easy to attribute the latter to poor shooting luck (and normally deadly Wayne Ellington did miss some open looks), but it's no coincidence that Duke leads the ACC in three-point percentage defense and forces more turnovers than anybody else in the league.

"We have to defend that far out," Krzyzewski said. "For years, we've tried to defend the post by pressuring the perimeter. If we back off that, we'd get killed in the post."

Pomeroy has noted an interesting detail in the Carolina games that followed the Duke loss. Even as the Tar Heels struggled at times without Lawson, they improved defensively, climbing all the way to No. 21 nationally in defensive efficiency.

"That's good enough to make a title run," Pomeroy noted. "It's not yet at the level where you would expect a title run."

UNC's late-season defensive surge is probably not a reflection of Lawson's defensive ability, but of the team's growing understanding of the impact of consistent defensive play. With a healthy Lawson in the lineup, UNC might be the nation's most potent offensive team (Pomeroy has had the Heels ranked in the top three in offensive efficiency all season), and like Wake Forest in 2005, another great offensive team that often struggled defensively, the Tar Heels at times have tended to rely more on out-scoring opponents than out-stopping them.

With Lawson out, the Heels had to work harder on the defensive end to survive. However, Williams has insisted that his team's offense is best when the defense is clicking.

"How we defend others says a lot about how we're shooting," Williams said. "When we're really defending well, then we're getting something from the break, so we're not having to score against a set defense on every possession. I think that's the one thing that's a constant for us: When we play really well, our defense is pretty doggone good."

Going into the last week of February, Carolina was allowing more than 71 points per game, the 10th-best total in the ACC. But Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings had the Heels second-best in the ACC to Duke.

Was it a mere coincidence that the defensive efficiency rankings mirrored the conference standings?


Pomeroy acknowledges some flaws in his defensive efficiency ratings. It doesn't measure the rewards a pressing team gets for converting turnovers into easy baskets at the other end. He points out that the oft-quoted TV stat "Points Off Turnovers" is equally bogus.

"It's a garbage stat," he said. "Maybe if it were ‘Points Off Steals,' it would mean something."

The stat, as it is used today, treats a pass picked off and converted into a breakaway layup the same as a situation where a team is called for traveling and the other team throws it in, works 30 seconds for a shot, then scores in the post.

Both situations are counted as two "points off turnovers."

But what stats do mean something? Which stats do ACC coaches look at?

"If you are a pressing team, turnovers are important to you," Purnell said. "If you are a half-court defensive team, shooting percentage and rebounding are most important. It all depends on what your philosophy is."

Shooting percentage allowed and defensive rebounding are closely connected, since the latter not only leads to more scoring opportunities, but often to easier scoring opportunities.

"We always try to keep your opponent's field goal percentage down," FSU's Hamilton said. "And you want to be able to keep it down without putting them on the foul line. Also, defensively, is the ability of some teams to prevent second shots. If you can keep them from getting second shots and getting to the free throw line, to me, those are three important stats."

Everything is interrelated. The pressure teams sometimes give up easier shots because they are gambling on the perimeter. Defensive rebounding also is a bigger problem for defenders who play in the passing lanes, rather than between their man and the basket.

It's all a matter of risk and reward.


The difficulty in identifying and measuring team defensive excellence is nothing compared to the complexity of calculating individual defensive skill.

There are two prime defensive stats to draw on. One is very useful. The other often is misleading.

The ACC has been tracking blocked shots since 1977, and the results are a fairly accurate gauge of defensive impact. The great shotblockers do have a significant impact on the game, especially in a protect-the-basket scheme.

Tim Duncan, the leading shotblocker in ACC history, anchored a Wake Forest defense that was one of the toughest to score against in modern times. It's interesting to note that between 1964 and 1993, Wake never held opponents under 44 percent from the floor. In 1994, Duncan's freshman season, Deacon opponents shot 40.5 percent. The next three seasons, Wake's foes were at 38.8 percent, 39.3 percent and 36.4 percent.

Virginia's field goal percentage defense underwent a similar transformation with Ralph Sampson — 47.5 in the year before Sampson's arrival, 47.0 in the year after his graduation, between 41.7 and 43.7 in Sampson's four seasons.

It's not surprising that Maryland, the ACC's current leader in field goal percentage defense, also leads the league in blocked shots.

On the other hand, it's harder to correlate steals — the other major individual defensive category — and defensive success.

There hasn't been an ACC steals leader who has played on an ACC championship team since N.C. State's Sidney Lowe in 1983. While the list does include some very good players on successful teams — e.g., Juan Dixon at Maryland, Kenny Anderson at Georgia Tech — it also includes quite a few players off second-division teams.

Weak defensive players can gamble on steals, getting an occasional theft, but giving up a number of easy baskets in return. Steals also can be a function of team philosophy. Eight of the nine steals leaders between 1994 and 2002 played in Williams' full-court pressure defense at Maryland.

Blocks and steals can provide only a hint as to the best defensive players. Many of the other most significant defensive actions simply cannot be measured numerically by conventional tools. Coaches admired Duke's Shane Battier not because he blocked shots or came up with steals (although he never led the league in either category), but because he was a great help-side defender.

Offense-to-defense transition is another quality that's vital, yet difficult to measure. That Russell play cited above was spectacular not because it ended with a blocked shot, but because of Russell's stunning ability to get back defensively.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches has been picking a national collegiate defensive player of the year since 1987. In those 21 years, seven ACC players have won 12 awards — named the Henry Iba Corinthian Award, in honor of Gary Williams' philosophical grandfather.

Of course, it's a subjective award, but it's worth noting that the 21 Iba winners have played on three national title teams and eight Final Four teams — a better success rate than the last 21 consensus national players of the year. A year ago, Texas freshman Kevin Durant earned national player of the year honors for his offensive impact, but it was freshman Greg Oden, the national defensive player of the year, who had his team in the NCAA title game.

Picking the best defensive players each season is much harder than picking an overall All-ACC team. Every season produces two defensive teams — the media picks one, while for the last decade veteran writer Barry Jacobs has polled the league's coaches to pick another. The two teams often bear little relationship with each other, probably because the writers focus on blocked shots and steals, while the coaches are more appreciative of the subtle aspects of defensive play.


If picking a yearly team is difficult, how hard would it be to pick a historical all-defensive team for ACC basketball?

There's no really fair way, but after polling a number of long-time ACC basketball writers, players and coaches, here are some consensus observations:

  • Duncan is the best defensive center in ACC history. Not only does he still lead the league in career blocks, but he was a three-time Iba Award winner at Wake Forest. Since he's moved on to the NBA, Duncan has been voted to the league's first all-defensive team seven times and to the second team three times.

Both Virginia's Sampson and Clemson's Tree Rollins were very close to Duncan as pure shotblockers, if not quite his equal as all-around defenders.

Three undersized post players also excelled at the defensive end: Maryland's Buck Williams and Derrick Lewis, and Duke's Shelden Williams. Lewis and Duke's Williams are the only top 10 career shotblockers who measure less than 6-10. The latter was a two-time Iba Award winner. Buck Williams was more of a positional defender who used his great strength and quickness to defend the lane.

One oddity: Although Derrick Lewis was a better long-term defender, his younger brother Cedric still holds the ACC season record of 5.1 blocked shots per game.

  • Duke and North Carolina have produced three remarkable tandems of very similar defensive stars.

Start with UNC's Dudley Bradley and Duke's Billy King. Both were mid-sized athletes who couldn't shoot but could defend almost any position on the floor. Bradley led the ACC with 97 steals in 1979, then led the Tar Heels to the ACC title — winning the tournament MVP award, even though he was his team's No. 4 scorer in the event. King was the 1988 Iba Award winner whose greatest day came when he held Temple All-American Mark Macon to 6-of-27 shooting in the East Regional title game. King made the all-tournament team despite scoring only three points in the final.

UNC's Jordan and Duke's Grant Hill may have been the two greatest superstar defenders in league history. Hill won the Iba Award in 1993 but lost it to Marquette shotblocker Jim McIlvane in 1994, even though Hill turned in his greatest defensive performance that year when he shut down national player of the year Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson in the Southeast Regional title game. Jordan played before the Iba Award was instituted, but he was much praised as a collegiate defender and later honored as an eight-time selection to the NBA's all-defensive first team.

UNC's Bobby Jones and Duke's Battier were a pair of long, thin forwards who constantly dazzled coaches with their defensive prowess. Battier is the only player in ACC history with more than 250 blocked shots and steals. He also took 111 charges in his career. Whether he was flopping (as critics claimed) or not, he made it an effective tactic. Battier also won the Iba Award three times. Jones played before the Iba Award and — worse — before the ACC started counting blocked shots and steals. Still, he was a renowned college defender who later made the NBA's all-defensive first team in eight straight seasons.

  • The finest on-the-ball point guard defender in ACC history was Wake Forest's Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues. He was a 5-3 terror who single-handedly disrupted opposing offenses.

"He activates primal fear in the guards he faces," Wake Forest assistant coach Ernie Nestor told the Washington Post. "They know that he can strip them at halfcourt in front of God and the world."

"Muggsy is unbelievable," N.C. State coach Jim Valvano said. "I don't know of another player in my 20 years of coaching who's more difficult to defend. Here's a 5-3 guy who absolutely dominated the game. When he goes out, there's a sigh of relief. When he comes back in, he's everywhere."

Bogues led the ACC in steals for three straight seasons. And although he played on a Wake Forest team that was 2-12 in the league, he was a first-team All-ACC choice as a senior.

One of the players he terrorized might have been the second-best on-the-ball defender in ACC history — Duke's Tommy Amaker, the first player to win the Iba Award. Other great backcourt defenders include N.C. State's Eddie Beidenbach, UNC's Steve Previs, Maryland's Johnny Rhodes, Duke's Steve Wojciechowski, FSU's Tim Pickett, Maryland's Dixon and Virginia Tech's Jamon Gordon.

But that only scrapes the surface of the best defenders in ACC history. We simply don't have the tools to measure defensive excellence. Was Jones better than Battier? Was Duncan a more important defender than Bogues? How good a defender was Doug Moe? Bobby Cremins? Len Elmore? Bruce Dalrymple? Nate James? Jackie Manuel?


Who are the best defenders this season? Are Duke's DeMarcus Nelson and UNC's Marcus Ginyard (another Duke-UNC pair!) as good as their reputations? Boston College center Tyrelle Blair leads the league in blocked shots, but is he as effective an all-around defender as Maryland's James Gist? FSU's Toney Douglas leads the league in steals. Does that make him an All-ACC caliber defender?

It's much harder to answer those questions than to look at Tyler Hansbrough's offensive numbers — almost 23 points per game, 55 percent field goal shooting, 10-plus rebounds per game – and say with confidence that he's then most effective offensive player in the league. We can measure Tyrese Rice and Sean Singletary on their scoring and their assist totals and their shooting percentages.

Defensively, it's a much tougher call.

But no matter what highlights ESPN chooses to feature, remember the mantra: Defense Wins Championships. It might be a cliché, but it's a cliché because it represents the truth.

Just because we're still struggling to measure the defensive element in the game doesn't mean it isn't there. We just have to look a little harder to find it.

Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 38 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the 2007 release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.