How Much Of A Problem Is Michigan's Defense?

How Much Of A Problem Is Michigan's Defense?

Submitted by Brian on January 23rd, 2013 at 11:50 AM

The mantra that "defense wins championships" isn't restricted to football, and that's starting to get kicked around as a potential problem for Michigan when the bullets start flying in March. Luke Winn gets the first kick at the can by leaving them out of a five-deep Prime Title Contenders tier in his recent column:

You might be asking, what about Michigan? If the Wolverines' profile stays the same, they could be the most interesting test-case of this NCAA tournament. They have the nation's best offense but only the No. 45 defense -- not red-flag-worthy, but well worse than any champ from the past 10 years. Michigan cutting down the nets in Atlanta would be a breakthrough statement for the power of offense.

Despite not playing, Michigan has risen to 39th since he put up his column. There is plenty of time for Michigan to get right in this metric.

But let's say they finish the season about where they are now. This seems like something of an issue. Winn assembled the last ten years of Elite Eight teams and found that relatively few found themselves outside of the top 25 in defensive efficiency.


If Michigan was to make the Final Four with its current defensive numbers they would be better than only four teams in the past ten years—the dual outsiders from a couple years back, Dwyane Wade's Marquette team, and TJ Ford's Texas team. Those are kind of grim odds.

However, not many of the teams to make it were the #1 offense in the country, either. And the ranks can be misleading here. As mentioned, they have slid up six spots whilst eating cheeseburgers the last few days, and if they were to shave a single bucket off 100 Hypothetical Opponent possessions, they'd leap up another 11 spots. The margins here are slim.

Meanwhile Michigan is leading the charts on offense by a mile. Their adjusted efficiency is 3.6 points clear of #2 Florida. You could hack off 3.5 points of that, toss it on Michigan's defensive numbers, and come up with a pairing of the country's #1 offense with the 16th-best defense and then you're looking at a tier I contender, no questions asked.

The point is that maybe the margins matter here, and the wheat gets separated from the chaff by differential. How does Michigan stack up there? Pretty well.

Team Conf Adjusted Offensive Efficiency AOE RK Adjusted Defensive Efficiency DOE RK Efficiency Differential
Florida SEC 121.7 2 80.8 2 40.9
Michigan B10 125.3 1 90.2 39 35.1
Indiana B10 121.1 4 86.6 15 34.5
Louisville BE 115.1 13 80.8 1 34.3
Duke ACC 117.4 8 83.5 4 33.9
Minnesota B10 118.6 6 88.1 27 30.5
Syracuse BE 114.5 14 84.6 7 29.9
Pittsburgh BE 117.3 9 87.7 21 29.6
Kansas B12 113.2 17 84.1 5 29.1
Gonzaga WCC 121.4 3 93.6 76 27.8
Arizona P12 115.8 12 88 25 27.8
Creighton MVC 120.3 5 92.6 59 27.7
Ohio St. B10 112.7 19 85.5 8 27.2
VCU A10 112.5 20 86.3 13 26.2
Wisconsin B10 112.3 22 86.7 16 25.6
Kentucky SEC 110.7 29 87.7 22 23
Cincinnati BE 108.4 43 86.3 12 22.1
Colo St MWC 113.7 16 91.7 50 22
Mich St. B10 109.7 35 87.8 24 21.9

[numbers collected before last night's games, so this overrates Louisville a little.]

Florida has wrecked everyone they've played save K-State and Arizona and are far-and-away leaders here; Michigan is second. This is pretty close to the Kenpom rankings themselves, obviously.

Defense Wins Just As Much Championship As Offense

First: the Defense Wins Championships cliché doesn't stand up. I took Winn's data set, grabbed their year-end adjusted efficiency numbers, and got their efficiency differentials. I gave each team a point for each win they acquired after reaching the elite eight (3 for the champ, 2 for the runner up, etc.), and then acquired r values* between those three metrics of quality and wins. Over the decade-long sample there is basically no difference between offense and defense when it comes to acquiring wins—offense is actually ahead fractionally—and looking at the two metrics together is significantly more predictive:

  • AOE R value: 0.28
  • DOE R value: 0.26
  • Efficiency Differential R value: 0.39

If you were so inclined you could argue that there's a winnowing effect that prevents poor defensive teams from reaching the Elite Eight, but then you're trying to find a mechanism that works for the first three games of the NCAA tournament only to abandon teams in the crunch—not likely.

I like this result. It is intuitive. It implies that scoring two points at one end is as valuable as preventing two at the other. It won't get me on Malcolm Gladwell's Christmas card list or acquire me a professorship at Princeton, but unlike the things that do bring those benefits this result makes sense.

So… as long as Michigan's efficiency differential remains sky high, they've got as good a shot at the title as anyone. Except Florida. Long way to go, obviously; if Michigan ends the season as they stand today they should be amongst the title favorites.

*[A brief word on R values: these are not significant, but something can be suggestive without reaching levels of statistical rigor necessary to declare you've found the Higgs Boson. In this case they're just one datapoint we are making a reasonable argument with, instead of flogging ridiculous things like David Berri does. As always, R can change wildly depending on the parameters you set.]


I took the top eight teams so far this year and threw them in with the 80 teams already in this sample and ranked by efficiency margin. There's good news and bad there. The good: Michigan is a notch above last year's Kentucky outfit! The bad: Florida is #2 in the entire sample, behind only the dominant Kansas title team in 2008 and just ahead of the dominant UNC title team in 2005. Florida is ridiculous right now.

Everyone looks good, in fact. Five of the eight teams from this year are in the top quarter of the sample and all are in the top half. I assume there's a flattening effect that goes on as conference play and mean regression brings high-fliers to earth; also this group of teams has not been ruthlessly culled by the VCUs and Butlers of the world. Strong teams also cry, Mr. Lebowski.

The table is after the jump for anyone so inclined.


Unverified Voracity Tried Unplugging It

Unverified Voracity Tried Unplugging It

Submitted by Brian on May 16th, 2012 at 3:44 PM


Hey, kids! Death to Comcast! No internet until just now today and my backup plan wasn't working. Apologies. Anyway:

Maybe you can do it after all? Luke Winn is my favorite college basketball writer for pieces like the one he just published on three-point defense. Inspired by Ken Pomeroy's repeated assertions that three-point defense is random* and that you should therefore try to reduce the number of threes opponents get off, Winn looks at the problem in more detail, finding a couple of notable exceptions:

After writing a story on the Pack-Line Defense -- a packed-in, help-oriented man-to-man that Dick Bennett first used at Wisconsin-Green Bay in the mid-1990s -- I couldn't help but notice that three teams running pure Pack-Line this season were among the leaders in three-point field-goal D: Arizona, which ranked third nationally at 28.5 percent; Virginia, which was sixth at 28.9 percent; and Xavier, which was 22nd at 30.5 percent. Meanwhile, two teams that seemed to encourage opponents to take threes, Florida State and Syracuse, also managed to rank in the top 50 in defensive three-point percentage and were top-20 overall defenses in efficiency.

Syracuse in particular demonstrates that three-point defense probably exists in a meaningful way. In the ten years Kenpom has data for Syracuse has finished 8th (out of about 350), 6th, 63rd, 129th, 63rd, 185th, 8th, 22nd, 29th, and 47th in defending three pointers. That's one or two mediocre years, three good years, and five outstanding years. Clearly there's a lot more variance in three pointers**, but you can defend them. There may be a price (Syracuse, unbelievably, was 341 of 345 in defensive rebounding while being 33rd in offensive rebounding), but you can do it.

Also, this is why you are right to pull out your hair at Tim Hardaway long twos:

If you don't think the long twos-vs.-threes argument is important, consider this: While Wisconsin held its opponents to just 0.807 points per possession on three-point attempts -- an amazingly efficient rate -- it allowed just 0.628 PPP on long twos. There's a reason Ryan charts and cherishes the two-point jumpers UW forces outside the paint. The odds on getting beat from that area are miniscule.

Long twos are the worst shot in basketball, and you can get them with 25 seconds on the shot clock because teams don't care if you take them. If there's ten seconds left, sure, go for it. Eschewing the offense in favor of The Worst Shot In Basketball makes Brian crazy.

*[If you look at shooting percentages from the first half to the second half of a season, there is almost no correlation. I think this might be a sample size issue.]

**[Variance for the statistically disinclined: imagine the difference in variability in 50-point 30-foot Rock 'n' Jock baskets versus dunks.]

Feel the love for the system. The Insight Bowl is no longer going to be named after some sort of computer company I think or an abstract concept. They made the mistake of asking the twitter what the twitter thought they might rename it to. If this feels like a softball covered in butter, yeah:

The Tempe Municipal Government Cheddar's Casual Cafe' Quality Food & Service Bowl, at Sun Devil Stadium #NameTheGame

i want a bowl game called the Horrybowl. someone ask Robert Horry if he's interested in starting a liability-only car insurance company.

Jason Kirk's list of suggestions has some excellent candidates:

Molybdenum Ore Bowl
Insane Maricopa County Sheriff Bowl
P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon & 1/2 Marathon Bowl

Erosion of public support due to shameless profit-seeking, etc etc etc. This is definitely a meaningful indicator of bowls' public face and not just the internet snarking on stuff.

Basically. Via Ira at WTKA, former Alaska-Anchorage player Justin Bourne responds to a piece on the superiority of the major junior route:

As someone quickly approaching their 30th birthday thinking about what I’d do if I were a young player now deciding between the two, I can’t help but think: I’d have to be awfully damn good to choose major junior hockey over college. It’s not taking anything away from those who choose to go the CHL route, it’s just that one way seems a little more all-or-nothing than the other. Both seem like flying down the highway on a motorcycle, but one affords you a helmet. …

Nobody can say for certain what’s the best route – each player has a different set of developmental needs, and each league fulfills those differently.

But for those who could use a little more time to develop and miiiigghht just want to hedge their bets on the future with an education, college hockey is the way to go.

That's about right. If you're not going to be in the top two rounds, junior is a gamble on a longshot when there's a less risky route that doesn't require you to give up the gamble, or even seem to hurt your chances much. Given the NHL hit rate of secound-rounders, you could argue that even those folks would be making a better decision to go to college.

Unless you just don't want even the tenuous amount of schooling you have to go through to be in college these days, the best argument in favor of the CHL is usually "they offered me money." If so, fair enough.

I would like to see the man behind the curtain, because there is only one. Michigan is investing a cool half-million into a giant curtain they can put in Crisler when it hosts women's basketball and gymnastics events so that the place feels less abandoned. Michigan averaged about 1700 fans per game at basketball last year.

It's probably the right thing to do, but putting up a curtain so attendance at certain sports is less embarrassing is… well, it kind of sums up the whole NCAA thing. The football players make a bunch of money, which is then spent on the strangest things.

Demar lands somewhere nice. Demar Dorsey will play his college ball at Hawaii, so at least he got an adventure out of everything. No, he's not coming here. I just told you he's going to play at Hawaii. No, still not coming. I am beginning to think you have the brain damage.

Etc.: Big Ten hockey hires Steve Piotrowski as its head of officials, which is a good move. Better move would be to clone him and put him on the ice for all games. Piotrowski #1 would be a super Piotrowksi. Dennis Norfleet gets really excited when he blocks a shot, understandably. SBN is making the case for relegation.