College basketball: Keys to success for five elite defensive teams

We’ve become accustomed to suffocating defense from Louisville under Rick Pitino or driving lanes clogged by Virginia’s Pack-Line with coach Tony Bennett at the helm. (West) Press Virginia is real and ferocious.

Today, we focus on five other programs who are winning games with defense and analyze each one’s route to slowing down opponents. The number in parentheses is points allowed per possession and according national rank. Most of the data was supplied by Synergy Sports Tech, KenPom and Hoop-math.com

South Carolina (0.812 ppp – 4th)

The Gamecocks are unbeaten, riding rugged man-to-man defense to beat Michigan and Syracuse, with top 50 offenses Seton Hall and Clemson on the horizon.

Frank Martin uses man-to-man 83 percent of the time in the halfcourt. The Gamecocks haven’t allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent on 2-pointers.

Their defensive has evolved during Martin’s five seasons in Columbia. They were 230th and 115th in adjusted efficiency his first two seasons, but have been top 40 the last three.

“The way we have always guarded, if you came and watched us my first year here, we guarded people. We had no rim protection. … People couldn’t run their offense against us, but they beat us on the glass,” Martin said after USC beat Michigan. “Now, we’ve got bigger guys. … We had attention to detail. We were very good on player personnel…At the end of the day, we made them play one-on-one and that is what our defense is designed to do.”

The Gamecocks are destroying halfcourt offenses nightly. Opponents have assisted on only 41.3 percent of field goals, which is 14th in the nation. Duane Notice, a 6-2, 225-pound senior, has been the Gamecocks’ best defender.

Wichita State (0.814 ppp – 5th)

The Shockers aren’t as explosive on offense this season. Replacing four-year stars like Ron Baker (New York Knicks) and Fred Van Vleet (Toronto Raptors) is a fierce task. Still, the defense never rests when coach Gregg Marshall is involved. Wichita has finished top 20 in adjusted efficiency the last four seasons.

Saint Louis must have felt like it was participating in a clinic during the first half against Wichita on Tuesday night. The Billikens missed 26 of 29 shots, committed three turnovers and scored nine points.

The Shockers are dealing in depth this season, with nine or 10 players sharing the playing load. Dispersing the minutes so evenly means Marshall can keep fresh defenders on the floor. They’re in the 98th percentile in transition defense, per Synergy, holding opponents to 39.5 percent on 2-pointers and forcing teams to hoist jumpers on nearly two-thirds of possessions. Toss in incredible post defense and relentless defensive rebounding and it’s clear how six of 10 Wichita opponents failed to score 60 points.   

Miami (FL) – (0.85 ppp – 9th)

The Hurricanes lost three starters off a squad that won 27 games and advanced to the Sweet 16. They’ve yet to misstep defensively, although both losses (Iowa State, Florida) came against teams with top-30 offenses.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga shared one aspect of his defensive philosophy with The Miami Herald after the Hurricanes held Wofford to 57 points and 5 of 23 3-point shooting.

“Our defensive strategy in practice every day is to chase shooters off of screens so that they can’t get a rhythm three,” Larrañaga said. “Through constant practice at that, it’s really about developing the habits, and [Saturday] we did it. Partially it is that those guys that were out there worked really, really hard.”

Opponents are shooting 28.3 percent on 3-pointers vs. Miami.

The Canes’ transition defense needs improvement, but they’ve thrived against the pick & roll and spot-up shooters per Synergy Sports. Teams have managed only 51 points in 94 pick & roll possessions. Davon Reed, a 6-6, 220-pound senior with 107 games to his credit, has shuttered scoring in his area, yielding 30 points on the 63 possessions when he was Miami’s primary defender. 

Cincinnati (0.879 ppp – 13th)

The Bearcats have applied rugged, stingy defense for two decades. Bob Huggins started the tradition and Mick Cronin is continuing it, albeit with a slight shift in philosophy.  The Bearcats have finished top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency for six consecutive seasons and are on track to land there again.

Kyle Washington and Gary Clark are centerpieces in a long, athletic frontcourt that per KenPom has swatted 19.9 percent of opponent’s shots (2nd in nation).

Kyle Washington blocked 15 shots in eight games at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Athletics

Kyle Washington blocked 15 shots in eight games at Cincinnati.

Cronin keeps opponents guessing by switching between man-to-man and a matchup zone. Cincinnati is equally effective in each. The Bearcats are also adept at guarding without fouling. Their opponents average 12.5 free throw attempts per game.

On the perimeter, 6-6, 210-pound wing Jacob Evans is the Bearcats’ stopper. He’s been the the primary defender on 62 possessions, per Synergy Sports, and opponents have scored only 38 points.

Cal State-Bakersfield (0.888 ppp – 18th)

When he was hired in March 2011, coach Rod Barnes presented his plan for building the Roadrunners, who had only four seasons experience in Division I: “I believe in defense.  You have to guard people, you have to rebound the basketball and you have to make opponents work hard for their points.”

The slow, steady construction came to fruition last season as CSB won 24 games, the WAC Championship and earned a first-round date against Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. It was the program’s second winning season.

“They guard you like crazy,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said prior to the matchup. “Rod Barnes’ teams always do that. They have a lot of pride in their defense.”

The Roadrunners finished 51st in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. They might be better this season. They held their last three opponents below 50 points.

Barnes, a National Coach of the Year at Ole Miss, uses fullcourt pressure on roughly one-fourth of defensive possessions. But the press is the Roadrunners’ change-up, intended to alter the pace. Aggressive man-to-man is the program’s foundation and teams have converted only 39.2 percent of 2-pointers. Cal State-Bakersfield has also excelled on 122 transition possessions, allowing 0.713 points per trip.