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Can a team succeed on offense alone?

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Xavier is relying more on getting buckets than getting stops this year. When teams have done that in the past, how have they fared?

You hate to see a guy wasting his three point shooting energy like this.
You hate to see a guy wasting his three point shooting energy like this.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

We recently had the question posed as to whether or not a team that was an amazing force on offensive but decidedly mediocre defensively could succeed. I thought that would be really interesting to find out, so I set about to determine if it was possible. My basic thought is that we are currently reasonably successful and very reliant on offense. What I want to determine is if it is possible to remain similarly successful without hving the defense start pulling its weight a little.

First, I had to define success. For the purposes of this study, I've done so fairly loosely: a top-50 KenPom rating at the end of the year. I felt that fit because it contains just about every team that has a reasonable chance at an at-large bid while not opening up the data set to a team that bolstered its numbers feeding on the MEAC or whatever.

Second, I had to define reliance on offense. For that, I took the team's rank in adjusted defense and subtracted the team's rank in adjusted offense. For instance, if your favorite team was 10th in the nation in offense but 134th in defense (Xavier's rankings when the question was asked.), the resulting number would be 124. You can call this number whatever you like; I called it gunnery because I like to have headers to my columns. Just know that it measures how much better a team's offense is than its defense.

With that number of 124 as a frame of reference, I decided to take every team with a gunnery number of 90 or above and a final KenPom ranking in the top 50 from the last ten full seasons and see how the fates treated them. For your perusal, here is the list of teams.

Rank Year Team W L AdjO Rank AdjD Rank GNRY Seed NCAA W NCAA xW Delta
34 2006 Gonzaga 29 4 118.0 1 103.3 186 185 3 2 2
35 2012 Creighton 29 6 116.6 6 102.2 190 184 8 1 1
40 2008 Oregon 18 14 117.1 7 102.9 180 173 9
42 2010 Cornell 29 5 117.2 4 101.9 174 170 12 2 2
35 2009 Arizona 21 14 116.9 5 101.2 155 150 12 2 2
24 2014 Creighton 27 8 122.8 3 104.1 152 149 3 1 2 -1
8 2012 Missouri 30 5 123.9 1 100.5 146 145 2 3 -3
28 2006 Notre Dame 16 14 116.4 5 101.0 143 138
7 2005 Wake Forest 27 6 124.0 1 100.4 134 133 2 1 3 -2
49 2006 Vanderbilt 17 13 113.4 14 101.0 145 131
30 2013 Colorado St 26 9 116.4 7 99.3 135 128 8 1 1
27 2013 Iowa St 23 12 116.6 6 99.2 133 127 10 1 1
31 2010 Notre Dame 23 12 116.8 7 99.8 131 124 6 1 -1
26 2005 Gonzaga 26 5 117.0 8 100.3 132 124 3 1 2 -1
34 2012 Belmont 27 8 114.1 12 99.8 135 123 14
41 2008 Baylor 21 11 114.5 11 100.6 129 118 11
50 2011 Northwestern 20 14 114.2 19 101.0 137 118
41 2011 Vanderbilt 23 11 115.1 12 100.4 129 117 5 1 -1
28 2012 Purdue 22 13 114.8 9 99.1 125 116 10 1 1
32 2009 Baylor 24 15 115.7 11 99.8 127 116
28 2014 Iowa 20 13 119.8 5 102.7 120 115 11
49 2007 Boston College 21 12 114.7 16 100.9 130 114 7 1 1
13 2014 Duke 26 9 123.5 2 102.3 116 114 3 2 -2
30 2009 California 22 11 115.7 13 99.7 125 112 7 1 -1
10 2014 Michigan 28 9 124.1 1 102.1 109 108 2 3 3
50 2006 Alabama 18 13 112.2 20 100.1 126 106 10 1 1
44 2008 Florida 24 12 113.8 17 100.5 123 106
44 2007 Nevada 29 5 115.2 12 100.3 117 105 7 1 1
35 2005 Pacific 27 4 113.3 15 99.7 120 105 8 1 1
45 2012 Saint Mary's 27 6 112.0 22 99.1 126 104 7 1 -1
34 2013 NC State 24 11 114.1 9 98.4 112 103 8 1 -1
23 2006 Boston College 28 8 116.1 6 99.0 108 102 4 2 2
47 2008 Saint Joseph's 21 13 113.2 23 100.5 125 102 11
24 2007 Texas 25 10 117.5 6 99.8 106 100 4 1 2 -1
20 2010 California 24 11 117.1 5 98.3 101 96 8 1 1
15 2008 Drake 28 5 119.5 4 99.0 99 95 5
41 2007 BYU 25 9 115.5 10 99.8 105 95 8
16 2005 Washington 29 6 119.4 5 99.1 99 94 1 2 2
42 2009 Florida 25 11 113.3 20 99.2 113 93
29 2005 West Virginia 24 11 113.9 11 99.1 102 91 7 3 3
32 2006 Michigan St 22 12 113.3 16 99.0 107 91 6

A total of 41 teams fit the bill here, or about 4 teams a year. They averaged a record of basically 24-10 (.705 winning percentage), with 35 of them making the tournament. They earned an average seed of 6.914, which we're going to call functionally a 7. I'm hoping we can all agree on that rounding.

Four times the top offense in the nation was accompanied by a bad enough defense to make the chart here. These teams earned three 2 seeds and a 3 seed. Twice they underperformed their seed, with Missouri dropping in the first round in 2012 and Wake Forest failing to make the second weekend in 2005. Gonzaga's 2006 squad - with a staggering 185 gunnery number - picked up a couple of wins and Michigan made it all the way to the regional final last year before losing to Kentucky.

More fun than looking at who underperformed is looking at who made a Cinderella run. Cornell in 2010 (gunnery 170) and Arizona in 2009 (gunnery 150) each rode their offensive prowess to the Sweet 16 as 12 seeds, and 2005's West Virginia team made it all the way to the Elite 8 before falling to a certain killjoy team you might remember.

Before we put a bow on this, let's take one more sort and look through the teams with the gunnery numbers closest to Xavier's. Five teams in the past ten years have finished seasons in the 120s in this made-up metric. Their average record was 25-9, and their seeds averaged an 8, ranging from 2005 Gonzaga's 3 to 2012 Belmont's 14. From their seeds they would have been expected to win four games, but they only won three. I'm not sure what that tells us, but I suspect it's nothing.

To wrap all the way back around to the initial query, is it possible to stay successful while relying on a high-powered offense to carry a mediocre defense? Yes it is. These teams have marginally underperformed their seeds in the tournaments, but I don't think they've done so in a statistically meaningful manner. On the whole, they won just over 70% of their games and earned an average of a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. If I offered you a 23-10 post-Big East tournament record for Xavier on the way to a 7 seed in the tourney, would you take it?