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|
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?